By Chester Dawson And Yoshio Takahashi
TOKYO—Nissan Motor Co. expects to resume full production "in a matter of weeks, not months" after earthquake damage to auto-parts suppliers sent shockwaves through the global supply chain, a senior executive at the Japanese car maker said.
In his first sit-down interview since northeast Japan was rocked by a magnitude 9.0 temblor on March 11, Chief Operating Officer Toshiyuki Shiga sought to play down the impact of supply disruptions that have forced Nissan and others to scale back vehicle production.
"Recovery efforts are progressing much more quickly than we had anticipated," Shiga said Monday. "It's too soon to say exactly when production will recover 100%, but we expect it to be a matter of weeks, not months." That contrasts with estimates of some analysts and outside experts, who have forecast it will be upwards of six months before Japanese auto makers' output returns to normal.
Mr. Shiga, who also serves as chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, said the auto industry should be able to get a full picture of the parts-supply network by mid-April—not just larger components makers but also the army of little-known subcontractors.
Manufacturers around the world have pieced together a better understanding of the role played by these smaller makers, often called "tier 2" or "tier 3" companies. Many auto makers discovered their exposure only after the quake revealed how much work had been farmed out to them.
Nissan has been able to trace back its supply chain and ascertain the damage at all but a handful of subcontractors, down from several dozen as recently as a week ago.
The company resumed partial production on March 24 using its existing stock of parts and whatever new components it has been able to procure at home and abroad, including from overseas factories that make models also manufactured in Japan, such as the Juke crossover compact, Mr. Shiga said. The full impact of shortages won't be felt overseas for another two or three weeks as the parts pipeline starts to run dry, he added.
The auto maker has two plants close to Tokyo Electric Power /zigman2/quotes/202771076/delayed JP:9501 -1.83% Co.'s crippled Daiichi nuclear power plant. One of the two—its Iwaki engine plant in Fukushima—remains idled while the other, in Tochigi, restarted parts production on March 21 and auto-assembly operations on March 24.
Mr. Shiga is often touted as a potential successor to CEO Carlos Ghosn , who oversees the alliance with Renault SA. The highest-ranking Japanese employee at Nissan earned his spurs as operations chief in 2005, three years after Ghosn appointed him to take charge of emerging markets. At the time, what Nissan called its GOM, or general overseas markets, division was seen as something of a backwater. But under Shiga it became a focal point as the company sought to expand sales in fast-growing developing economies like Brazil and China.
Shiga denied that Nissan's shrinkage of its supply base as part of its decade-old recovery plan has made it particularly vulnerable to the shortage of key components today. Nissan president Ghosn pledged in 1999 to slash its supplier base to 600 companies from 1,145 and dismantle its keiretsu , or overall group company, network in Japan by selling cross-shareholdings in all but four affiliated firms.
"This problem isn't limited to us," said Mr. Shiga. "We have good relations with a globally diverse array of suppliers who we treat without favoritism."
Nissan has sought to increase use of imported auto parts as a stopgap measure, but Mr. Shiga indicated that strategy has limits since many parts made overseas contain "hidden" Japanese components. "Even for parts made in China, many of them ultimately depend on subcomponents shipped from Japan," he said.
That has played out on a larger stage, with auto makers around the world forced to scramble as materials or parts made only in Japan have created global bottlenecks. One such product is a pigment called Xirallic made by Germany's Merck KgaA /zigman2/quotes/200605022/delayed DE:MRK +3.09% at a plant in a quake-stricken town on Japan's northeastern coast. Shortages of the pigment have affected auto makers from Ford Motor /zigman2/quotes/208911460/composite F +1.29% Co., Chrysler Group LLC and General Motors /zigman2/quotes/205226835/composite GM -0.10% Co. to BMW /zigman2/quotes/209548467/delayed DE:BMW -0.70% AG and Toyota Motor /zigman2/quotes/200537742/composite TM -0.02% Corp.
Mr. Shiga declined to specify the impact on earnings of the shutdown affecting production of some 42,000 cars as of March 25 and the continuing parts shortage, but said the company will likely quantify the damage sometime in May when it posts earnings for the fiscal year ended in March.
Nissan's latest forecast is for a group net profit of 315 billion yen ($48 billion) for this fiscal year, up sharply from the 42.4 billion yen profit it posted a year earlier.
Neal E. Boudette and Jeff Bennett in Detroit contributed to this article.
Write to Yoshio Takahashi at email@example.com