It was almost five years ago when this column welcomed Johan de Nysschen to the Cadillac hot seat. After successful stints at BMW and Audi (including running the latter’s North American operations during a period of historic growth), the South African–born executive ascended to the global conductor’s chair at Infiniti worldwide in 2012, only to be plucked away from that company’s HQ two years later when he was handed the reins to Cadillac, General Motors’ serially confused but occasionally radiant crown jewel.
His appointment came just as the world—and bankrupt GM—had started climbing out from the abyss that followed the Great Recession of 2008, and it was a hopeful time. Sensing the moment, de Nysschen, now 59, brought to the task intelligence, keen powers of observation, and genuine good taste in automobiles. As an executive whose career as a younger man was done considerable good by the enthusiasm of one Ferdinand Piëch, he also arrived with a measure of the requisite swagger but minus the Piëch crazy—and also without the longtime Volkswagen chieftain’s unfathomably deep sense of entitlement.
Today, it’s fair to say Cadillac under de Nysschen’s watch was saved, for the moment at least, with a big assist from China and a buoyant U.S. economy. But like the rest of GM and the industry, Cadillac isn’t fully fixed. It could make more money now, some think, but no one knows what’s going to happen in the future, so where’s the investment in the future? This fundamentally contradictory equation makes everyone and everything in the industry, especially share valuations, feel broken. This makes the stock market and GM executives sad. And then last April, for no specific reason after four years of forward-looking work, de Nysschen was fired.
Welcome to the automobile business.
Back in 2014, a bold post on de Nysschen’s Facebook page proclaimed Cadillac’s readiness to be a first-tier luxury maker in short order. It declared the division’s enhanced independence from GM systems, standards, and procedures going forward, an improbable result to be achieved in part by the even more improbable expedient of moving Cadillac’s headquarters to New York City. Heads exploded over the move and his frank social media posts defending it, though today de Nysschen says the fix was in for the relocation long before he arrived; it had been outlined to him over lunch at the Detroit Athletic Club by then-GM chairman Dan Akerson, before de Nysschen had even taken the job. Some reports have credited former GM chief marketer Uwe Ellinghaus, who left the company early in 2018, with selling the idea to Akerson.
“It was the worst-kept secret, and I will have to say that the morale of the Cadillac team wasn’t great.”
Time marches on, dust settles. De Nysschen is gone, and Cadillac is moving its headquarters back to Detroit. Well, Warren, Michigan, actually. So when I ran into its ex-boss in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show, it seemed fitting to arrange a visit back east for the Cadillac of exit interviews. Recently we sat for a few hours in a sushi restaurant near his apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he lives with his wife, his two grown children having long since flown the coop for other U.S. cities. We did not drink sake. (You can read the full interview here.)
My car for the ride down along the western shores of the Hudson River from my New York home was booked long ahead of our meeting being set. But for now, the Cadillac CTS-V seemed as fitting a symbol as any for the de Nysschen era, a fine machine that you’d be proud to drive as far as they’d let you. Crazy fast, sure-footed, smooth with pleasingly heavy-duty driver inputs required through the wheel and pedals, it also exudes swagger standing still. Kids walked up to me on city streets and remarked on its coolness. But the way these things work, the best proof of what fine things de Nysschen wrought product-wise might yet unfold. Although surely the just-launched XT6 crossover—a tarted-up, less practical Chevy Traverse—isn’t real promising.
Looking back at the PR fiasco of the move to Tribeca, de Nysschen recalled its effect. “When I arrived at the company, it was the worst-kept secret, and I will have to say that the morale of the Cadillac team wasn’t great. I had the joy of announcing the relocation internally, and of course once you announce it internally, it’s external. And I think in that way, my name got attached to it. And I didn’t mind. Somebody has to announce it.”
He added, however, that if he hadn’t been presented with the idea, he still might have advocated for something like it. “The principle of putting some distance between an empowered semi-autonomous Cadillac division and the rest of the corporation to me to this day makes a lot of sense.”
Once in New York, de Nysschen saw the problems facing the brand as diverse, with many centered around product, which he felt resulted from the corrosive practices of GM’s manufacturing operations, geared as they are toward building the most cars most cheaply. The impact they had on the quality of the corporation’s most upscale products was plain to see. Different, more stringent standards had to be adopted by Cadillac, and at his behest, they were. I couldn’t help thinking the fineness of the CTS-V bore that out.
Further difficulties came from lack of investment, a function in part of the parent company’s fundamental inability to wrap its head around expenditures that don’t yield immediate cash money results. This is the sort of thinking, de Nysschen offered, that has killed new Cadillac coupes and convertibles, exclusive models that might not pay their way immediately but add value to the perception of the brand. Lack of instant profitability is similarly why the company has had to dial back on investments like the Cadillac car subscription service, Book. Ironically, in the context of Book, coupes and convertibles could make useful contributions to the success of the service.
“I could certainly grow demand for cabriolets like this,” de Nysschen said. “Through that element you begin to justify developing these vehicles.” But it didn’t turn out that way. Book is now shuttered, while GM’s Maven service offers all GM products with a more proletarian pitch.
“The way I saw my job at Cadillac was to grow the company again,” the former boss continued. “To achieve that by addressing the constraints in the product portfolio, in terms of powertrain availability. Engines were generically developed with GM’s Chevy brands in mind and then, ‘OK, well, yeah, it’s good enough for Cadillac.’ The strong U.S.-centric focus that so characterized Cadillac’s entire existence was precisely what inhibited it from getting the products that it needed because the volumes just weren’t there to justify the investments, and every one of the [pro-
posed] projects would bomb out on the financial evaluation. GM—having gone into bankruptcy and emerged from it very successfully—has a very vigorous set of requirements for new investment projects. There are no pet projects.”
De Nysschen was philosophical. Resources were limited, he knew. Choices had to be made. And then he was gone.