NEW YORK — Jose Luis Valls became chairman of Nissan North America in April. The 52-year-old Argentine and former General Motors executive has had a rapid rise since joining Nissan in 2011. He most recently was chairman of Nissan Latin America, a region encompassing more than three dozen countries. He now takes on the U.S., Canada and Mexico at a challenging time.
Against a backdrop of global management turnover following the ouster and arrest of former Nissan Motor Co. Chairman Carlos Ghosn, Valls is executing a strategic shift in how the automaker sells vehicles in the U.S. The company says it will cut back on fleet business, attempt to wean dealers and consumers off vehicle rebates and tone down its past emphasis on dealer sales incentive programs. The repositioning already has cut into Nissan's U.S. sales volume. Valls spoke with News Editor Lindsay Chappell at a Nissan office here. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: There is certainly a lot going on at Nissan right now.
A: Yes, there are a lot of things going on in headquarters in Japan — a lot of distractions. But I can't do anything about that. I'm focusing on the business. I'm making sure that Nissan corporate is aligned with my strategy here. Japan asked me to join North American operations to do what I did in Mexico and in Latin America. And that's no magic.
What were the key things you did to make Latin America stronger for Nissan that you can transplant to North America?
They were simple ideas but not that simple to execute. It was building a strong brand, and we have some opportunities today. It's strong dealer relations, which we don't have today. It's making sure we have an efficient but strong product portfolio.
It's also a matter of improving how we align with the market, regarding supply and demand. How we can maximize efficiency and make sure we are not forcing volume. That's key. And then we need to walk the talk.
What is your approach going to be?
It's a lot of consistency. A lot of transparency. Very strong business fundamentals and no compromise in building the brand. It's about building value with the customer. It's having strong relations with our dealers and our suppliers.
With our dealers, we're all in the same boat. They need a strong brand, but I need a strong dealer body. My message to them is that I will offer a good business to you, but then I will demand performance. I'll want you to be engaged, as you want me to be engaged.
Some of this sounds kind of basic. And it will not be a magic, overnight improvement. We will seek a gradual, steady improvement in the right direction. We're under some stress. Market conditions are changing. Industry volume is down. We have those issues in Japan. We have the situation with tariffs. But Japan asked me to stay clear in my business fundamentals. And they understand it will not be an overnight job. We need to create the momentum, and we need to regain dealer trust. If we can do this right, at the same time that our new product is coming, then I see all the positives coming together.
Is your background on the retail side?
I entered this business in 1996 working for Chrysler on the retail side, working with dealers. I understand the fundamentals. For me, the pulse of the brand is our dealers. If the dealers are disengaged or not motivated, the pulse of the brand is weak.
How do you regain dealer trust?
Consistency, transparency, visibility. This is what I'm planning to do. I've gone out to meet with dealers in groups in all of our regions, and this is what I've told them. And I believe they liked what I said. They want good products, and they want trust. You can't have a good relationship with anybody without trust — not your employees, not your business partners, not your wife.
And once we have that trust and we offer a sustainable, good business, I will demand performance.
Do you mean sales?
It's not just about sales. There is customer quality. There are processes. There's the alignment in how we communicate the brand.
There are some unhappy Nissan dealers. Can you win them over?
I understand that. Some are angry. Some are still skeptical. But it's not about me. They can't blame me for the past because I wasn't here in the past. I'm here to work with them. I want to give them a fresh approach and trust. They can talk to every dealer I've worked with through my career, and they'll find that I have a good record.
I know what I need to do. But I want them to be engaged. I want every employee in their dealerships to be engaged. They need a strong brand. I need a good dealer body.
Sales volume is down so far this year as Nissan changes its approach in the U.S., such as reducing incentives. How far will sales fall before they grow again?
We are planning to not go below last year. We think the total industry volume this year will be about level, around 16.8 million. I'm expecting retail sales to start gradually improving. We're not going to look for magical turnarounds, where we say we'll grow by 2 points of market share next year. We'll improve gradually as we focus on the retail side.
Nissan has said it wants to improve its new-model launches and their timing. Is that still a priority?
Yes, we want to put more efficiency into launching at the right time and putting the resources we need into them. We have a cadence of launches over the next five years that will require a strong discipline in having the launches at the right time.
What has been the problem?
I think we simply suffered from a lack of consistency. Having exceptional performance in one car and then erratic performance in the next one because we missed a launch time — that's just inconsistency that we need to fix. Every case is a different story. The point is that I now need to do it right. I want us to have much more precision in having the right timing.
Can Nissan rebound with the portfolio it has, or will it take new models?
Today, we have a very complete portfolio. I'm not talking about new models; I'm looking at consumer preferences. What comes next will address some of the new consumer preferences and behaviors. We're still working on what will happen in every single segment.
We're putting big investments into new technologies. We're renovating our lineup. By next year, 70 percent of our line will be completely renovated. I want the brand to be very strong and to have the customer know what we're doing.
Nissan has talked a lot about growing in the U.S. pickup market with the full-size Titan. But it hasn't happened. Can Nissan really grow in the pickup market?
I'm a truck man. But I have my own ideas. I'm more into the one-ton pickup, where Nissan is quite strong globally. I see a lot of opportunities for the new Frontier that we're working on. From there, we can leverage much more truck strength and presence and use it to support Titan's further growth.
Meaning that a stronger Frontier can help Nissan sell Titans?
The new Frontier we're working on is going to be a game changer for us. A game changer for the Frontier, but also for our whole pickup strategy. We need to have a broader approach to how we build pickups for different uses.
I'm working personally on this. And I think this strategy will help the Titan. Titan today is alone, playing with the strong domestic brands who have been there forever with their legacy and heritage. It's tough.
But the Frontier will help us to get to the ambition I have in this segment.
The current Frontier is very old. When will we see the next one?
It's got some years. We don't have the timing yet. I'm working personally on that. But the new one will bring a lot of global technology into the one-ton pickup market.
Just a few years ago, Nissan North America management vowed that Nissan would overtake Honda as the No. 2 import brand in the U.S. That didn't happen. Is it still important to you?
No. It's not on my list of things that keep me awake at night. If we can beat them — that's better. But it should be a consequence of doing things right consistently. Today, we have higher priorities than chasing other OEMs. I don't want to win every once in a while, having a good month or a good quarter. I want to win every month. But through sustainable growth.
How will you market Nissan going forward?
What I'm looking forward to is to deliver all the technology, all of the Nissan Intelligent Mobility features that we're putting into our cars, with a clear human connection. I think it currently lacks a human connection. We need to improve the emotional bond with our consumers. We need to humanize our message, and I'm working on that.
You live in Miami. How does that work for a Japanese automaker's Nashville-based North American business?
I'm not an office guy. I'm on the move, whether it's Nashville or Yokohama or Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro. I visit dealers, I visit agencies, journalists.
I'm a family man, and my wife and I have four kids. So I commute, as I have for the past five years. I come back home every weekend. It works quite well. We're also quite strong in Florida.
And I do a lot of mystery shopping. But now all the Florida dealers know me, and it's harder to be a mystery shopper.