How a kid from Detroit and another from India ended up in Tennessee working to help a Japanese company become a global manufacturing power might seem like a complicated story on the surface. In reality, it’s actually quite simple. It starts with a passion for how things move and why — whether it’s a car, a career, or a company.
That passion was sparked for Emeka Oputa in his backyard. Growing up on the east side of Detroit, he often spent idle afternoons and evenings as a selfappointed apprentice lying on his back looking up at the industrial underbelly of the family car above him or bending over an open hood — examining this, fixing that — while his father carefully explained why this is important and that is a problem.
In a sense, it began the same way for Sri Gopinath. Except his backyard was the frenzied cacophony of Mumbai, and his fascination for the mechanics of mobility came from observing the constant hive of activity — people, cars, buses, trains — within one of the world’s largest cities. Gopinath had not driven a car until he arrived in the US to attend graduate engineering school at Ohio University and purchased an automobile whose curb appeal he recalls with the charitable eulogy, “It got me from point A to point B.”
Now, years later, Gopinath and Oputa’s paths have converged just outside Nashville at the headquarters of Nissan North America. The personal and professional lessons of their past have placed them in key positions to help Nissan — and the automotive industry — drive into the future.
To the casual observer, a car is a complex machine with a simple purpose. It’s a means of conveyance, carrying people from origin to destination. But it’s also much more than that. In many respects, what a car says — about its producer, its driver, and their shared values — is as important as what it does.
Few places symbolically represent the car industry quite like Detroit. It’s something that Oputa was acutely aware of during his formative years in the city, and then while earning a mechanical engineering degree at Michigan State University and beginning his professional career as an environmental engineer at Ford Motor Company.
“Of course, it’s synonymous with the American auto industry,” says Oputa, now the technical assistant to the chairman of Nissan Americas. “Growing up, I knew it was important. A lot of Detroiters worked for one of the Big Three or were otherwise connected to the industry in some way. I came to appreciate how inextricably connected an industry can be with certain communities.”
And if Detroit symbolizes the long history of auto manufacturing, Mumbai represents its rapidly evolving future. Recent years have been among the most dynamic in automotive history, with companies jostling for a position in what has become a truly global industry, increasingly propelled by emerging markets like China, Brazil and India.
“They’ve already emerged—there’s no doubt in my mind,” says Gopinath, senior manager of Business Transformation at Nissan North America. “These are high-growth markets. Thinking about growing up in India and how technologically challenged we were, and looking at where they are now is absolutely amazing. And that same tremendous change is happening in China, Russia and Brazil as well.”
It’s an exciting—and anxious—epoch for the industry. The fact that Oputa and Gopinath both have important roles at Nissan during a pivotal moment in company history didn’t happen by design—but it’s not exactly an accident either. Both are trained engineers, both worked for consulting firms that are now officially part of PwC’s advisory line of service, and both appreciate what globalization means for Nissan and the industry.
Their perspectives are the kind that only a variety of experience can produce. After working as an engineer with Ford and after obtaining a master’s in business administration from the University of Michigan, Oputa accepted a management consultant position in 2005 with Diamond Management & Technology Partners (then DiamondCluster), which PwC acquired in 2010. It was a substantial leap from the highly technical world Oputa had previously worked in.
“The work I did at Diamond was both challenging and educational,” Oputa says. “That experience was hugely important for me. It informed the work I do today by giving me alternative perspectives and prompting me to look at things more from a business perspective than a functional perspective.”
Working with his colleagues to deliver exceptional results for companies in the healthcare and financial services industries reinforced Oputa’s belief that anything is possible with enough hard work, dedication and innovative thinking.
“I was able to work with a smart, results-driven group of people who knew how to get things done,” Oputa says. “At Diamond I worked across a variety of industries including healthcare, financial services and the public sector. And I worked on varying types of projects; one of the key things I learned was how to find a way to deliver impactful results no matter the obstacles.”
Gopinath was also motivated to venture away from his mechanical engineering pedigree to develop a career path that established his reputation as a versatile business strategist. He earned his master’s in business administration from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1999, Gopinath became a senior manager at the global management consulting firm, PRTM, which PwC acquired in 2011.
“I was looking for opportunities in a business environment that would challenge me, allow me to learn at an accelerated pace and work directly with top management executives,” Gopinath says. “I found that management consulting was a great fit.”
Gopinath quickly developed an aptitude for understanding and optimizing business opportunities on a global scale. He worked across business areas (including product development, global procurement and supply chain management) and industries (everything from aerospace and electronics to defense and telecommunications), while serving multinational corporations. It was through these experiences that Gopinath began to hone his understanding for the business distinction between talking the talk and walking the walk.
“One of the most important things I took away from working at PRTM was how to implement strategy effectively,” Gopinath says. “You can generate fantastic ideas at the boardroom level, but it has to be actionable on the ground level. In order to deliver, you have to turn strategy into action.”
The story of Nissan’s rise, fall and resurgence is one of the more compelling narratives in the industry’s recent history. By the late 1990s, the market share of the once venerable Japanese company had dipped, product lines limped and profit/loss figures tilted decidedly toward the latter part of the equation.
Then, in March 1999, Nissan formed an alliance with the French automaker Renault. With the alliance came the directive to take bold action, innovate and shake up the company, if not the industry. When the opportunity to join Nissan North America was presented to Oputa in 2008, he was impressed by the company’s product offering but also with the determination Nissan had shown in its recovery.
“Nissan has displayed a lot of resilience,” Oputa says. “When you see a company handle crisis with poise and integrity, you know that’s an organization you want to be a part of.”
Likewise, Gopinath saw an undeniable chance to help continue Nissan’s rapid transformation into an industry leader. After PRTM, he spent several years as director of strategic sourcing at Motorola. He joined Nissan as a senior procurement manager in 2006, just as the company’s executives began to sketch out details for its boldest initiatives yet.
“It was a big opportunity to have an expanded strategic role in the procurement organization,” Gopinath says. “The conventional view of procurement is that you’re just chasing cost, but you really have to deliver on all fronts. This was an opportunity to do that across the board, from sourcing to supply chain to aftersales performance.”
Gopinath played a role in developing Nissan’s procurement strategy for North America and Mexico. In particular, Gopinath has recently spent substantial time working on the company’s business operations in Brazil, where the concept of “shop local, think global” has been taken to an entirely new level with localized production and parts supply contributing to the company’s worldwide strategy.
“There is certainly opportunity there — but also many challenges,” Gopinath says. “Entering a market at any cost is not the answer. You have to consider a broad range of strategic issues. You have to understand the target demographic. You have to adjust pricing to competitive local market rates. You have to consider the total supply chain, what vehicles you are producing domestically, what you’re sourcing and who you’re sourcing it from. At the same time, you have to move quickly because the early movers have the best opportunity for success.”
Part of Nissan’s burgeoning success in growing markets can be attributed to the company’s understanding of all the moving parts involved with a vehicle, from inception to design to production to sales. That attention to detail is increasingly important as margins become narrower for many auto companies.
“In the past, product quality was more of a differentiator,” Oputa says. “It is still extremely important, but the standard has been raised. Consumers have higher expectations, so it’s a must that companies deliver a quality product. Now differentiating yourself comes down to the customer experience and your ability to meet customers’ needs with technology and innovation.”
In the past five years, Nissan has taken some of the biggest strides of any company in the industry in providing innovative products. The company was among the first to offer features like keyless entry, push-button starting, rear-view and blind-spot cameras. But it was the introduction of the Nissan Leaf in late 2010 that vaulted the company back to center stage and up to No. 4 on Fast Company’s 2011 list of the world’s most innovative companies (putting Nissan in the rarefied company of Apple, Google and Facebook).
“Innovation is part of the Nissan DNA,” Oputa says. “Being innovative has become a trademark, and it’s not only in design, manufacturing and the products themselves. It’s also in the way we run our business.”
Nissan surprised many in the automotive industry when it won a competition launched by New York City officials soliciting bids from automakers to replace the Big Apple’s aging cab fleet with the “Taxi of Tomorrow.” Nissan won the lucrative contract with its innovative NV200 model.
“It’s one thing to develop a great strategy, but it’s another thing to bring it to life,” Gopinath says. “It’s not just about articulating an opportunity at the boardroom level, it’s about implementing it. That’s where the rubber hits the road.”
For several years prior to launching the Leaf, Nissan had quietly worked to build up its connections and capacity, thanks in part to employees like Oputa and Gopinath. When it unveiled the Leaf, the company became the first to release a mass-market, zero-emission electric car. With environmental concerns at the forefront of the collective social consciousness — along with the supply and pricing issues of fossil fuels — the Leaf became a leader in the zero-emission space.
“It bodes well for Nissan that customers and other external stakeholders are increasing their expectations in terms of things like sustainability,” Oputa says. “Being in the position we are helps us to continue to build our brand. When customers think of innovation or clean technology and automobiles, we can continue to lead the pack.”
For Oputa and Gopinath, it’s not only about enabling great ideas, but also finding ways to execute them.
“To be selected to work directly for the chairman of Nissan’s Americas region is a great opportunity that I’ve been afforded,” Oputa says. “It has been rewarding to leverage all of my experience into my work at Nissan. It is invigorating to have greater insight into where the business is today, and to be playing a part in where we’ll be tomorrow.”