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Quick thinking helps Nissan rise above disaster

DETROIT — Nissan gained market share in the U.S. this year despite a massive earthquake and tsunami in March that shook its headquarters in Japan and temporarily closed its plants.

The devastating earthquake killed more than 15,000 people in Japan and disrupted car and truck production for Japan’s three largest automakers for several months.

At Nissan’s Yokohama headquarters — which felt the quake although the epicenter was 155 miles away — an earthquake crisis committee met within minutes, according to a company summary of events.

Shortly after that, crisis teams were sent out to Nissan’s suppliers, and the company quickly figured out which models would be most affected, said Al Castignetti, vice president and general manager of Nissan in the U.S.

Nissan managed to bring its inventory back to normal levels by July and then worked to get the word out to the public, which had the impression that all Japanese automakers had few vehicles available.

“I don’t think there is any automotive company that handles a crisis better than we do,” Castignetti said. “We hunker down, and we get to the root cause of what is going on, and we make really quick decisions.”

In the U.S., sales have declined 7.5 percent for Toyota and 5.3 percent for Honda for the first 11 months of the year.

But at Nissan, U.S. sales have increased 15.6 percent — outpacing the industry’s 10.4 percent gain.

Nissan’s market share, including its Infiniti luxury brand, grew to 8.2 percent through November compared with 7.8 percent last year, and up from 5.8 percent in 2004.

Now, Nissan has set its sights on overtaking Honda to become the second-biggest Japanese automaker in the U.S. based on sales. In fact, Carlos Ghosn, chairman and CEO of Renault and Nissan, has said Nissan’s goal is to achieve a 10 percent market share in the U.S.

Nissan expects to keep growing in 2012 because it is launching a redesigned Altima midsize sedan and also will soon introduce a redesigned Sentra compact car and Versa subcompact hatchback.

All three models compete in high-volume segments, Castignetti said.

Gaining market share will be harder for Nissan in 2012.

Toyota has regained two points of market share over the last two months as its production has recovered to pre-earthquake levels. Next year, Toyota is bringing 11 new or revised vehicles to market.

“Not only do you have Toyota and Honda back at full volume … the new environment is so intensely competitive that substantial gains are really going to be difficult,” said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive.

Meanwhile, Hyundai and Kia continued their relentless growth this year. Together, the Korean automakers, which share the same parent company, sold 9 percent of new cars and trucks in the U.S. through November, a gain of 1.2 percentage points over the same period in 2010.

“I think Nissan needs to worry more about Hyundai and Kia than Honda,” said Aaron Bragman, automotive analyst for IHS Automotive.

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