Nissan Shifts Into Higher Gear Carlos Ghosn has revved up profits at the Japanese automaker. Now he wants to go faster.
By Alex Taylor III

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Is there a vehicle that gets less respect than the minivan? Owners treat it like a people mover--good enough to haul kids and groceries but too downscale for trips to the country club. Manufacturers consider it a life-stage vehicle that generates little loyalty because customers switch to SUVs as soon as their families are grown. If you had to think of an automotive oxymoron, "sexy minivan" would come to mind.

Yet sexy minivan is exactly the image that Nissan Motor (No. 41) is trying to evoke with the 2004 Quest, now on its way to dealers. This minivan isn't aimed at soccer moms but at professional women who want a life beyond the carpool and expect the car they drive to reflect that. With its crystalline headlights, stylishly tailored seats, and an instrument panel straight out of Sharper Image, the Quest looks more like a fashion accessory than a transportation tool.

For years, sex and style have been as foreign at Nissan as Fourth of July fireworks and picnics. But Quest is one of 28 new or redesigned models, many of them equally eye-opening, that the Japanese company is launching worldwide as it tries to vault back into the top ranks of the world's automakers. It is a huge new product blitz--Nissan executives say it feels like "shock and awe"--and it is accompanied by equally gigantic challenges.

Automakers normally replace 15% to 20% of their product line annually with new models. In each of the next couple of years Nissan will be turning over 25% to 30% of its line. Launching all those new cars and trucks will strain every operation in the company, from manufacturing and engineering to marketing and sales. On top of that, Nissan faces the additional risk that comes with creating novel concepts like Quest. If customers accept them, the company can reestablish itself as an automotive power and stake out new territory as a design leader. But if customers are indifferent or reject the new models outright, Nissan's comeback will be stunted.

The new designs are part of a careful plan created by CEO Carlos Ghosn (rhymes with "phone") to push Nissan into segments where it hasn't competed before. "Audacious" and "bold" have become his two favorite adjectives. Ghosn insists that Nissan models must stand out from the competition's. "You don't build your character by doing what everybody else is doing," he says. "We are unleashing the imagination of our designers as part of our strategy for the market. You are going to see revolutionary designs from Nissan."

That's a 180-degree turn from the direction of market leaders Toyota and Honda, which seldom stray from the middle of the design highway. But then, Ghosn, 49, has consistently ignored tradition in engineering his historic turnaround of Nissan. He has closed plants, laid off workers, broken up supply networks, and sold cross-shareholdings--all of which were considered no-no's in Japan. The harsh tactics worked, and following ten years of losses or tiny profits, Nissan climbed into the black, just 18 months after Ghosn took over in 1999. It reported $4 billion of net income for the fiscal year ended March 31, and its operating margin of 10.8% made it the most profitable large auto company in the world. (By comparison, General Motors' 2002 operating profit margin was 2.6%.)

That kind of risk taking and the success that has come with it have made Ghosn--who was born in Brazil of Lebanese parents and raised in France--a cult hero in Japan, instantly recognized by his almond-shaped eyes and dark, bushy eyebrows. In May, Ghosn thumbed his nose at traditional Japanese practice again when he opened Nissan's new assembly plant in Canton, Miss. Other Japanese manufacturers prefer to start production at a new plant with an older vehicle that has already had its bugs worked out. But Ghosn plans to build only new vehicles in Canton (the minivan, two pickup truck models, and two sport-utility vehicles) and will do so starting with 2,000 new workers, most of whom have never seen the inside of an auto plant.

All that new-model activity is part of Ghosn's push to boost Nissan's worldwide sales of cars and trucks by one million units, or nearly 40%, by 2005. That would vault Nissan past Honda, Korea's Hyundai, and France's Peugeot into sixth place among the world's automakers. North America is expected to contribute some 300,000 of the new sales, a sizable increase on top of the 1,040,000 vehicles sold there in the 12-month period ended March 31.

Where will the additional sales come from? For North America, Ghosn has approved the development of nine new vehicles that will hit the market before 2005 and the restyling of six more. You won't have trouble recognizing any of them. Ghosn wants future Nissans to be instantly identifiable without their name badges, and he has largely succeeded. New Nissans are distinguished by expanses of unornamented sheet metal that have a strong visual impact through proportion and stance--"big architectural statements" in Nissan-speak. The tautly surfaced, teardrop-shaped 350Z sports coupe is just as eye-catching as the Infiniti FX45 crossover vehicle, with its cartoonish long hood, huge wheels, and tucked-in rear end. Explains Jed Connelly, head of North American sales and marketing for the Japanese company: "Edginess is intrinsic to the product concept. We have a history of following the other guy, and we didn't want to do that."

Other automakers, like Chrysler in the 1990s, have made big bets on trendsetting designs that haven't always paid off. U.S. carbuyers are willing to accept some new looks, such as the 1986 jellybean Ford Taurus, but they have rejected others, such as the 1996 oval-themed Taurus.

To reduce the potential for such unpleasant surprises, Ghosn has reorganized Nissan's product-development system and put himself at the center of it. Before Ghosn, Nissan's design studios around the world competed among themselves to create new models, a chaotic system that executives now say hadn't worked for 20 years. Ghosn hired a new designer from Isuzu, Shiro Nakamura, to run the studios and report to a management committee that Ghosn heads. Ghosn also chairs monthly product-planning meetings and chooses among competing design proposals. "He's by far the smartest guy in the room," says Tom Semple, president of Nissan Design America. "He can make a $3 billion decision in 20 minutes."

Ghosn says he put himself in charge to ensure an orderly evaluation process. "I approve designs not because I think I am more gifted or somebody who can see ahead three or four years from now," he says, "but just to make sure that the design is a logical, rational decision, taken after analyzing pros and cons." There's another reason too. As Ghosn points out, every auto company employee considers himself an expert in design, which makes every new model subject to second-guessing. "When the CEO makes a decision, people don't come back on it," Ghosn says. "When I come to a design decision, people know that is that."

An engineer by training, Ghosn isn't reluctant to exercise his veto. He recalls being offered three versions of a proposed new car and rejecting all of them, delaying the project until a later version was approved. Earlier this year he canceled a new model because Nissan wasn't going to make enough money from it. Says Ghosn: "The design was ready, the segment was ready, [but] the program director showed a ridiculous level of profitability for the amount of effort that was needed."

Creating a minivan that would meet Ghosn's standards for audacity and boldness required ingenuity and months of work. Ghosn wants Nissan to stand for passionate innovation and insists that new products satisfy an unmet customer need. That's a stretch for minivans, which are treated by customers as commodities and sell on price rather than appeal, and which, say Nissan executives, haven't evolved in 15 years. An earlier Nissan van, also called Quest but built by Ford, had sold poorly. So product planners spent ten months creating and then testing a unique benefit for this utilitarian vehicle that turned out to be more psychological than functional. "The unmet need we came up with was 'I don't feel very sexy in my minivan,'" says Jane Nakagawa, director of advanced planning and strategy for Nissan North America. "It is the way women feel after they drop the kids off at school and go to work."

To generate new concepts for the van, Nakagawa's 12-member team began meeting in July 1999, nearly four years before the start of production. They classified existing minivan customers into two groups: active young families and recreation-minded empty-nesters. Then, after discussions with sales, marketing, and design representatives, they identified a third group who weren't being served by the existing products: working mothers. They were defined as women trying to balance their own lives with responsibilities for home and family. They liked the utility of the minivan but hated its image.

As designers sketched proposals that would appeal to the new target customer, planners met with consumers in Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, and Stamford, Conn., to learn more about the emotional baggage associated with minivans. After a nationwide study of 4,716 potential customers, divided into groups such as "sexy moms" and "style seekers," the concept was further refined.

By November 1999, Nissan executives were evaluating specific design elements. They paid particular attention to the materials used for the van's interior, figuring that a professional woman would be more interested in the quality and texture of a seat covering than how it repelled chocolate ice-cream stains. The following May, planners interviewed still more customers in La Jolla, Calif., and Chicago, then presented a final concept to executives. It was nicknamed the Glam Van.

Designers at Nissan's studio in San Diego got the job of translating the Glam Van into sheet metal, glass, plastic, and rubber. Mentally, they redefined the minivan from a transportation appliance into what they called a "loft on wheels" and designed it from the inside out. They lowered the base of the front window to give the driver a better view and raised the sides next to the second and third rows of seats to make the interior feel cozier. Ghosn signed off in May 2001.

While competitors' vans are square as a breadbox, the Quest has a steeply sloping front end and a high arched roof. In the ceiling behind the sunroof are four glassed-in panels so that passengers can bathe in sunlight. The driver gets an uncluttered view of the road because the speedometer and tachometer dials, as well as the transmission shifter, have been uprooted from their traditional position near the steering wheel and relocated to the center of the instrument panel.

Will customers embrace the new look? Creating a stylish minivan can be like putting lipstick on a pig, and some industry analysts question whether the Glam Van will reach its sales target of 85,000 units a year. "Since soccer moms rebel at the image minivans provide them, Quest may help Nissan stem the flight to SUVs," says George Peterson, president of AutoPacific, a California company that studies new-model trends. "But the interior is controversial, and I think the target is aggressive, given that peak sales for the previous Quest were 53,600 in 1995." Jim Hossack, an AutoPacific analyst, agrees, saying that the Quest styling is a "little avant-garde." But he adds, "Nobody is willing to bet against Carlos Ghosn. He is seen as an epic hero."

For his part, Ghosn is relaxed and philosophical about the prospects for Quest and Nissan's other new models. "No car manufacturer can bet that every single car launch is going to be successful," he says during a recent visit to the Mississippi plant. "It is sufficient that some of your products--particularly the most important ones--are successful for you to be profitable. We feel good about all the products we are bringing to market."

Ghosn's new-model tsunami will crest next March with the launch of a full-sized Infiniti SUV built in Mississippi. By then he will have filled Nissan's product line with vehicles in most of the established model segments, as well as a couple of new ones. After that, the company will have to figure out how to grow by redesigning existing models. "What we do with the next round of cars is important," says Design America's Semple. "It is easier to dig yourself out of a hole than to stay at the top." Confident of success, Nissan executives say they expect to challenge Honda for second place among Japanese producers in U.S. sales.

Ghosn meanwhile is chasing other growth opportunities. He recently announced a joint venture to develop diesel-engine trucks in Japan, as well as increased production through a partnership in China that he hopes will boost output to 270,000 vehicles a year by 2004. At the same time, Ghosn expects to maintain Nissan's operating-profit margins at 10% or higher, despite pressure from incentives in the U.S. "I'm foreseeing a long period when we'll be in double digits [in operating-profit margins]," says Ghosn. "I'm not saying it will be easy. If everybody were at double digits, it would be easy because everyone would have a high standard of profitability. When not everybody has a high standard, it makes it very difficult to maintain."

Besides being subject to economic swings and ferocious competition, the auto business is so operationally intense that relaxation or loss of focus can lead to calamity. Several companies that succeeded in the 1990s--Ford, Chrysler, Volkswagen--have found the going more treacherous in the 21st century. Ghosn has clearly set an audacious target. But given his performance so far, if he does miss, it probably won't be by much.

Ghosn will move to a larger stage in April 2005, when he relocates to Paris to take over as head of Renault, which owns 44% of Nissan. He's not abandoning Nissan--he will retain his title of CEO and spend one week a month in Japan. He will be closely watched. Ghosn has enjoyed a remarkable run so far, and any number of jealous competitors will be waiting for him to slip up.