Car crazy and lovin’ the fast lane

Nissan's corporate vice president for global communications revved for the long haul

by Wilson Whyte

Simon Sproule appreciates the benefits of globalization. “The world has globalized so much since I left the U.K. in 1998 that I can get access to British media or Marmite on toast almost anywhere, anytime,” he says, referring to the popular yeast extract spread.

Marmite may be what fuels him, but what drives him is cars. Nissan’s vice president in charge of global communications had a grandfather who worked in Britain’s car industry and he spurred a lifelong interest in automobiles for the boy from Basingstoke.

“My grandfather not only collected classic cars — he had an Austin A30 and A35 — but he would always have a different new car when I saw him and he also used to take me to motor shows. I think in some storage unit in the U.K. I still have car brochures from the early and mid-1970s, which are probably now worth a fortune.

“He was also into collecting model cars and any kind of ‘automobilia’ — something I have taken into my own adulthood. Within my family, my brother runs a car dealership in the U.K. and my mother is car crazy. Needless to say when the family gets together, my father has to endure a very one-track conversation.”

In fact, Sproule’s first job after graduating from King’s College in London was as a car salesman for Ford.

“It was the best possible start to a career in the auto industry — we often tend to just think in millions of units/cars sold, but when you work in a dealer you understand that every car sold is a huge decision for an individual — it is the second-largest purchase most people make after buying a home,” Sproule points out.

Sproule stayed with Ford as he moved into the world of corporate communications, becoming head of corporate affairs in 1996 and transferring to Detroit in 1998. In 2000, he became V.P. of communications for Jaguar North America, taking on the same role for Land Rover and Aston Martin, all Ford subsidiaries at the time.

This took him from Detroit to New Jersey to Los Angeles, where he was recruited by Nissan’s North American operation and was quickly moved on to Japan, where in 2004 he became corporate vice president of global communications. Japan had not previously been on his radar.

“The first time I ever went to Japan was in 2003 for an interview at Nissan H.Q.,” Sproule explains. “I was in Japan for 20 hours in total on that first visit. Prior to that I had some contact with Ford and its partnership with Mazda, but to all intents, Japan was a totally new experience for me in 2003.”

Despite being a new kid on the block, Sproule realized that culture clashes were anything but. “I do not think that clashes in the workplace are particularly driven by culture — most people at Nissan are very used to a multicultural working environment.

“I would say that the normal disagreements at work are really no different in Nissan than any other large company; it ends up being down to your view of a strategy or project vs. someone else’s.

“However, I think those that struggle most are the ones that do not take on a worldview and rather just focus on one single market at all costs. This age of seamless 24/7 communication means every decision we take anywhere in the world can have an impact somewhere else.”

Sproule, now 40, found himself thrust into an extraordinary multicultural mix in a company that was part Japanese and part French and a lot of everything else.

“It is fascinating to be somewhat in the middle of this cultural blend. As a European I have an affinity with the French way of thinking, but having spent six years working in the U.S., I also have a somewhat American perspective on business.

“I have also found during my time in Japan that Brits tend to do quite well in Japan and have similar cultural and behavior sensitivities that help us as a nation mix quite well with the Japanese culture.

“Nissan is without doubt one of the most diverse Japanese corporations and this fact alone makes every working day interesting and stimulating.”

Nissan’s diversity is symbolized by its CEO, Carlos Ghosn, a Lebanese who grew up in Brazil and has worked around the world. Ghosn rescued Nissan from oblivion 10 years ago and is known as a hyper-smart businessman and a brilliant communicator.

“I think his greatest skill is taking very complex issues and making them simple to understand,” says Sproule, who works very closely with Nissan’s boss. “This combines the ability to absorb and process massive amounts of information and then identify the key issue and communicate the solution. He is an excellent delegator — you get quick and direct feedback on ideas or proposals and then he expects you to implement and make your own judgment on how best to get the results. He is demanding, like any top-flight business leader, but never unreasonable and is always focused on the results.”

Ah yes, results. The car industry has been pulverized by the “credit crunch” and Nissan recently announced that global sales had fallen by 20 percent in 2008. Is the auto industry on its last legs? Sproule points out that the downturn could spur other options.

“Every recession has an eventual end and then a return to growth. Longterm, the auto industry not only will be differently structured with fewer brands and more consolidation, but the products we build will be different. The two major opportunities are the increasing need for affordable mobility in the developing markets and the development of electric vehicles that will give consumers true zero-emission mobility.” However, Sproule says, the gloom is not going to lift any time soon.

“This is the most severe challenge facing the auto industry in more than a generation and is affecting all automakers worldwide. Factors like restricted liquidity, falling consumer confidence and foreign currency volatility all contribute towards a very challenging set of conditions for the industry.

“We see very little or no sign of improvement in 2009 and believe it will take several years for demand to return to levels approaching those of the previous few years.” But wherever the auto industry goes, Sproule is likely to be part of it.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have a job which I love,” he states. And the hardest part of that job?

“Not exceeding the speed limit on the Japan expressway.”

Obviously, he has the wrong car.