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Where Does Cadillac Go From Here?

“Johan brings to our company vast experience in the development and proper execution of luxury automotive brands. 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.”

—GM president Dan Amman, July 2014

“We’ve got about a 10-year runway to get this brand to where it is making the kind of overall contributions to General Motors profitability that Mary [GM global CEO Mary Barra] expects from it,”

—Johan de Nysschen, April 2016

“Johan was a very able executive, certainly able to run a premium brand, but he was never fully in charge.”

—Bob Lutz, May 2018

In 2014 Cadillac hired Johan de Nysschen to lead the rebirth of Cadillac. Johan is a native of South Africa and a respected industry executive who successfully lead positive transformations at Audi and Infiniti. He had broad leeway to re-invigorate and reinvent GM’s iconic luxury brand. His first move as Cadillac Chief was to relocate their headquarters out of Detroit to the hip downtown locale of Soho in New York City. This move represented independence and new thinking—it was the first of many radical changes under Johan’s leadership.

Cadillac’s challenge has been to lure younger luxury buyers while rebuilding credibility in a competitive global market. Johan blazed an aggressive path for Cadillac which included the successful semi-autonomous driving project called “SuperCruise.” He also focused on the continued improvement of the product line—his focus was on the skinny and aging lineup of SUV models. Johan’s business plan called for developing a series of new products while maintaining high prices to keep exclusivity, margin, and high residual values.

Achieving these lofty long-term goals in a short time frame proved difficult particularly at a time when GM’s top brass needed instant results. By not having a competitive crossover product, Cadillac missed the explosion in the burgeoning niche SUV market. Cadillac was late the crossover SUV party, and GM left a lot of money on the table over the last four years. Friction with dealers and growing sales pressure from management in Detroit ultimately boiled over—in April GM ran out of patience and ousted Johan.

GM insider Steve Carlisle replaced Johan. Before taking over Cadillac, Steve was president of GM Canada. Johan’s ouster is perplexing because under his leadership Cadillac’s 2017 sales reached 356,467 vehicles—a 15.5% increase over the previous year and the second largest in the Company’s 115-year history. The most significant growth market for Cadillac is China. For the first time in history, in 2017 Cadillac sold more vehicles in China than they did in America. Last year Cadillac sales in China were up over 50%. While China sales have been robust, domestically, the brand is floundering. North American sales fell 8% in 2017.

Johan’s departure follows the December 2017 defection of Uwe Ellinghaus, Cadillac’s global chief marketing officer (who joined Cadillac from BMW). Today if you go to the Cadillac website they are heavily promoting the new XT4 crossover. The XT4 is a vehicle that is a product of Johan’s tenure at Cadillac. They will introduce this all-new SUV in the fall, and it will be interesting to see how the XT4 competes in the market.

Ford’s recent announcement that they will stop producing low-margin cars in favor of high-margin trucks and crossovers is further evidence that automotive executives are feeling the heat from Wall Street. GM and Ford are razor focused on immediately increasing margins, and right now that means more sales of profitable crossover vehicles. Cadillac has not yet been competitive in the wildly successful crossover market, and that will be a top priority for Steve Carlisle who inherits the launch of the new XT4.

Last week the New York Times ran a comprehensive article that well articulates the challenges Cadillac now faces. You can read the story here, and it is also posted below.

Cadillac Makes Great Cars. Too Bad Americans Want SUV.s.

By Lawrence Ulrich
May 17, 2018

When General Motors recruited Johan de Nysschen to lead Cadillac in 2014, the prominent auto executive hoped for a cavalry of new sport-utility vehicles to shore up the luxury brand’s weakest position. As it awaited reinforcements, Cadillac soldiered on with a legion of widely praised sports sedans, the kind of beautifully engineered vehicles its German rivals would have been proud to call their own. But now Cadillac finds itself overrun by German and Asian S.U.V.s and G.M.’s leaders have parted ways with the man once seen as the brand’s future. And America’s premier luxury car brand must reckon with an uncomfortable truth. “Cadillac is just not selling what people want to buy today, especially in America,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book.

G.M. had lured Mr. de Nysschen — the rare company outsider to lead a G.M. division — on the strength of a successful stint atop Audi of America. His first major act was to place physical and psychological distance between Cadillac and Detroit, moving Cadillac’s headquarters from Motown to Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood in 2015. In New York, Mr. de Nysschen believed, Cadillac could attract top talent, take the pulse of consumer trends and woo the coastal buyers it had struggled to win over. He also outlined G.M.’s plans to invest $12 billion by 2020 to develop eight new Cadillac models, including the kind of crossover S.U.V.s that had been conspicuously absent from its lineup.

“How is it possible that we have so few crossovers from this iconic American luxury brand?” Mr. de Nysschen said in an interview at the time. “The Germans have more than I can count on two hands.” At BMW alone, that count now includes the X1, X2, X3, X4, X5 and X6, with the most expensive, the three-row X7, arriving next year. All that from a German brand that built its reputation on high-performance sport sedans and was once criticized for pandering to American tastes by building S.U.V.s. In ironic contrast, while G.M. is known for its expertise in S.U.V.s and trucks, Cadillac has just one car-based S.U.V.: the midsize XT5, which merely replaced the defunct SRX.

Johan de Nysschen in 2015. His first major act as president of Cadillac was the move to New York. At the time, he discussed the brand’s plan to add more crossovers to its lineup, a change that has been slow to materialize.CreditYana Paskova for The New York Times Even as rival luxury brands have minted money with downsized S.U.V.s, Cadillac only showed its inaugural compact crossover, the 2019 XT4, at the New York International Auto Show in March. And perhaps more puzzling, Cadillac’s greatest sport-utility success story, the massive Escalade, is now being upstaged by Lincoln’s red-hot Navigator, whose style and lavish interior have impressed critics and buyers.

The result is that Cadillac, a brand that had begun to transform its stodgy, retiree-only image during G.M.’s post-bankruptcy comeback, is struggling. Cadillac’s annual domestic sales had rebounded above 180,000 in 2013, up from about 110,000 in the recession doldrums of 2009. But sales plunged to 156,000 by 2017, even as the German brands were soaring. In the closely watched luxury race, Mercedes rode its own S.U.V.-heavy lineup to 337,236 sales in 2017, while BMW found 305,685 buyers, nipping Lexus’s 305,132.

Now, GM’s leadership has replaced the South African-born Mr. de Nysschen with Steve Carlisle, the president of G.M. Canada, who joined the company 36 years ago. In a statement, Dan Ammann, G.M.’s president said that Mr. de Nysschen had set “a stronger foundation” for Cadillac. “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,” Mr. Ammann said.

That 2019 XT4 finally goes on sale this fall, priced from $35,790, and it will need to elbow its way through a crowded party of compact S.U.V.s. A three-row XT6 is also in the works, but George Peterson, president of the research firm AutoPacific, did not expect it to arrive before 2020. Mr. Peterson already counts some 38 small crossovers in the marketplace, ranging from $20,000 to more than $90,000, and said that count should soon reach 45.

“Cadillac is recognizing that it’s a crossover world, but they’ve been slow to get off the dime,” Mr. Peterson said. “They’ll be launching into the teeth of a hugely competitive battleground.” Cadillac may have had a chance to move more quickly. Following his hiring, Mr. de Nysschen tried to persuade G.M.’s leadership to move S.U.V.s to the front of the development line, according to two company officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal matters. Traditional sedans and coupes that were already in the product pipeline, including the flagship CT6, proceeded on course. Despite wildly positive reviews, they have mostly fallen flat with S.U.V.-besotted consumers.

Another former G.M. executive, Robert A. Lutz, can empathize with the predicament Mr. de Nysschen faced. Mr. Lutz, a former Chrysler and BMW executive, was also a high-wattage outsider facing huge expectations when G.M. lured him out of retirement in 2001, naming him vice chairman and giving him far-reaching control over G.M.’s designs and product lineups. In contrast, Mr. Lutz said, Mr. de Nysschen lacked veto power and had to answer to several higher-ranking executives.

“Johan was a very able executive, certainly able to run a premium brand,” Mr. Lutz said. “But he was never fully in charge.” That’s not to say Mr. de Nysschen did not have successes. Mr. Lutz said Mr. de Nysschen had done critical dirty work by breaking Cadillac’s habit of dumping production into rental fleets to plump sales numbers, a practice that marred the brand’s image, retail prices and resale values. By April, according to J.D. Power data, retail buyers paid an average of nearly $54,000 for their Cadillacs, second only to Mercedes among luxury brands.

Mr. de Nysschen also helped expand Cadillac’s international reach: Even as its American sales fell 8 percent last year, Cadillac’s 175,000 sales in booming China brought its global total above 356,000, approaching 1978’s historical high for the 115-year-old brand. And Cadillac’s semiautonomous Super Cruise technology — which allows full hands-free driving on most major highways — is being hailed by some critics as superior to Tesla’s vaunted Autopilot, particularly for its emphasis on safe operation.

But Mr. de Nysschen also frustrated Cadillac dealers with Project Pinnacle, his carrot-and-stick plan that offered tiered incentives to dealers who invested in showroom upgrades and Lexus-style customer service — and steered others toward $180,000 franchise buyouts. Mr. Lutz suspected that de Nysschen’s physical separation from Detroit made it harder to win allies and arguments alike. He recalled poring over clay models of car designs during his G.M. tenure, and being able to march into a finance executive’s office if he had removed $200 worth of chrome that Mr. Lutz viewed as critical. “I’d say, ‘Where did the chrome go?” Mr. Lutz said. “You stare him in the eye, argue with him and get it fixed. Even in this day of electronic connectedness, distance matters.” Mr. Brauer, the Kelley Blue Book publisher, panned Cadillac’s move to New York as window-dressing. It might have made sense, he said, if the brand had set up design studios or engineering in New York, but those linchpins of auto creativity remained in Detroit. The change of address seemed a dubious sequel, Mr. Brauer said. Between his time at Audi and Cadillac, Mr. de Nysschen led Infiniti, where he convinced its parent, Nissan, to move its luxury headquarters from Japan to Hong Kong.

Some observers fault Mr. de Nysschen for spending too much effort chasing the Germans, including by challenging them on their literal home turf: the famed Nürburgring circuit. Cadillac’s 640-horsepower, nearly 200-m.p.h. CTS-V became the world’s first production sedan to circle the 12.9-mile track in less than 8 minutes. But Mr. Lutz, who forged his own industry reputation as an ultimate “car guy” by birthing performance legends like the Dodge Viper and the CTS-V, said that most of today’s luxury buyers were oblivious to the nuances of speed or handling. “Not one in 1,000 Americans even knows where the Nürburgring is,” he said.

When he was hired, Mr. de Nysschen said that Cadillac would be a distinctly American alternative, on par with any rival in design, quality and performance. But, reached via email, Mr. de Nysschen rejected the idea that Cadillac “has been trying to ‘chase the Germans.’”

“The team absolutely wants to leverage the unique American heritage,” he wrote, while rebuilding Cadillac’s reputation for excellence in such areas as craftsmanship and fit-and-finish.

“I believe that is a noble pursuit, worthy of an iconic brand such as Cadillac.”

Cadillac’s offices in SoHo New York City

Cadillac offices in New York

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4 Responses to Where Does Cadillac Go From Here?

  1. Bernie Picchi May 28, 2018 at 5:28 pm #

    Thanks for these articles about Cadilac, Philip. Two unrelated Developments that may have caught your eye in the last two weeks are these: (1) Ford has decided to retain the Mustang, even as it shuts down almost all other passenger car production in North America; and (2) Tiffany had blow out earnings this week – stock up 25% in one day! The new Tiffany CPO – a veteran design genius from Bulgari and Diesel – has begun to emphasize all of Tiffany’s historical roots, including opening a café on the flagship store fourth floor called the Blue Box Café ( now you really can’t have breakfast at Tiffany’s!) I think that this is what Caddy has to do: go back to its roots and produce something really distinctive. The world doesn’t need any more crossovers!

    • Philip Richter May 30, 2018 at 7:19 am #

      How right you are! Great analogy with Tiffany! Maybe Cadillac has to go backwards to go forwards and produce something really distinctive. Generally I don’t understand the crossover craze…seems like a car that is neither good at being on the road or off road….a real compromise both ways. Thanks for your feedback and being a subscriber to Turtle Garage!

  2. Leslie May 28, 2018 at 12:42 pm #

    Lots of food for thought here and a lesson about the need to keep ahead of the market. US carmakers did nothing with their once-aspirational luxury brands over decades and the unsurprising result was that anyone interested in buying a car today remembers not the high-tech (for the time) limited-production worldbeaters like the 1957 Cadillac Eldorado but recalls the not-very-good cars GM built in the 1980s and 1990s. Other carmakers like BMW and Porsche remained aspirational and have been able to shift into other niches entirely because of their brand name. The fact that Porsche, famous for expensive, high performance road rockets, actually sells more porky SUVs than 911s shows the importance of branding. Sedan sales of all manufacturers, including Daimler-Benz, BMW and Audi, have plunged in North America and they are clearly steaming ahead with their SUVs, while Cadillac has been so late identifying the trend. The ATS is actually an excellent car but it seems to me that Cadillac’s options are to either focus entirely on SUVs or to go the other way and turn itself into GM’s version of Rolls-Royce. Or maybe go entirely Chinese–the only reason Buick exists.

    • Philip Richter May 30, 2018 at 7:27 am #

      Thank you for your astute and thought provoking comments. For sure, the Cadillac Cimmeron was no 57′ Eldorado! Porsche’s success in the SUV market (and now the sedan market) is astounding. I cannot imagine standing in 1990 and thinking that this was going to be the future of the brand! This all just shows how hard it is to predict the future with any degree of accuracy. Ironically, as the New York Times article touches on, Cadillac is building great cars but the market is not interested in cars anymore. The sales figures of Cadillacs and Buicks from China are also extraordinary, and as you point out, the only reason Buick exists. Buick has a long history in China. Buick’s popularity there is linked to China’s last emperor and other historical leaders who drove (or were driven in) Buicks. It will all be interesting to see unfold!