Commentary: The Forward Lateral to Fred Diaz

Fred Diaz. Photo courtesy of Chrysler Group LLC
Fred Diaz. Photo courtesy of Chrysler Group LLC

"I am from Texas!"

Not a lot of automotive executives can exclaim his heritage as proudly as Fred Diaz. These words resonated in November of 2009 when Fiat announced through an all-day conference on how Chrysler would return to prominence and profitability. Diaz took the stage as the CEO of a brand new brand – Ram. From that point, Sergio Marchionne knew he made the right decision.

The challenge for Diaz was not much of one, if you know anything about him. His home state is known for a high percentage of pickup truck ownership. To leverage this experience, Diaz was tasked to spin Dodge's truck business into its own entity. The result was one of the most successful projects within Chrysler since Marchionne's arrival into Auburn Hills.

Diaz brought to the new division extensive sales and marketing experience. He always won and that attracted Marchionne to Diaz. You can see his vigor and pride when he introduced the ProMaster van at the Chicago Auto Show in February. Watching this guy work the stage, spelling out every little detail about the Fiat-developed full-sized van was indeed an experience on how Diaz can create a buzz effortlessly.

Add to his responsibilities at Ram, Diaz also ran Chrysler de Mexico. Chrysler is one of the leading manufacturers in Mexico and has a loyal consumer base that buys everything from the Hyundai-built Dodge Attitude all the way up to the commercial duty Ram trucks. Diaz helped guide further growth by solidifying the company's foothold in Mexico.

After building Ram into its own identity, what would possess Diaz to accept another new challenge?

This question came about after Nissan Americas announced Diaz's appointment to lead the Nissan brand in the USA, as well as build its commercial vehicle division.

The timing seems right when Diaz arrives at Nissan Americas' Franklin, Tennessee headquarters on May 1. The next generation Titan full-sized pickup is waiting in the wings, while the NV200 small van will hit the showrooms and the streets of New York beforehand. With every product trying to find traction in every market segment, Diaz has his job cut out for him.

Instead of Marchionne, Diaz now has to (eventually) answer to a man who still has clout on the global automotive stage – Carlos Ghosn. Ghosn wants to return Nissan to prominence in the USA market – a 10% market share dictum for 2016. The product refresh campaign has helped tremendously with the Altima challenging the Toyota Camry for the top spot amongst passenger cars. Yet, Ghosn would need someone to help boost the brand and its commercial/light truck offerings for both the short and long haul.

Enter Diaz. He seems like a good fit for this challenge. If you strip away his experience at Chrysler, deep down inside is a marketer above all. He has a good portfolio to work with – the upcoming Versa Note through to the GT-R and the Frontier pickup. Yet, Diaz knows how important the Titan is in one of the most important market segments in this country. After all, Ram's numbers have been incredible – brand sales increases since he captained the brand's spin-off from Dodge.

Aside from the upcoming Titan, Diaz also has to oversee the debut of the last component of Nissan's new model program – the next Rogue. Though fitting he would oversee the full-sized pickup's birth, the Rogue plays in a growing segment – compact crossover/SUVs. We hoped we would see the next Rogue in New York last month, so speculation has us wondering "when" this will pop up. Would Diaz be the one to let the next Rogue drive onto the stage? There is a feeling he would be the guy.

Sales-wise, the Nissan brand needs to reverse some losses. Though the Altima outsold every passenger car in the USA last month, it took a month-over-month hit of eight percent and a year-to-year loss of 9.8 percent. One could blame the economy, the Sequester or anything else worth blaming, but Diaz knows that the Altima is the lead product for the brand's renaissance. There is plenty in his playbook to possibly do exactly that.

How will Chrysler emerge from this change? Marchionne is known to find exceptional talent to lead his company. My interactions with Ralph Gilles (SRT, Senior Vice President of Design), Reid Bigland (Dodge and Chrysler of Canada) and Pietro Gorlier (MOPAR) confirmed this fact. It would be interesting to see who would step into Diaz's office for Ram and/or Chrysler de Mexico.

What Ram needs is another Fred Diaz – if not, someone pretty close to his track record and personality. Those are some really huge boots to fill.

In the end, everyone will eventually win. Even if Nissan does not reach that golden mark in 2016, you can be assured that Diaz will try very hard to get there. Even if Chrysler does not exactly get their man to fill Diaz's roles, you can bet that the person (or persons) inheriting them will also try hard to exceed expectations for Ram and Chrysler de Mexico.

However, the big winner in this could be Diaz. Who would bet that, by 2017, Diaz might be seeing more time in Yokohama (and Paris) than in Franklin?

In terms of employment, you might call the Diaz announcement more of a "forward lateral." That is, if you quantify this move in American Football terms – something sales and marketing leaders usually do. Diaz, included. All he has to do is to catch the ball and run it into the end zone.

We shall see after May 1 when Diaz arrives in Franklin.

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