Give him this: Cadillac boss Johan de Nysschen is not afraid of the status quo.
Convinced General Motors Co.'s luxury brand needs a fresh injection of perspective, he green-lights the brand's move to SoHo in New York City. Persuaded the marque has the technical chops to compete with the best from Germany and Japan, he essentially challenges 'em all at the North American International Auto Show.
Now he's taking on Cadillac's powerful dealer body. He publicly says there are "too many" dealerships and that some should be converted to "boutiques." This for the clique of deep-pocketed entrepreneurs whose complaints about the brand are exceeded only by fears that GM is fixin' to mess with their independent businesses.
Should be interesting. Either the new guy will be another in a long line of Cadillac bosses to tangle with one or more pieces of the GM vegematic and lose, becoming a victim of his proposed changes that alienate dealers, lose customers, irritate the product development apparatus and keep the brand in neutral.
Or he'll prove to be what Cadillac has needed for way too long but never quite got: namely, a savvy, globally attuned executive who has the cred and the muscle to lead the brand to global luxury respectability, so long as he is backed by GM's board, CEO Mary Barra and product chief Mark Reuss.
Without the support of all three, he's toast. Elevating Cadillac to equal status with BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Lexus, is a team game de Nysschen cannot play alone, especially in a company whose history of homogenizing its brands is well-known.
Barra, for one, says the right things. She backs Cadillac independence; supports the move to cool digs in Soho; endorses de Nysschen's vision and, presumably, his unmistakable lean forward. But evidence there's reality behind the rhetoric rests in whether GM can stick with it, even at the risk of angering traditional constituencies.
Cadillac will not vault into the global luxury club without challenging the status quo. How it markets and sells its vehicles must change; how and whether incentives are used must change, dealers say; and how Cadillac touts its middle American heritage is critical to pursuing the coastal customers it craves.
It borders on melodrama to suggest de Nysschen's shot at Cadillac is among its last, but it's not far off. Its second chances are pretty well exhausted: the brand's global pretensions stretch back nearly 20 years to the 1997 Frankfurt International Auto Show, long enough to justify skepticism about this latest push.
This will be fascinating to watch. De Nysschen is not the first GM newbie to head Cadillac. Former CEO Dan Akerson's move to name Bob Ferguson, a former telecom exec, to head Cadillac wasted valuable time and credibility inside the company and the industry — costs de Nyscchen's demonstrable global luxury credentials are intended to reverse.
In that, de Nysschen's arrival marks an unmistakable departure for a GM that historically reserved critical executive jobs for GM veterans (or the occasional consumer-products refugee), not foreign-born talent wooed from industry rivals. Looking for evidence of change inside GM's hidebound culture? This is it.
DeNysschen's most recently ran Infiniti from Hong Kong, following a long stint rebuilding Audi's cred in the rich U.S. market for parent Volkswagen AG. Wouldn't have happened in the "old GM."
A VW veteran, Karl-Thomas Neumann, heads GM's Opel Group GmbH in Germany, delivering two straight years of market share gains amid a lackluster European market. Another VW veteran, Stefan Jacoby, leads GM's international operations, encompassing the go-go Asian markets outside China.
The point is not that foreign talent from foreign rivals is "better." The point is that outsiders can bring fresh perspective and operating experience that GM's vast HR apparatus cannot necessarily deliver.
That Barra & Co. recognize that fairly obvious fact is more a credit to their honest appraisals of the GM's weaknesses than it is implied criticism of the automaker's human capital. That kind of self-awareness is more new GM than old.
More importantly, GM's Cadillac-goes-global story has been recast too many times over the past generation. Whatever skepticism there may be to the brand's planned move to Manhattan, burying it in the bowels of GM's marketing and product development bureaucracy failed to deliver the intended results.
GM has the engineering chops to make Cadillac a "standard of the world" — so long as de Nyscchen and his leadership team are prepared to challenge effectively the barriers blocking its way.
Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.