The corporate shake-up at Nissan that was touched off by the arrest and ouster of former Chairman Carlos Ghosn last November has continued to accelerate.
The latest casualty is Karim Habib who was recruited just two years ago from BMW to serve as design chief at Nissan’s luxury brand, Infiniti. Habib is leaving, as have numerous colleagues, “to pursue other opportunities.”
Habib is being replaced by one of his former reports, Taisuke Nakamura, a 26-year veteran who has worked for both the mainstream Nissan and highline Infiniti brands over the years. He has worked closely on a number of products over the years, as well as several high-profile concepts, such as the QX Inspiration that debuted at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this past January.
Habib was considered a rising star in the industry when he was recruited to take on the Infiniti job two years ago. He replaced Alfonso Albaisa who was elevated to head of Nissan’s corporate global design operations.
“As a deeply valued member of our family we wish (Habib) continued success, happiness and all the best as he seeks new inspiration and achievements outside of Nissan,” said Albaisa in a statement.
Why he departed now is uncertain, but Nissan has seen a raft of departures since last autumn when Ghosn was arrested for alleged financial improprieties shortly after landing at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.
“Once you get new management in, invariably, things begin to shake up,” Joe Phillippi, a veteran auto analyst and head of AutoTrends Consulting, told TheDetroitBureau.com earlier this year. The crisis surrounding the prosecution of Ghosn apparently gave Nissan executives, starting with CEO Hiroto Saikawa “an opportunity to clean house.”
What has drawn close scrutiny, however, is the fact that a significant number of the departures at Nissan have involved non-Japanese executives, notably including Ghosn protégé Jose Munoz who had been serving as the company’s chief performance officer. Other foreigners to leave the company have included Daniele Schillaci, its global marketing chief, and Trevor Mann, who had been running Mitsubishi since shortly after Nissan took control of the smaller automaker.
Since just the beginning of the year, Infiniti has lost two of its own presidents, Roland Krueger replaced in January by Christian Meunier who, in turn, moved to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles only a few months later.
While the second-largest Japanese automaker has since turned to nationals to take on many of the vacant posts, it has not closed the door to foreigners, however.
It recently hired David Woodhouse, the Ford Motor Co. design chief who’s won high praise for work with the Lincoln brand. In his new post, Woodhouse will run California-based Nissan Design America.
As a replacement for departing Infiniti chief Habib, Nakamura is by no means an unknown. He has been serving as head of global design strategy while also overseeing concept car and production vehicle design.
A closer look at some of his most recent work reveals a distinct pattern. The QX Inspiration crossover concept is just one of a series of recent projects Nakamura worked on – a list that also includes the Qs Inspiration sedan concept that debuted in Shanghai in April, as well as the Prototype 10 speedster show car that was unveiled at the 2018 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. All of these are battery-powered prototypes expected to have a direct influence on future Infiniti products.
While it canceled its originally planned battery-car, a gussied-up version of the Nissan Leaf, Infiniti has been shifting directions and plans to aggressively electrify its line-up over the next few years, with its first full EV due out in 2021, along with a series of e-Power hybrids.
In the new role, said Nissan global design chief Albaisa, Nakamura “will continue to shape the brand’s electrified journey.”
More broadly, Nakamura will have to guide a brand that has long tried to differentiate itself from competitors such as Toyota’s Lexus and Honda’s Acura brands, with cutting edge designs. That included products such as the original Infiniti FX and EX crossovers that broke away from what was then the mold, opting for a look that didn’t copy traditional, body-on-frame SUV designs.