PEBBLE BEACH, California -- Nissan Motor Co.'s Infiniti luxury brand has had a lot going for it in the past 23 years -- sleek designs, ample horsepower and Carlos Ghosn to light the fuse for global expansion.
But there is also something it never had: a senior executive who could give Infiniti undivided attention.
That changed this summer when Nissan recruited one of the stars of the North American import market, Johan de Nysschen, to become president of Infiniti worldwide.
De Nysschen is Infiniti's first president, a significant distinction at a corporation in which most senior executives under CEO Ghosn are vice presidents and senior vice presidents.
As president of Audi of America in Herndon, Virginia, until June, the professorial and well-spoken de Nysschen was perhaps the most painful competitive thorn in Infiniti's paw. Likewise, Infiniti was the most painful thorn in his paw. Similar-sized Infiniti and Audi have sprinted neck-and-neck against each other in the United States for the past few years. Both brands are hot for sporty-import intenders who are not already locked up as BMW or Mercedes-Benz loyalists.
Infiniti has either gained share or lost share, depending on market conditions and freakish world events such as the March 2011 Japanese earthquake. But de Nysschen helped Audi roar back from the economic trough of 2009, growing from under 83,000 sales that year to 117,561 last year.
He will now reside at Infiniti's new world headquarters in Hong Kong with his wife, Anna, a Nissan global branding manager, focusing on only one mission: growing Infiniti worldwide, North America included. To do that, he will borrow a few plays from the playbook that served him well at Audi -- including, possibly, the creation of a high-performance brand-halo sports car.
Just a few weeks into the job and speaking publicly about it for the first time at the annual Pebble Beach golf-green gathering of high-end luxury makers, de Nysschen already is clear on a number of steps that must be taken:
- The brand needs a halo car, which may mean green-lighting one of the sports car concepts that Infiniti designers have been turning out for auto shows.
- It needs a larger selection of powertrains, including turbocharged small engines and diesels.
- It needs more manufacturing capacity, which could mean building Infinitis in Mexico -- a strategy he also put in play for Audi just before leaving.
- It needs to ratchet up sales in China to reduce its overwhelming reliance on the United States.
- It needs to bolster Japan as an Infiniti-manufacturing base, even though the high value of the yen is eroding profit margins.
- More symbolically, Infiniti needs to distance itself from its boisterous Everyman sibling, Nissan. In Japan, for example, where the Infiniti brand is not marketed, vehicles designed and engineered specifically as Infinitis are rebadged and marketed as Nissans.