In the fall of 1999, a young and very aggressive Brazilian-born, French-trained executive came to Tokyo with more bad news than any car company executive had ever delivered to the insular and pampered Japanese car business.
Carlos Ghosn, a worldly engineer of Portuguese descent, who at the time spoke multiple languages, was there to fix an essentially bankrupt and spectacularly mismanaged Nissan Motor. For decades, Nissan had tried and failed to compete with Toyota Motor and now a reckoning borne of incompetence had arrived. Ghosn, the Renault wunderkind with a global worldview, arrived to secure a future for the 44 per cent stake the French car company had invested in Nissan – essentially giving Renault control of Nissan.
In no time at all, Ghosn announced 21,000 job cuts, the closing of five Nissan plants, and various other extremely painful restructuring moves that stunned anyone who had even the slightest understanding of how the Japanese car business had worked for decades. Layoffs and plant closings, draconian cuts done at lightening speed and with no sympathy and no remorse, were unheard of in 1999. This is what it would take to fix Nissan, he said. Savings from the restructuring would be used to fund 22 new models.
To drive his point home, Ghosn walked the floor of the Tokyo Motor Show, then one of the world’s great auto extravaganzas. He answered questions, explained his reasoning and displayed absolutely no emotion whatsoever. With a cold affect that emphasized logic over emotion, Ghosn explained that this was life or death. Nissan must change or vanish.
I was there in Tokyo that fall. His performance and the effect it had on his audiences were breathtaking. No one had ever seen anything like from the top executive of a Japanese car company. Indeed, at the time, the Japanese auto industry operated like a quasi-extension of the Japanese government. A job with Nissan or Toyota meant employment for life.
This was truly a seminal moment in the global auto industry. Ghosn, who’d earned the nickname Le Costcutter during his time running and fixing Michelin’s tire business in the United States, had been lured to Renault by then-chairman, Louis Schweitzer. Reports suggested that if Ghosn were successful in reorganizing the notoriously inefficient Renault, he’d be in line to take over from Schweitzer.
Fixing a French car company, one in which the French government had and still retains a substantial equity stake, appeared to be just as demanding as reinventing Nissan. The crisis at Nissan actually jolted Renault. As the Nissan-Renault Alliance unfolded, with cross shareholding agreements, it became clear that Renault had been forced to recognize the depths of its own impending disaster thanks to Nissan. This was the unusual case of two sick companies combining to, eventually, create one healthy alliance.
Ghosn, for his part, embraced the job of fixing Nissan and re-engineering Renault in the process. As 2000 arrived, he relentlessly explained to employees, investors, analysts and journalists every detail of what was then called The Nissan Revival Plan. It contained clear profitability, sales and market share targets. All the gritty details are there in Shift: Inside Nissan’s Historic Revival by Ghosn himself and his ghostwriter, Philippe Ries. While somewhat self-serving, Shift tells a tale that makes tragedy out of the recent arrest of Ghosn himself.
I remember sitting in on my first roundtable with Ghosn at the Detroit auto show. We were squeezed into an airless conference room in the bowels of Cobo Hall, with Ghosn at the head of the table fielding questions. In those days, he wore thick glasses, baggy white shirts and ill-fitting suits, but his mind was sharper than anything I had ever seen in a car company executive. He offered detailed answers to every question. He was not defensive or offensive, for that matter. He instantly became the face of Nissan.
Eighteen months after the start of the Revival Plan, Nissan was again profitable and has been ever since. The Alliance has emerged as a model for cross-border and cross-cultural cooperation between global car companies, with Mitsubishi joining the Alliance in the past year. Ghosn was the architect of it all.
Yes, he’s always been known as a stern task-master with a colossal ego, an uncompromising temperament and a very big brain. Over the years, I also noticed that he got rid of the glasses, began wearing perfectly tailored suits and grew fitter-looking. He was successful — recognized as one of the great car company executives of all time – and looked the part.
He was always a terrific interview. I sat down with him at least two dozen times over the years and he never dodged a question, even when he disagreed with the premise and the tone.
“I am a businessman. I recognize facts and try to be pragmatic,” he once told me.
I long ago was left with the impression that he was most proud of turning Nissan and the Alliance into a globalized force, that the insularity of the old Nissan, and Renault for that matter, had been dispatched for a greater global good. A couple of years ago, he proudly told me that at the time, half of the top 100 executives at Nissan were Japanese, the other half non-Japanese.
“And the 50 per cent of non-Japanese are of 14 different citizenships. Which means you have a kind of very broad vision of cultures and collaboration,” he said. “We have input coming from people coming from different countries and cultures. And this is very important.” Nissan, the United Nations of car companies.
I don’t know if Ghosn is guilty of the misdeeds for which he has been charged. But it seems odd that he would be caught in a greedy scheme to defraud Nissan on a scale grand enough to get him arrested. The conspiracy theorists are suggesting that those he offended inside and outside of Nissan, along with many in the broader Japanese auto industry, are taking their revenge on the outsider who led the reinvention of Nissan, brought in foreigners, rattled Japanese industry to its core and was celebrated like no other foreigner, ever.
I do know this: he did a magnificent job of leading an Alliance that has remained profitable, forward-thinking and growing for nearly two decades. The Alliance is a global force and the addition of Mitsubishi has made it the largest of its kind in the world. All that is in danger now; Ghosn was that central to the entire enterprise.
Perhaps someone else could have managed what Ghosn accomplished during his time. Perhaps Nissan would have turned around under different leadership, and Renault, too. But I doubt it.