Ten Minutes with Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen

Apr 06, 2015 01:30 PM EDT | Jeff Jablansky

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Cadillac president Johan de Nysschen used the 2015 New York auto show to introduce the CT6, the sedan that will accompany a brand relaunch in New York City.

We sat down to discuss his plans for CT6, upcoming models, and his upcoming move to New York.

How is the show going for you so far?
You know, my motor shows are always the same. They're spent entirely in meeting rooms such as this. I've really not seen too much of the show.

But you owned [Tuesday] night with CT6. How did that event all come together?

We used that as the global reveal of the CT6, and we had spent the morning with the global Cadillac team doing a little strategic overview of the business, and giving them insights into what-at least-the medium-term plans are. I think it's important that the whole team is aligned and understands what we are doing. It's not often that we can get the whole global family together. In the evening, we rounded off our Cadillac brand with the global reveal. We had our team there, and we had members of the media and selected VIP guests. It was a good event, I think, not only about the reveal of the car, but to celebrate, I suppose, our arrival in New York, and to also signal very clearly, through style and execution that Cadillac is a large and powerful force, rapidly on the ascending trail in the luxury market.

You spoke about the significance of the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a once-powerful force against the Europeans. You're taking a lot of good talent from European companies. What does it say when Cadillac is taking European talent, in order to take it on?

I don't think we are specifically aiming at talent from a particular region. What we are doing is [building] a global team of very talented individuals. The global auto industry is big, but it's also small. I think it's, on the one hand, an important part of the mission, to build the organization and have capability to execute the plans-because without execution, great strategies remain exactly that. We are also in the process, as we are developing Cadillac as a more autonomous, more distinct, separate organization from General Motors. Obviously, we have an extraordinary need for new people to come in, to fill all these new roles. It's pretty reassuring, I suppose, on the one hand, that we are able to attract very strong talent from some of the companies that, at this moment, still dominate the luxury market.

When you think about Cadillac's lineup today, when can we expect a full replacement?

With CT6 being the first, we will-on top of that-have eight all-new models that do not exist at all today, that will allow us entry into five different market segments where we are not present. It's a pretty dramatic product offensive over the next five years. It really ramps up; we have one new product launch next year, but from 2017 onwards, it will be firing in very rapid order.

Does that excite you?

Absolutely. It's energizing.

Lincoln showed the Continental, Buick has shown the Avenir, and you could argue that CT6 is a little conservative for design. How much influence did you have over the design of CT6?

Firstly, I think that one should very clearly distinguish between concept cars and production cars. A concept car is a dream uninhibited by reality. You can be very expressive. ... The Cadillac ElMiraj was another fantastic concept car. If we'd had that on the show, and you'd seen that for the first time, probably you'd have different comments. We need to remember that the market segment where the new Cadillac Touring 6 (CT6) will be positioned is a more conservative segment. Look at all the other entries there. The buyer in that market favors an understated, subtle appearance. On the other hand, it is also, I think, fair to say that Cadillac "art & science" design language will be undergoing some strong evolution, with future models that we are introducing to the market. "Art & science," I think, as expressed in CT6, is a very beautiful and classy, sophisticated expression. But designs need to move on. In the future evolution, we will see it adopt a more muscular, athletic, somewhat more emotional attitude, with more three-dimensionality to the sides. You'll see probably a slight change to the stance of the car, wheels really pushed to the corners, low and wide. CT6, by the way, already hints at that. We'll probably lower the belt line a bit, so that we have a more expressive and expensive glasshouse, and we will probably take just a little bit of softening to the hard edges, which have so created this wedgy stance for Cadillac. You'll instantly recognize it as a Cadillac, but all designs have to evolve over time.

Will the marketing going to change to discuss the meaning of the "T" in CT6?

No. When you launch a car, and particularly when you do it with a new name, it's probably useful just to give context. I think we will call the car CT6 in our daily speak.

There was little mention of Super Cruise at the reveal, but it will be on the CT6. Was that intentional?

We have so much technology already in the car, and there's a whole bunch of other technologies that we haven't referenced yet. There's only so much that you can download at one time. As we manage the life cycle of the car, so too must we manage the messaging. We will have a full chapter on Super Cruise at the right time.

Is there a specific profile of the new direct reports you're looking for at Cadillac?

I don't know if there's a unique formula. I think that one wants to have a diverse set of skills on your team. I need, for sure, to have some of the top talent within the General Motors corporation, who are not only experienced in the auto business, but who obviously have a great deal of institutional knowledge. Since I am new to the company, I need people to help me to engage the organization. I also would like to see some people with luxury brand experience-automotive luxury brand experience is an added bonus-but it's also important, I think, that we pull in some folks from other industry sectors, to bring new and fresh perspective to our business. There's a lot of transferability in skill sets. I don't think we should imagine that the auto business is particularly unique. It's a complex business, to be sure, and it has its own particular characteristics. But in terms of the functions, I think that it would be a very welcome injection of new perspectives, to get some folks from other luxury industries, as well. In terms of the individual capabilities, we look for people who are exhibiting good track records, who have the requisite professional and clear personal acumen. What is really, really encouraging is that, right now, we have a truly stunning number of hand-raisers. That says to me that Cadillac has not only managed to get back into the conversation, but it has piqued the interest of many top executives in this field.

To what do you owe your ability to pique a crowd's interest, whether at Infiniti, Audi, or Cadillac?

Cadillac has an interest all of its own. This is a brand with a great heritage. It's a brand that, at one stage, through a 112-year history, dominated the world of automotive luxury. It's a brand that has high brand recognition. Because it's respected, there are a great number of people who would really like to see the brand move back to the center stage. There's a lot of good will. I have just been very honored to have the opportunity to lead the team which has custodianship of writing the next chapter in the history of this wonderful brand. That automatically inspires people.

Aluminum is a significant part of the body structure of CT6. Is that going to carry through to the rest of the lineup in the short term?

I was asked by somebody, when I said that aluminum accounts for 64 percent of the material used in that car, "Couldn't you have afforded to use 100 percent?" (laughs) One hundred percent has got to be better than 64. Well, actually, that kind of underscores that sometimes people don't know what they don't know. The whole point is that we used a mixed-materials approach in the car, of 13 different materials. That's what makes it so unique. Different materials have different advantages and disadvantages. If you look at the specific applications, there is no one single material that is the best material for all applications. What our engineers have done is, [patented] manufacturing technologies, not vehicle technologies, have allowed us to weld and bond all these materials. That is the breakthrough. That is what facilitated the ability to select the right material for the right application. That is why we don't have 100 percent aluminum. One hundred percent aluminum is a compromise. This allows us to get the weight down dramatically, but at the same time [increase] the structural rigidity of the car, the stiffness, the safety, and the crash performance.

The reason all this is important? If Cadillac is a luxury brand-because we are-the recent generation of ATS and CTS have stunned the world because suddenly they are now "driver's cars." One of the reasons that they've done so well is, CTS, for example, is also the weight leader in its segment. When you get weight down, so the agility of the car improves; the car steers, stops, and goes faster. Now, usually in vehicle design, you have a tradeoff between comfort and handling dynamics, because the reality of physics being what they are, if you have a car with a very compliant suspension, there's more body roll, and so the handling suffers. If you want to control the body movement and the suspension stiffens, the ride stiffens. With CT6, with the dramatic weight reduction; and we've made the wheelbase very long, so the car is very stable; the track is wide, that automatically gives good handling; and we've actually gone up in wheel size, the wheels are big. That allows you to have a more cushioned and absorbing ride character. You add into that, now, four-wheel steering capability. All of these significantly support the handling agility of the car. Now we need no longer make the suspension work so hard. We've got Magnetic Ride Control; we can instantly sense when the car is being pushed. For that moment, the suspension can stiffen up now, and we can have a very comfortable and compliant ride.

Most people will be absolutely stunned at how well that large car that rides so comfortably, handles. This is now our basic recipe. This is an expensive way of producing a car. You cannot use this expensive approach in vehicles that are aimed to transact at lower price points, but anyway, it only builds on what we have done. There's a high degree of aluminum content in CTS and ATS. This will continue into the future, and we'll follow the same philosophy with vehicles that are in the pipeline today.

How long is it until we can reasonably expect a CT6-V?

If Cadillac is a manufacturer of luxury driver's cars, then we should also recognize there's sort of a stratification that needs to take place. If the starting point is great handling, good responsiveness, good comfort, then you begin to accentuate the performance element which is the V-Sport. For most people, the performance coming from the V-Sport models will really be enough to make their heads spin. And then there is a very, very specific set of performance attributes that we want to reserve for the very top performance cars, the V-Series. The V-Series cars will become, I think, almost a sub-brand with a cult-like following. But because it is so specialized, it is not something we will universally apply across all categories.

We will select only a handful of vehicles to become V-Series cars. I think that the overall character of V-Series probably will not sit very comfortably in a car the size of the CT6. So, I think the ultimate performance of a CT6 will be a V-Sport. I will tell you [that] right now, there is some considerable debate inside the company. There are, of course, some folks who feel that the inherent dynamic capability, thanks to the technology of the CT6, is so high, that it would be a very compelling advantage to utilize that and develop the ultimate V-Series. I suppose the last word has not been spoken.

You've settled on downtown Manhattan for Cadillac's headquarters; have you chosen for yourself a neighborhood yet?

I'm still house-hunting. My wife is also an accomplished executive with an important career of her own. She has just moved into the area; I still live in Detroit. It has to be influenced, ultimately, by where she finds a job. We need to be a bit flexible. 

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