Cadillac chief out as revival stagnates

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen’s abrupt ouster by General Motors Co.’s top brass, effective Wednesday, signals the Detroit automaker is pressing to accelerate the years-long revival of its global luxury brand.

De Nysschen is a longtime industry executive known for reviving Volkswagen AG’s Audi luxury brand and leading Nissan Motor Co.’s Infiniti. His reputation and track record made him an attractive choice for Cadillac in 2014, as the brand struggled to appeal to a new generation of luxury buyers and rebuild lost credibility among top-tier luxury brands.

Four years later, those challenges for the brand remain largely the same. De Nysschen’s dismissal shows GM leadership’s scant tolerance for underperforming pieces of the business, company officials say. The ousted Cadillac boss’ lack of urgency in improving Cadillac’s performance — particularly in the bellwether U.S. — led to a parting of ways, according to a source familiar with the situation.

“Looking forward, the world is changing rapidly, and, beginning with the launch of the new XT4, it is paramount that we capitalize immediately on the opportunities that arise from this rate of change,” GM president Dan Ammann said in the statement. “This move will further accelerate our efforts in that regard.”

De Nysschen — who will be replaced by Steve Carlisle, president of GM Canada — is leaving the company to “pursue other interests,” GM said in a statement Wednesday. And he told Bloomberg that “philosophical differences” spurred an amicable departure: “There wasn’t a fight. We agree to disagree and we move on.”

De Nysschen’s departure comes one day after GM’s board of directors endorsed the executive shuffle. He is the second ranking Cadillac executive to leave the brand in less than four months. Uwe Ellinghaus, the global chief marketing officer recruited from BMW AG, left Cadillac at the end of last year.

A 58-year-old native of South Africa, de Nysschen has said he doesn’t like to look to the “sales scoreboard” for signs of progress. Judging by the numbers, however, de Nysschen hasn’t moved the needle much in his nearly four-year tenure — particularly outside of China, Cadillac’s largest single market.

Cadillac posted an annual gain in U.S. sales only one out of the four years de Nysschen lead GM’s luxury marque. Instead, the brand rapidly grew its business in China during that time period: Cadillac sold 175,489 vehicles in China last year — a 51 percent increase — while U.S. sales slipped 8 percent with 156,440 deliveries.

Even after the reveal of Cadillac’s first compact crossover in New York, industry analysts say the luxury brand’s lineup is lacking in SUV offerings compared to its German competitors. Cadillac’s market share hovered just under 1 percent last year, trailing Audi, BMW and Mercedes — all of which field full complements of SUVs to capture around 2 percent of the market each.

Dealers in the U.S. have pushed back against some of de Nysschen’s changes to the brand. Those include raising the prices of vehicles and changing customer service expectations in an attempt to raise Cadillac’s profile as a luxury brand.

As recently as the New York Auto Show, de Nysschen admitted his vision for the brand wasn’t resonating with the U.S. market.

“The one difference at Audi was that Audi is not a U.S. brand,” he told The Detroit News in an interview. “And I’m going to say something now that some might deem to be controversial, but I think Americans have a far more emotional connection to Cadillac the brand. People here want the brand to succeed. They are fans of the brand, but in that sort of way they’re also the brand’s harshest critics.”

At least one analyst says it’s possible de Nysschen’s long history in German luxury just didn’t prepare him for the demands of the U.S. market — or his American company.

“There’s no question Johan is a visionary automotive leader, but given GM’s conservative culture he may have pushed things a step too far,” Jessica Caldwell, an automotive analyst for Edmunds, said in an emailed statement. “It feels like Johan spent too much time chasing the German brands instead of embracing Cadillac’s unique heritage.”

De Nysschen’s replacement is GM Canada’s president and manager. Carlisle has been running GM’s Canadian operations since 2014, where he rebuilt GM’s tattered relationship with dealers and led the automaker to the No. 1 spot in automotive retail sales in 2017.

“The appointment of Steve Carlisle, a GM-bred executive with a strong pedigree of global expertise, product planning acumen and history of building relationships with dealers speaks to the company’s desire for a more back-to-basics, comfortable approach,” Caldwell said.

Travis Hester, currently GM’s vice president of global Product Programs, replaces Carlisle in Canada. He will report to Alan Batey, GM’s president of North America.

The arc of Cadillac’s revival, begun under de Nysschen, is expected to continue. Its headquarters in New York’s trendy SoHo neighborhood will remain, as Ammann told the staff there Wednesday when he announced the executive change. There are no plans to scrap the groundwork de Nysschen laid in the last four years — just accelerate it

De Nysschen also led the launch of the SuperCruise hands-free driving system, the XT5 SUV and most recently, the XT4 in New York. Carlisle, who will report to Ammann, is expected to continue Cadillac’s global growth while speeding up the brand’s turnaround.

“The potential for Cadillac across the globe is incredible and I’m honored to be chosen to be a part of mapping that future,” Carlisle said in the statement. “I look forward to building on our current momentum as we continue on our mission to position Cadillac at the pinnacle of luxury.”