Turfed Cadillac Boss Weighs in on Decision (and So Does Lutz)

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

Controversial decisions that ruffled the feathers of dealers and brand faithful alike defined the Johan de Nysschen era at Cadillac. Project Pinnacle left the brand’s dealers in revolt, forcing changes and delays in the streamlining, brand-boosting strategy. Meanwhile, many still feel Cadillac is not a marque for Manhattan — the brand’s new home — and that a keeping-up-with-the-Germans product strategy takes the division too far away from its heritage. GM executives may not share those sentiments.

For de Nysschen, the decision to place GM Canada head Steve Carlisle in charge of Cadillac is purely a business decision. He admits he didn’t fulfill the requirements laid out by his superiors.

Speaking quite candidly to Automotive News, de Nysschen described his departure in a no-nonsense manner, albeit one tinged with regret.

“I greatly admire and respect the GM top leadership but, in the end, I would conclude that in their opinion, I did not challenge hard enough,” he told the publication in an email. “Accordingly, they exercised their prerogative to change leadership.”

“It happens,” he added. “It’s not personal, it’s business.”

Under de Nysschen’s stewardship, the Cadillac brand made major inroads in the massive Chinese luxury car market, even as American interest cooled off. (Sales over the first quarter of 2018 are up 8.1 percent, though.) Despite his background at BMW, Audi, and Infiniti, the executive’s brand overhaul has not yet translated into a clear sales turnaround. And, while the midsized XT5 crossover is the brand’s top seller, the big, bold, body-on-frame Escalade runs a close second, and remains a nameplate (and style) people most closely associate with the name “Cadillac.” Interestingly, the front-drive XTS sedan enjoys greater sales than that of its edgier, more modern sedan stablemates.

Saying he “loved the brand, the company and my job,” de Nysschen admitted “GM is a very complex organization to navigate. I saw my role to act as a change agent to challenge the status quo, in the reasoning that more of the same would not lead to a different outcome. I suppose in the process, I did not endear myself to everyone.”

Two sources with knowledge of GM’s decision to punt the Cadillac boss claim company brass felt the brand’s products weren’t keeping up with domestic market conditions. The compact 2019 XT4 crossover only debuted at this year’s New York auto show, long after rival models. Newer crossover models will have to wait. Simply, the brand turnaround wasn’t occuring as fast as GM would have liked.

Writing in Road & Track, perpetually outspoken industry titan Bob Lutz was sympathetic to some elements of de Nysschen’s plight — GM can be overly cautious in its product planning, and the need to pivot Cadillac’s image from that of a heavily discounted, fleet-heavy second-tier brand was long overdue — but he questions many of de Nysschen’s marketing decisions.

“Bold new marketing thrusts such as Book by Cadillac (pay a monthly fee, then order up any Cadillac model as needed) never got traction,” Lutz writes. “Expensive advertising campaigns showing emaciated, scraggly-bearded, tight-jacketed metrosexuals posed in rain-drenched back alleys, urging the viewer to Dare Greatly—at what?—flopped miserably. Moving the brand headquarters to New York City, always a bit of a mystery to me, was of little reputational value, but served to distance the Cadillac marketing people from GM’s powerful Detroit-based planning and product development groups.”

Lutz compares de Nysschen and GM to a “bad marriage” that, for a number of smaller reasons, had to end.

“Perhaps [GM] trusted their experience, data and instincts more than they trusted a bunch of effete East Coast marketing genii. Outgunned by the bulletproof reputations of the Germans, the onslaught of competitor crossovers, the relative failure of the new Cadillac sedans, the lack of traction of marketing initiatives and the steadily-sinking profitability of the brand, circumstances conspired to lead everyone concerned to one conclusion—let’s end it.”

And so it ends, with Carlisle now sitting in a chair that could heat up at any moment.

[Images: General Motors]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

More by Steph Willems

Join the conversation
2 of 52 comments
  • Jeff S Jeff S on Apr 20, 2018

    Calais would make a much better name for a compact to subcompact crossover. Many of those who would buy them were either not born or too young to remember the Calais name for a stripped Cadillac or a compact Olds. Calais is not a bad name it would be better used on a cross over. There are only so many names a manufacturer can come up with and copyright.

  • Jeff S Jeff S on Apr 20, 2018

    Agree that the GMC Professional Grade is good marketing. Maybe Cadillac should follow a similar strategy. Skip the cars and offer a crossover/suv in every size all fully loaded with few options. Make Cadillac the Mark of Luxury and a brand to aspire to. Don't cheapen the interiors but make them distinctive and above the mark for luxury vehicles. Make the ride quality and handling better than the competition. Leave the autobahn cruisers to the Germans.

  • Jonathan IMO the hatchback sedans like the Audi A5 Sportback, the Kia Stinger, and the already gone Buick Sportback are the answer to SUVs. The A5 and the AWD version of the Stinger being the better overall option IMO. I drive the A5, and love the depth and size of the trunk space as well as the low lift over. I've yet to find anything I need to carry that I can't, although I admit I don't carry things like drywall, building materials, etc. However, add in the fun to drive handling characteristics, there's almost no SUV that compares.
  • C-b65792653 I'm starting to wonder about Elon....again!!I see a parallel with Henry Ford who was the wealthiest industrialist at one time. Henry went off on a tangent with the peace ship for WWI, Ford TriMotor, invasive social engineering, etc. Once the economy went bad, the focus fell back to cars. Elon became one of the wealthiest industrialist in the 21st century. Then he went off with the space venture, boring holes in the ground venture, "X" (formerly Twitter), etc, etc, etc. Once Tesla hit a plateau and he realized his EVs were a commodity, he too is focused on his primary money making machine. Yet, I feel Elon is over reacting. Down sizing is the nature of the beast in the auto industry; you can't get around that. But hacking the Super Charger division is like cutting off your own leg. IIRC, GM and Ford were scheduled to sign on to the exclusive Tesla charging format. That would have doubled or tripled his charging opportunity. I wonder what those at the Renaissance Center and the Glass House are thinking now. As alluded to, there's blood in the water and other charging companies will fill the void. I believe other nations have standardized EV charging (EU & China). Elon had the chance to have his charging system as the default in North America. Now, he's dropped the ball. He's lost considerable influence on what the standardized format will eventually be. Tremendous opportunity lost. 🚗🚗🚗
  • Tassos I never used winter tires, and the last two decades I am driving almost only rear wheel drive cars, half of them in MI. I always bought all season tires for them, but the diff between touring and non touring flavors never came up. Does it make even the smallest bit of difference? (I will not read the lengthy article because I believe it does not).
  • Lou_BC ???
  • Lou_BC Mustang sedan? 4 doors? A quarterhorse?Ford nomenclature will become:F Series - Pickups Raptor - performance division Bronco - 4x4 SUV/CUVExplorer - police fleetsMustang- cars