A few months ago, Nissan’s Infiniti premium division moved out of the office building in Yokohama and out from the shadow of its parent company. Infiniti set up its new world headquarters in Hong Kong. Nissan also snagged Audi’s America-chief Johan de Nysschen as Infiniti’s new boss. Last Friday, after work, we sat down with de Nysschen in his new office on the 35th floor of the Citibank Tower in Hong Kong’s downtown, to talk about his and Infiniti’s plans for the future. This is a two-part interview. The second part will appear tomorrow.
De Nysschen’s office is spacious, but subdued in comparison to the workplaces of other leaders of industry. No armed guards, no sometimes more dangerous personal assistants bar the entry. He sits at a working man’s desk: Three computers of various sizes, a printer. A glass door provides limited privacy from otherwise open floor offices with space for maybe 100 people when Infiniti’s World Headquarters are fully staffed. So how does the new CEO like the new office in the new city?
“Space is more constrained in Hong Kong, but the view is better. From my old office in Auburn Hills, on a clear day, I you could see Chrysler. From here … “ de Nysschen makes as sweeping motion while the sun sets over a still unfamiliar Hong Kong skyline, and he stops. “Honestly, the two months I have been here, I haven’t had time to admire the view a lot.”
He also did not spend much time at the office. His severely battered aluminum Rimowa case in hand, de Nysschen went on a familiarization tour around the world, met with customers, dealers, importers, employees.
“60 days into this job , I can tell you that it has been quite a while that I had worked that hard and around the clock. I like to immerse myself into the business. This is immensely stimulating.”
“Stimulating” is a word we will hear more often tonight.
Impressed by the surroundings, I immediately inquire how one gets such a job. It turns out that de Nysschen and Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn go a long ways back to the times when both of them had arrived in Japan in 1999. Ghosn immediately wanted to hire de Nysschen, and add him to his stable of international executives that engineered what entered history as one of the most spectacular turn-arounds, the rescue and ascend of Nissan. Ghosn had to take a rain-check:
“I was not ready before. There was a lot of work to be done at Audi, it was a very satisfying and stimulating career I had at Audi.”
This time around, Ghosn had an offer that sounded stimulating to a man who had been in charge of Audi in increasingly important markets: South Africa, Japan, finally the U.S., where de Nysschen was CEO of Audi of America since 2004. In these jobs, he pretty much had to sell what was sent by Ingolstadt. At Infiniti, he can truly mold products and brand.
“To influence the brand from the core was a large part of the attraction. In the US, a key market for Audi, I could get involved in the last 25 percent. The only exception was the forthcoming Audi A3 sedan. That I could influence 100 percent. At Infiniti, I can influence from zero. And that of course is very stimulating. I have always been good at construction businesses, turning around underperforming businesses, molding and holding a brand. Those are my strengths because I get stimulated by it.”
De Nysschen is a native of South Africa, and when he says “good,” it sometimes sounds like it rhymes with “foot.”
De Nysschen and Ghosn share a common vision, and, says de Nysschen, “my contractual agreement with Mr Ghosn was to ultimately deliver on our vision: A tier one premium brand as part of the Nissan stable. A second major revenue and profit stream for the Nissan group.”
It will take time to get there, but de Nysschen brought the time. The 52 year old sees this as “the final chapter in my career – establishing a premium brand is a long term thing. Great brands are not born overnight.”
Most carmakers attempt to replicate the success of Audi. De Nysschen worked for Audi since 1993, right after Ferdinand Piëch took the helm coming from Audi, which he had managed since 1988. When Piëch took over, Audi had an image, sales and profitability worse than Opel, something that is easily forgotten. The brand turned around under Piech’s guidance, and only came into full bloom in the new millennium. De Nysschen knows it took time and hard work, he was there. And that’s why he is at Infiniti.
The Infiniti brand has been around since 1989, but to de Nysschen, it is still “like a toddler.” It is time for Infiniti to grow up, and de Nysschen will be coach and teacher. Like Toyota’s Lexus and Honda’s Acura, Infiniti was fathered by the Plaza Accord, when, after serious rounds of Japan-bashing, the Japanese government was intimidated into allegedly voluntary export restraints. The restraints were unit-based, Japan went upmarket, sold bigger, more expensive cars under new luxury brands, with the unintended consequence of draining the life out of Detroit’s most profitable segments.
“Premium car companies of can be quite profitable,” says de Nysschen, implying that Infiniti could grow up also in this regard. “If you look at the financial performance of BMW, Mercedes and Audi, they are immensely profitable car companies. Audi contributes approximately 40 percent of the total profits of the Volkswagen group. And it comes from a market segment which a Nissan brand cannot reach.”
Growing up to be self-sufficient and successful means that Infiniti must cut the cord from a sometimes overbearing mother Infiniti. He needs to take the same course Piëch took: “Markentrennung,” as it was called during de Nysschen’s Volkswagen times, brand separation. Says de Nysschen:
“The Infiniti brand as it existed until now has really been managed in the same way, in the same philosophy and with the same processes as Nissan. Nissan has been very successful for the mainstream brand. But in a way, ironically, those very same philosophies and processes and policies are also the ones that inhibit success in the premium market. Expectations and requirements for success are fundamentally different. I think the realization has come that that status quo for Infiniti needs to be challenged.”
Of course, this would be easier if, as at Audi, Infiniti would be its own company, with its own factories, R&D, and a boss who becomes group chief and who can put words into action. But with a strong Carlos Ghosn shuttling between Paris and Yokohama, and with Infiniti on its own in Hong Kong and out from under the Nissan coattails, with a little extra effort, it can work. It won’t be the same as at Audi, where de Nysschen, according to lore, banned the word “Volkswagen.”
“We need to live out the Infiniti values, and I will work on brand separation. We need brand purity. At the same time, we need to have the protection and support from the Nissan group. We have to be proud that we are Infiniti, that we are separate, that we have our own identity, but we also have to recognize that we would not be successful without the support of Nissan. We need to respect that. There will be a far higher degree of codependence with Nissan than what might have existed in my previous life.”
Tomorrow, we talk about the new cars Infiniti will bring, where they are made, what engines will be in them, and what de Nysschen thinks of the plan to sell half a million by 2016.