Cadillac-boss Johan de Nysschen: “Detroit fans – don’t mess with me.”

De Nysschen's Hong Kong apartment, destination Manhattan.

De Nysschen’s Hong Kong apartment, destination Manhattan.

He has been on the job as president of Cadillac for less than 2 months, and Johan de Nysschen is already being turned into the company’s scapegoat #1. His biggest mistake in the eyes of his critics: Moving America’s former luxury brand to New York. When the Daily Kanban reported hints of a move a month ago, it was dismissed as making “no sense,” as the Detroit News’ Mark Phelan declared. Last week, the nonsensical became official when GM finally confirmed that Cadillac is moving its HQ from Detroit to Manhattan. This being announced, “the wrath of hell descends upon me, I’m accused of moving the entire company just because I prefer to live in New York,” de Nysschen wrote today to his 291 Facebook friends. Apparently, the criticism rattled the usually unflappable de Nysschen. He writes:

“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% 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 ten opinions to share. Fortunately, I do not determine strategy based on the unfiltered observations of people who do not have a 360 degree understanding of the problem. 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 suggesting that is the dumbest idea since the Cimmaron. I quietly wonder if any of them had a hand in creating that masterful monument to product substance.”

The complaints about a new nomenclature can be ignored. They are a regurgitated blogger meme that misses the point, and the fact that Cadillac ceased being defined by Eldorados and de Villes some 10 years ago. There is no earth shattering difference between a “CT6” and a “XYZ,” except that the higher number helps explain where the car stands in the vehicular pecking order. 6 not sexy? There’s room for a perfect 10 in Caddy’s future. Cadillac needs to focus everything on lifting the value of Cadillac. Dumping resources into new descriptive names needs to wait. Then, there is that nagging detail that it becomes increasingly impossible to find a good name that isn’t already trademarked somewhere on the globe. The El Dorado of Eldorados is gone. Get over it.

Good bye Yokohama. De Nysschen at Nissan's 2014 General Stockholders Conference

Good bye Yokohama. De Nysschen at Nissan’s 2014 General Stockholders Conference

The criticism of abandoning Detroit runs deeper. Behind the comments that it does not “make sense” and that is has been “tried before” (no Cadillac-to-Manhattan story without a Lincoln-to-Califiornia-and-back reference) are muted suggestions of high treason, of deserting a city under siege. Of course, nobody puts it that way. Michigan’s Car Czar Nigel Francis told an equally beleaguered Crains that “this has got far more to do with where a senior-level person wants to live and work.” No, it does not.

What transformed Audi from a mediocre carmaker and mistreated stepchild of Volkswagen into one of the world’s most admired brands, was to give the people at Audi their own and fiercely defended identity and sense of belonging. Johan was there, and Ammann hired him for what he learned at Audi. One of the secrets of Audi’s success was Ferdinand Piech’s insistence on wasting money. Soon after his arrival in Wolfsburg, Piech demanded strict “Markentrennung,” or brand separation. It wasn’t just brands that were separated. Giving “Erbsenzähler” (bean counters in Volkswagen parlance) heart palpitations, just about every function was duplicated, down to separate parts distribution operations that distributed mostly identical parts, and down to brand-separate field staff that visited mostly identical dealers who grudgingly had built separate show rooms. That Audi already was separate from Wolfsburg, and in Ingolstadt, helped. If that would not have been the case, they would have been separated and moved early on. At the time, separating not just the marketing theater in front of the curtain, but all the functions in the back, sounded even less sensical than moving from RenCen to SOHO. It made sense in the head of a relentless Piech, and it was eventually validated by Audi’s success.

If Mary Barra and Dan Amman indeed want to restore Cadillac to the pinnacle of global premium brands, then they need a Piech-sized dedication, patience and proclivity for squandering money on projects that won’t be cash-positive in the next quarter.  De Nysschen needs a team that singularly identifies itself as working for Cadillac, and not for GM. For that, the team needs to be pulled off the mothership, and established on its own island.

Says a combative de Nysschen:

“To all the indignant souls out there- this has nothing to do with Detroit. And certainly has nothing to do with where I choose to live. 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 and which are immersed in 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. Physical relocation forces a change to processes. Now, it’s true, we could achieve that, by moving just about anywhere. But if you have to choose a place to set up an iconic global luxury brand, you could indeed do worse than New York. 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.”

Johan is on a roll. Stay on him, he will be good for many a story to come.

P.S.: Scribes, please stop writing that de Nysschen moved Infiniti to Hong Kong. He did not. Andy Palmer and Carlos Ghosn did. When de Nysschen arrived at the helm of Infiniti, it had already sailed to Hong Kong.