Johan de Nysschen built Audi into a powerhouse. Can he do it again for Nissan?
FORTUNE — When CEO Carlos Ghosn hired Johan de Nysschen a year ago to rebuild Nissan’s Infiniti franchise, he was recruiting someone who had learned a top luxury franchise’s playbook backwards and forwards.
De Nysschen cut his teeth at Audi, leading Volkswagen’s luxury brand in the U.S. to a status with consumers not reached before, higher in regard than General Motors’ GM Cadillac and Ford’s F Lincoln and, more impressively, a legitimate alternative to BMW, Mercedes and Toyota’s TM Lexus. The first car to be sold under the South African-born auto executive’s tenure as Infiniti’s leader is the Q50, a sedan that reflects de Nysschen’s decision to change nomenclature. By the time he arrived, it was too late to tweak the car’s technical or design features.
Previously the Q50 would have been one of Infiniti’s G series midsize sedans. Under de Nysschen’s edict, all Infiniti cars revert to Q, plus a numerical multiple of ten that indicates the car’s size. All crossovers will be identified with a QX, plus a number indicating size. (But Infiniti announced an exception this week: the G37, with a smaller engine, will continue to be sold as such before being discontinued in 2015.)
Joe DeMatio, deputy editor of Automobile magazine, said Infiniti has failed to establish itself as a first-tier luxury brand over the two decades of existence largely because its models have been inconsistent. “De Nysschen seems as well qualified as anyone to steer this ship,” said De Matio. “It all comes down to whether mothership Nissan is willing to spend the money to create great product.” DeMatio applauded Infiniti’s two-year-old venture into F1 racing, a move designed to create awareness, especially in Europe and Asia, where the brand is weak.
The nomenclature change, returning to Q, might seem small, though for de Nysschen even the tiniest details mean a lot. A Nissan NSANY executive said his ability to spot nits is already becoming legendary: Upon receiving his first Infiniti company car, he noticed that the plastic cap on the A/C accessory outlet was askew, pointed out the flaw and had it straightened it. Customers for luxury cars are extremely — some might say obnoxiously — demanding about perfection, and not just in the obvious categories in which a luxury vehicle must excel: ride, handling, comfort, safety, and power.
De Nysschen has made his presence felt in other ways as well. He reportedly vetoed Nissan’s plan to create a luxurious Infiniti version of the battery-powered Nissan Leaf, preferring to divert capital toward development of what are rumored to be a high-end sedan, another small luxury car, and an ultra-high-end sporty coupe. (For a hint at the coupe Infiniti might be conjuring, recall that Audi created the stunning, $200,000 mid-engine R8 to burnish the entire brand.) Infiniti competes only in 60% of the car and truck segments that are considered luxury, he wants the brand to compete in 90% of them.
Another De Nysschen initiative was moving Infiniti headquarters away from Nissan and out of Japan, to Hong Kong. Again, one wonders if the model is the location of Audi’s headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany, deliberately distant from its parent VW in Wolfsburg. For Infiniti to realize its economic potential, the brand must become a global symbol of luxury to Chinese, European, and South American consumers — not just to more Americans.
The process could take a decade and cost multiple billions, with no assurance of success. If he’s like his former German compatriots at Audi, De Nysschen doesn’t regard failure as an option.