July 11, 2014 at 7:23 pm

GM taps Infiniti chief to run Cadillac

Johan de Nysschen. (STAN HONDA / AFP/Getty Images)

General Motors Co. named the head of Nissan’s luxury brand Infiniti to run Cadillac on Friday — the latest executive change at its luxury unit — as the Detroit automaker aims to aggressively grow sales, but has hit a rough patch this year.

Johan de Nysschen, president of Infiniti Motor Co. Ltd. for just two years who formerly ran Volkswagen AG’s Audi unit in the United States, abruptly resigned earlier this week and told his bosses at Nissan Motor Co. he planned to return to the United States to take a new job.

The Detroit automaker named him president of Cadillac “responsible for all aspects of Cadillac globally including sales, pricing and network development, strategic brand development and marketing and product portfolio planning, including critical input for product engineering and design.”

De Nysschen, 54, said in a statement he is eager to join GM. He’s the latest high profile outsider brought in by GM to boost its flagship luxury brand.

“I have for some time now been impressed by how the new General Motors has been transformed into a formidable force in the industry,” he said. “The combination of strong corporate leadership and exceptional engineering resources presents the perfect combination to restore Cadillac to its place among global premium brands.

“The recognition of the brand is immense, and the progress on the fundamental product front is widely acclaimed. I am delighted at the opportunity to join the GM executive team to lead the Cadillac business, and I look forward to working with my Cadillac colleagues and our global retail partners.”

Cadillac has seen a number of executive departures in the last few years, including Bill Peffer, U.S. vice president for Cadillac sales and service, who resigned last month. He joined Cadillac from Nissan where he had served as CEO of the Japanese company in Australia. Peffer was hired to replace Chase Hawkins, who held the position about a year before GM fired him for “violating a company policy.” Don Butler, vice president of strategic development for global Cadillac, also resigned last year.

GM said Thursday that its vice president overseeing Cadillac, Bob Ferguson, was returning to his job as chief lobbyist after running Cadillac since late 2012.

“They need some consistent people in charge of the brand and right now they don’t,” said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research. Cadillac “has some really terrific cars right now but they are in an extremely competitive market and everyone — the Germans, Japanese and others — are really good,” Cole said.

Cadillac’s worldwide sales are up 11 percent through June 2014. The brand expects sales for the year will be up over last year. Nearly all the increase is because sales in China are up 10,000 this year to 34,000. China and the U.S. account for 93 percent of all Cadillac sales — a brand GM wants to grow to more global markets.

Cadillac has been hurt by big declines in ATS and XTS sales this year — and sales of its plug-in hybrid electric ELR have totaled just 390 in the first six months. Cadillac is launching a new 2015 ATS coupe late this summer. Dealers have large inventories of Cadillac cars in U.S. showrooms. But its best-selling U.S. model — the SRX crossover — is up 20 percent this year to nearly 29,000 vehicles sold.

Over its 112-year-history, Cadillac has had big ups and down. Formed from the remnants of the bankrupt Henry Ford Co. and named after the French founder of Detroit, Cadillac was acquired by GM in 1909.

It pioneered innovations like the electric starter, V-16 passenger car and the tail fin — which became a staple of cars for two decades. And it’s been the ride of choice for all U.S presidents since 1980.

For years the largest U.S. luxury nameplates, the brand faded in the late 1970s and 1980s and sales fell before GM spent $4 billion in the early 2000s to overhaul the brand to broaden its customer base to include younger import-oriented buyers and introducing the Escalade SUV.

U.S. Cadillac sales were 235,000 in 2005, but fell to 109,000 in 2009; last year, they were up 22 percent to 182,000. But Cadillac has had a tough year this year. It has been the worst performing of GM’s four U.S. brands — with U.S. sales down 1.9 percent in the first half of the year, as many luxury competitors have posted best-ever first half U.S. sales and double digit increases.

“Johan brings to our company vast experience in the development and proper execution of luxury automotive brands,” said GM President Dan Ammann. “With over 20 years in this exact space, especially in the development of the Audi brand, his track record proves he is the perfect executive to lead Cadillac for the long term.”

Andy Palmer, Nissan’s chief planning officer overseeing the Infiniti business, will head Infiniti until it taps a successor.

Infiniti reported this week that it sold a record 101,200 vehicles worldwide in the first half of the year, up 30 percent; U.S. sales were up 14 percent to 60,000 — another record.

dShepardson@detroitnews.com
(202) 365-8210