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Johan de Nysschen Is Stirring Things Up at Cadillac

Noise, Vibration & Harshness

Was he like Babe Ruth in a legendary game, the one where the Bambino menacingly pointed his bat at some bleacher in the distance and then proceeded to smack a home run over the outfield fence to the exact spot he’d flagged? Super cool. But, imagine if Ruth had popped out to first instead.

A little swagger isn’t a bad thing. But get it wrong, and there’s no walking it home. In which context, I present a few remarks by Cadillac’s new president, Johan de Nysschen (pictured, right), formerly of Audi (North America) and Infiniti (worldwide). They come from Facebook, where he is among the industry’s most voluble and granular of insider commentators. Posting from the airport in Detroit one day in September, de Nysschen recounted media and internal responses to five new directives he’s floated since joining Cadillac on August 1.

“This past week, we announced a new flagship car to be built in Detroit. No reaction. Announced a product offensive, which will give Cadillac coverage of 95 percent of premium market segment. Slight twitch of the left eyebrow of the industry media. Announce new nomenclature system, to denote hierarchy and accommodate expanded future portfolio. Every armchair marketing expert has 10 opinions to share. … Announce that Cadillac is to be established as separate unit of General Motors, to be more autonomous and focus on the premium business. Emails from GM retires [sic] suggesting that is the dumbest idea since the Cimmaron. … Announce that Cadillac will establish its global HQ in New York. The wrath of hell descends upon me. I’m accused of moving the entire company just because I prefer to live in New York. To all the indignant souls out there: This has nothing to do with Detroit. … It has everything to do with creating an awesome car company. We must develop corporate processes, policies, mindsets, behaviors, attitudes, which are right sized for Cadillac … focusing on and responding to what it takes to win in the premium segment. No distractions. No side shows. No cross-brand corporate considerations. No homogenized, lowest-common-denominator approach. Just pure, unadulterated, CLASS. To create this change in approach, Cadillac must put distance between itself and the parent. Not because there is anything wrong at GM—the company is getting its act together like you won’t believe—but because Cadillac needs to FOCUS. And if we don’t move, nothing will change. … So, Detroit fans, I love your city, the success of Cadillac will be your success, the majority of our jobs remain in Detroit, and as we grow, these will increase too. But other than that—don’t mess with me.”

In all, a fair summary of the response to his initiatives, zestily delivered, indeed. But let me just say, if de Nysschen’s point is that the media are largely populated by under-informed numbskulls who travel around in packs of under-informed numbskulls, well, tell us something we don’t already know. And while one applauds tough talk and pugnacious optimism, there are still a lot of ifs in there.

Cadillac can be a giant finger in the eye of the European luxury competition. It just needs to realize that it is its turn to be hip again. And not blow it.

De Nysschen, a South African by birth, is a crafty guy. He really puts it out there on the social media front, which is a good thing—or at least so we’re told. All right, so maybe he didn’t personally make Audi’s American rebirth happen. Dr. Piech’s intensive administration of cash back then, like high-speed feed to a goose with a future in foie gras, certainly didn’t hurt. At least Audi’s U.S. operation grew on his watch. As to this moving thing, we’ve seen that already. Before relocating Cadillac’s marketing operation to New York, de Nysschen airlifted Infiniti’s HQ out of Japan and into Hong Kong. In both cases, getting free of the suits back home seemed like a big idea. But whether you can ever really move far enough away from home remains to be seen. One might observe that moving Ford’s Premier Automotive Group all the way to Irvine, in Southern California, never did anything for Jaguar, Aston Martin, Volvo, Land Rover, or Lincoln.

We needn’t comment at length on the nomenclature changes at Cadillac, which will see the exciting new flagship everyone’s been clamoring for called CT6. To say this vaguely Euro moniker is dull is to state the obvious; it’s so dull it created for a moment a cottage industry for freelance comedians in and around the automobile business itching to mouth off online. But as discussed here earlier (NVH, December 2010) the German luxury brands beat Cadillac to it years ago, utterly debasing naming tradition, divorcing their badges from the highly logical systems they once swore allegiance to. Added to their incessant micro-niching efforts, what’s left is an alphanumeric soup so vast and impenetrable it makes us long for pretentious car names again.

Then again, if the product is good enough, the name generally follows. And, too, the good fortune borne of hipness swings like a pendulum; 40 years on, kids whose parents were sick of the Cadillac name are the ones now sick of Mercedes, BMW, and Audi, because everybody’s already bought one. The changing of the guard in the hip parade is a mathematical certainty. Cadillac can be a giant finger in the eye of the European luxury competition. It just needs to realize that it is its turn to be hip again. And not blow it. Which means Cadillac must march once again to the beat of its own drum machine.

For this reason, we are intrigued by de Nysschen’s Facebook promise that CT6 “is not positioned against S-Class, 7 Series or A8. It will have more advanced technology, better dynamics, similar refinement, but it’s smaller.” Cadillac doesn’t need to slavishly copy the Germans, who are busy copying one another. What scares us, though, is the more advanced technology he’s promising. That’s Germany’s lunch and its breakfast buffet.

Led by Mercedes, German luxury cars have or will soon possess all the technology needed to drive themselves, park themselves, and, with the touch of a button, overrun the Sudetenland. And this is the battleground where luxury cars will fight, so what de Nysschen is promising is that Cadillacs will be even more automated. We note with more than a little sadness that this has little or nothing to do with what we once might have been identified as driving pleasure, although granted it is a kind of luxury. In the 21st century, it’s all my hard drive is harder than yours.

So here’s wishing the best for Cadillac—which should, ought to, and needs to succeed. De Nysschen might deliver the promised long ball. Or he could pop up to first.

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