Even as General Motors has rebounded from its bankruptcy in 2009, its Cadillac division has been a work in progress with the introduction of new models during a rotating cast of executives.
But on Friday, GM made what is perhaps its strongest move yet to bring stability to its luxury division, hiring Johan de Nysschen from Nissan’s Infiniti to lead Cadillac in an increasingly crowded luxury car market.
Before joining Nissan in 2012, de Nysschen built his reputation at the German automaker Volkswagen, where he played a key role in transforming its Audi brand from an also-ran in the United States into a true competitor with BMW and Mercedes-Benz. GM has long harbored similar ambitions for Cadillac.
By taking the unusual step of hiring an executive from outside the company, GM is hoping de Nysschen can bring some of his Audi magic to Cadillac.
“His track record proves he is the perfect executive to lead Cadillac for the long term,” said GM’s president, Dan Ammann.
But in recent years there has been nothing long-term about Cadillac’s executive suite, where top officials have come and gone while the division has sought to revamp its offerings and burnish an image tarnished by decades of neglect starting in the mid-1970s.
Its most recent top executive, Robert Ferguson, shifted responsibilities within GM recently and is now overseeing lobbying efforts in Washington, a role he previously held before taking over Cadillac two years ago.
De Nysschen, 54, inherits a division that has stumbled in the first half of the year, with sales down nearly 2 percent in the United States compared with the same period a year earlier, during a surging luxury car market. Its flat performance comes after a banner 2013, when Cadillac sales rose 22 percent in the United States.
His biggest challenge will be competing at the highest levels of the luxury car market, against BMW, Mercedes and Audi. To that end, Cadillac has introduced sport sedans like the CTS and the smaller ATS to critical praise.
Tim Fleming, an analyst for the auto research firm Kelley Blue Book, said that while the ATS got off to a decent start, it had a long way to go. “Judging by its sales performance, it’s still nowhere close,” Fleming said. “It did well for them last year, but this year is a different story. It’s going to take years to build the brand.”
A potential boost for Cadillac is the next-generation 2015 Escalade, which is arriving at dealerships as demand surges for sport utility vehicles.
David Caldwell, a spokesman for Cadillac, said that de Nysschen’s experience cracking new markets could be crucial to Cadillac’s future. That is especially true in China, where Cadillac sales surpassed 50,000 last year.
“We’ve gotten more serious about global growth,” Caldwell said. “We’ve made a few steps in that direction, but it’s about taking things to the next level.” He said GM hoped to surpass 100,000 Cadillacs in China.
De Nysschen said in a statement released by GM that he believed the corporate and engineering pieces were in place to “restore Cadillac to its place among global premium brands.”
The departure of de Nysschen, a native of South Africa, could be a setback for Infiniti, which has struggled to define its identity. Nissan’s chairman, Carlos Ghosn, was said to have lured de Nysschen to Infiniti two years ago with promises of unfettered resources and control to remake a vehicle lineup that had failed to distinguish itself.
But Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com, said Infiniti continued to wrestle with an inferior reputation among many luxury buyers. “There’s a bit of a stigma that Infiniti is what you wind up with when you can’t get a BMW or Lexus,” she said.
De Nysschen will leave behind at least one legacy at Infiniti: A lot of vehicles starting with the letter Q. He was still at Audi in 2005 when Infiniti took Audi to court to prevent it from using Q in its vehicle names. The lawsuit was ultimately settled the following year, and an agreement was reached under which Audi was able to use Q only on two of its sport utility vehicles.
Cut to 2012, when de Nysschen switched teams and joined Infiniti: One of his first official acts was to rename the brand’s offerings so that all of them started with a Q.