By on June 5, 2012

Managers of premium auto brands keep asking themselves (and sometime me): “What is the secret of Audi’s success?” 30 years ago, Audi had an image worse than Opel. Last April, Audi outsold Bavarian rival BMW for the first time on a global basis. These days, any large automaker that has a luxury division seeks to emulate Audi’s success. Now, Nissan’s Infiniti could be one step closer to getting its hands in Audi’s elusive secret sauce. They hired one of Audi’s key men.

Last weekend, Johan de Nysschen left his job as president of Audi of America. It was the same weekend when Volkswagen announced a major management reshuffle. According to the Wall Street Journal, “it was unclear if he left as a result of the shuffling or had accepted another company’s offer.” Maybe, it was both.

Nysschen submitted to the advances of a sometimes very persuasive Carlos Ghosn, and will run Nissan’s Infiniti division effective July 2012. Nysschen will switch from Herndon in the suburbs of Washington, DC, to the bustle of Hong Kong, where Infiniti opened its world headquarters a few weeks ago.  Nysschen will be a Senior Vice President of Nissan, and he will be reporting to a Nissan Executive Vice President, Nissan’s multi-role Andy Palmer (product planning, business strategy, marketing communications “and responsible for Infiniti.”)

South Africa born de Nysschen is quite familiar with Japan. Before moving to America, he headed up Audi of Japan for five years. Here he made headlines by cutting ties with Toyota, which at the time distributed a good deal of Volkswagen and Audi cars in Japan. Eventually, this led to the end of Volkswagen’s Japanese distribution agreement with Toyota.

Looking at de Nysschen’s new SVP title, one of the many facets of Audi’s success becomes evident. Volkswagen’s brands are rigorously separated, even if it is at the sometimes high cost of massively duplicated functionality. Audi and Volkswagen are even more separated than most Volkswagen Group brands. Audi is a distinct corporation in its own right, with its own management, even its shares are publicly traded. Commonalities between cars and group companies are well-hidden in the realm of the Volkswagen Group. If Infiniti would be Audi, de Nysschen would be the company’s Vorstandsvorsitzender, or President and Chairman of the Board of Management.

De Nysschen has his job cut out for himself. According to the WSJ, “Infiniti in some ways occupies the same territory as Audi a decade or two ago, with a weak identity among car shoppers and designs that lack distinction.” Which illustrates the dangerous late effects of branding sins: Two decades ago, Audi, led by a strong and strict Ferdinand Piech, already had found its own identity, which became even stronger once Piech took over at Volkswagen and gave his old power base in Ingolstadt completely free rein. But it took a decade until the WSJ noticed it.

Nysschen probably has changed jobs at the right time. Volkswagen’s massive management reshuffle on a global scale indicates that someone is worried in Wolfsburg. The Volkswagen Group is heading into rough waters at home in Europe. Today, further management changes were announced, and more men are likely to go overboard. The last decade was a decade of German carmakers. Their luck could be running out.

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18 Comments on “With de Nysschen, Nissan’s Infiniti Has Its Hands In Audi’s Secret Sauce...”

  • avatar

    Depending on the restrictions in the Non-Disclosure Agreement de Nysschen likely signed when he was hired by Audi years ago, Infiniti may not be getting the exact recipe for that “secret sauce”. I’ve always wondered how that risk is managed whenever I see high-level managers/officers move between car companies.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s a very grey area, LeMansteve. You cannot take your playbook and re-use it verbatim, but to paraphrase Mark Twain, “it sure can rhyme”.

      This is one of the reasons for very well paid attorneys. ;-)

    • 0 avatar

      Volkswagen never was big on non-disclosures. The German car industry is very promiscuous, and there are very few secrets. This is why Volkswagen and the nation were aghast when GM sued after Lopez left for Volkswagen with his head and suitcases full of secrets. In Germany, nobody would have bothered.

      In Germany, non-competes usually are unenforceable and not worth the paper they were written on. I worked for (not at) Volkswagen for more than 35 years and was privy to pretty dark secrets. An NDA was never signed or even mentioned.

  • avatar

    Word on the street is that Nissan has been courting him for a while now and with the shakeup in Wolfsburg, the timing was perfect.

    Make no mistake – this was a great coup by Nissan and a big loss to Audi of America. Nysschen built a great team in the US, but more than that, he has done a very good job of courting the fan base. Most of all, he worked very hard to eliminate the stereotypical German arrogance that can dominate. Under his tenure Audi became much more open to providing goodwill support for out of warranty repairs, pushed the dealer network to improve its customer relationships and put a very keen overall focus on service and support.

    Seriously, he’s leaving the ship in good condition and is likely off to a new major challenge: another brand without a clear identity. Best of luck!

  • avatar

    I’m always skeptical of how effective hiring away c-level people from successful firms can be. From my experience good leadership is only part of the puzzle, the people actually doing the work need to be good too, and I’m going to argue that’s not the engineers. Nope, the marketing and PR people need to be good – really good.

    Infiniti needs a volume model with a giant marketing campaign IMO, and the G-series isn’t it. A reflashed Nissian isn’t it either. They already cashed their Nissan reputation points. Time for differentiation, cough cough, like Audi. Oh, and give it 20-30 years…like Audi. Now drop that SVP and save the salary.

  • avatar

    Bertel – why are they so worried in Wolfsburg? Audi is doing well globally (many other manufacturers would love to have their success), VW is doing well in the US and China. Europe is an issue but it is for most, if not all manufacturers. They are still hugely profitable, so why the big concern. I am genuinely curious and would appreciate hearing any insights your experience affords.

    It does look like Infiniti is trying to emulate some of the structures of Audi’s success. With a separate HQ and hiring good talent. It needs more than that, but a good start.

  • avatar

    Hopefully this will help Infiniti. Something fundamental there needs to change. As people familiar with how Japanese companies work know, change is very difficult. As Nisssan becomes less and less Japanese, change is more likely.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t think it has to be all that difficult. All Infiniti has to do is:

      1. Stop making bulbous obscenities that look more like tumors than cars, and
      2. Quit putting snowmobile transmissions in everything.

      Really, not that hard.

      • 0 avatar

        You forgot #3: Give people a real reason to even consider your vehicle over the competition. Audi is in an enviable position because they have some of the lowest incentives in the industry and are selling almost every vehicle profitably. In other words, people are seeking out Audi – Audi doesn’t have to seek out its customers.

        Infiniti’s biggest problem is that nobody knows what they stand for, represent, or what makes them unique. Most of the people I know who have Infinitis have them because they got an excellent lease deal on them, not necessarily because they *wanted* one.

        Audi spent decades trying to carve out a unique position in the market. They started with “quattro” as their all wheel drive system, then developed a reputation for having some of the nicest interiors in the business, then for building understated (some say bland) luxury barges as compared to the then-radical 7-series and s-series. The new A8, A6 and A3 are positioned in a way to push Audi’s image to represent technological savviness. Witness the new upgradeable GPU in the MQB A3.

        My point is – it takes a lot to build a successful brand. It took BMW decades to get the formula right and in some regards some of Audi’s success may be due to BMW’s excess-success. Infiniti needs to step back and evaluate who it is, what it wants to be and then get Nissan to invest some major dollars for a very long time into product, marketing and branding. Think a 10 to 15 year investment.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    I don’t know how far back you want to go in your discussion of Audi’s reputation. In the U.S., at least, even as far back as the 1970s, Audi had a reputation for building a nice, but unreliable, car. The Audi Fox (VW Dasher) certainly added to the “unreliability” part of the characterization. The revised 100 (5000)introduced in 1980, was a nice car and was supposed to have cured those problems. As an owner, I can tell you it did not — even apart from the dumb idea (with GM) of “dieselizing” a gasoline engine. The next version of the 100 — ultra streamlined, right down to the flush-mounted side windows — was a very nice, leading-edge car (in contrast to the stodgy, built-like-a-tank, Mercedes), but then Audi got hit with the “sudden acceleration” fiasco. Of course that was nonsense, but my view is that it was able to get a lot of traction because it was consistent with Audi’s continuing reputation of being an unreliable car.

    Infiniti certainly does not have that problem, but I find all of Infinit’s cars lack a certain elegance and refinement one would expect from a premium car, rice-paper textured aluminum trim on the dash notwithstanding. The G-car offers more bang for the buck than BMW if you measure “bang” by horsepower. But, if you measure “bang” by the overall driving experience, it doesn’t. The SUVs (FX, EX) are just weird, large, thirsty and impractical for their size. And the M is still a work in progress, despite being 3rd generation. The original Q45 was, in its way, a tour-de-force, but it’s successor was a joke; and the third generation looked nice (to me, at least) but was still half-baked.

    So, if the new guy can work on those problems — and Infiniti/Nissan can solve its cost problem associated with production in Japan — then he’ll do well.

  • avatar

    This makes sense. 15 years ago all the people who wanted to look successful but couldn’t afford a BMW bought an Audi 90 or A4. These days they’re all driving Infiniti Gs.

  • avatar

    Speaking of Audi’s reputation, we bought an Audi 1000 in 1982, and their (poor ?) reputation was well deserved. We traded the Audi in on a Mercedes 300E, and it was not a whole lot better. Four Lexus’s later, we are happy.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    I doubt we’ll ever see the Infinity equivalent of an Audi TT. I like the Audi TT, let the haters hate.

  • avatar

    The final generation Q45 was a disaster. It was absolutely hideous, and pretty much the entire marketing materials focused on its amazing “Gatling gun” headlights. Much like the unloved first generation M, the prime real estate on the center stack was reserved for the CASSETTE DECK. In 2001-2. They thought the most important thing on the dash should be easy access for cassette tapes, in brand new, flagship luxury cars. Just mind bogglingly out of date thinking.

    These cars also introduced Infiniti’s odd sloping upper dash full of buttons, which they are still using and to my eye is still ugly and still doesn’t work.

    The other major thing that Infiniti still can’t get right is their suspension tuning. They are styling their cars for the big 20″ wheels, and when you actually order them that way, the ride is rock hard and completely unacceptable for a luxury car buyer. The only other option is the totally undersized 18″ toy wheels.

  • avatar

    Infiniti certainly “covets the four rings” as TTAC once said. Granted, the G/M sedans are nondescript and the QX 56 is a beastly Armada with analog dash clock. But “nothing distinctive?” The EX (which I bought in 2008 and still enjoy) begat the entire “Luxury AMC Pacer of he 21st Century” segment: Audi Q5 / VW Tiguan, X1, and more to come. The FX isn’t my cup of tea but, to quote TTAC, it’s “carved from a block of sex.” Makes more sense to me than the built for high speed off-roading / driven by soccer moms Cayenne.

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