Johan de Nysschen: The Cadillac of Interviews
April 19, 2019
By: Jamie Kitman
What about Cadillac can you talk about? I learned recently that it wasn’t your idea to move its headquarters to New York, but that is certainly not the way that story was told in the press and that’s seemed kind of unfair.
That’s true. When I was recruited, I was informed that the company would relocate to New York. In fact, I met with Dan Ackerson at the Detroit Athletic Club, after Mary [Barra] had already been appointed as CEO. He said to me that that decision had already been taken by him while he was CEO. It predated me quite considerably. 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. I didn’t mind. Somebody has to announce it.
I will say that 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.
I think the issue was up until that stage, until the Cadillac division had been created and empowered to control its own product manning, marketing, and distribution, all of those things had been done corporate generically for all the brands. I always said that the rules of the luxury market are different than the rules of the mainstream market. What’s good for Chevy isn’t necessarily good for Cadillac.
The thing is if you didn’t have geographic separation, the meetings and the decision makers and the faces won’t change. Did it have to be New York? I don’t know. It’s an expensive place, which I encounter every day of my life [living in nearby Hoboken]. But it’s also clear that folks who rooted for Detroit felt betrayed. Cadillac had an enemy. The truth of the matter’s quite different. I always say that it felt to me that Cadillac had its roots in Detroit, always will be from Detroit and Detroit’s their hometown, and we wish that our hometown would be rooting for us as we go and challenge the world to become what we used to be.
The way I saw my job at Cadillac was to grow the company again. To achieve that by addressing the constraints in the product portfolio, in terms of powertrain availability. Engines were generically developed with the Chevy brand in mind and, then, “Okay, 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 [proposed] 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. There are no pet projects.
And I’ll tell you candidly the company has more things that people want to invest in that it can afford to, so its hands are tied there.
I think the product plan through to 2025 will just improve. It’s really exciting. Part one of the product portfolio plan was just to catch up with the conventional owners and to be in the segments where the customers were buying. So it’s common knowledge, bringing the little crossover [the XT4], bringing in the XT6, updating the new Escalade—the new one’s going to be absolutely fantastic. But then the question is what lies beyond? And that is where GM didn’t have a specific technology roadmap aligned to particular brands. The process simply was, as they were developing new technologies, they would look at what product’s launch date would be aligned with the maturation date and market readiness of a technology and go with it, whether Buick, Chevy, or what have you.
Doesn’t that butt heads with the idea that your premium brand should have your premium technology?
You’re exactly right. I spent a lot of effort on that and I eventually got agreement inside the company. Cadillac will sort of become the technology leader. There’s a lot of sense to it. It helps build the image. It helps to commercialize the new technologies in relatively lower volumes. And it allows you then to handle your learning curve a little bit better and ultimately cascade these technologies down where you’ve established commercialization, and you can improve pricing.
Makes a lot of sense. Must be why people do it.
And that then positioned Cadillac to lead electrification. No longer Chevrolet. Cadillac has got some really compelling electrification entries that I think are going to dramatically change people’s perception of the brand and in particular give it a far more progressive image than it somewhat unjustifiably has in the minds of a lot of young people today.
Cadillac—certainly during my time there and I have no reason to assume anything different now—absolutely wants to be American. It wants to be the personification of American luxury. The one area, though, that you have to acknowledge whether you like it or not, is that the European brands in particular are seen as benchmarks for excellence and execution. In regard to technologies, finish, craftsmanship—those kinds of things. And I would say justifiably because they do it really well.
[I also] had to address some of the remaining weaknesses in the company. One of them was that there was only one common manufacturing quality standard for all the brands. When you have that, but you are producing brands that cover the price spectrum from $18,000 to $120,000, you’re going to do one of two things. You’re either going to make your cheap car too expensive, or you’re going to make your expensive car unworthy of its peer set. And we had challenges in terms of fit and finish and precision. And a lot of those things were not manufacturing-process related, they were engineering standards and design-inspired things. By establishing a dedicated Cadillac team for product planning, design, engineering, engines, and transmissions, we created a team in all the functional areas where there was now a Cadillac voice.
When powertrain was thinking about doing a new engine, there was now a Cadillac person saying, ‘Hey, that new engine needs these noise, vibration, and harshness characteristics for Cadillac, maybe you want to do balance shafts for that version,’ that kind of thing. It’s still in place. And we developed a new set of engineering standards that have informed the development and design and engineering of all of these new vehicles.
We didn’t stop there. We also then developed new manufacturing quality standards, and new processes in some cases to enable the execution to really go up so that Cadillac could be the standard. In the process, a lot of people put in a lot of effort, and I think the company learned a lot and grew as a result. I personally believe it is for the betterment of all of GM.
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