Musings on the Motoring World

Did Nissan engineer a coup to oust Carlos Ghosn?

If you want to write a thriller novel there are better settings to base it around than the boardroom of a 21st-century car company. Car companies of today are some of the most tightly regulated and highly scrutinised industries in the world today, with razor-thin margins and huge liabilities that pose little reward for rule benders – unless your name is Elon. However, circumstances surrounding the recent arrest of Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi’s chairman, Carlos Ghosn, certainly boasts the ingredients of a Machiavellian coup with a Shakespearean betrayal.

According to reports from The Asahi Shimbun, Ghosn was arrested on suspicion of “under-reporting his remuneration”, and was picked up by Japanese authorities at Haneda airport, where they were waiting for his private jet to land. Prosecutors alleged that between 2010 and 2014, Ghosn had under-reported his income as Nissan’s chairman to the Tokyo Stock Exchange securities, when in fact Nissan had been paying him double that – a total of USD88.4 million. The report goes on to mention that authorities had been working with “the cooperation of a Nissan official” since June this year.

Ghosn arrest was a shock to the whole industry, given his reputation as a titan amongst giants in the industry. For those who don’t know how significant Ghosn’s arrest in Japan is, consider this; Ghosn not only runs the world’s largest car maker, but he brought them together and built them into the powerhouse that it is today on his leadership.

Nicknamed “Le Cost Killer”, Ghosn was key in turning around Renault’s fortunes with his “20 Billion Franc Cost-Reduction Plan” in 1996. In 1999, he joined Nissan as part of Renault’s newly formed partnership with the Japanese car maker where he restructured the ailing car maker, turning it into a global powerhouse and even earning the widespread adoration of the Japanese people. Most recently, Ghosn stepped in to save the scandalised Mitsubishi in 2015, acquiring the company for USD2.2 billion. More than just the man who pulled these companies together, Ghosn is widely regarded as the man who is holding the alliance together, and his arrest could see those ties coming loose.

Despite this, his distinguished track record, his contract with Nissan that was recently extended to 2022, and investigations ongoing, the Nissan’s CEO, Hiroto Saikawa was quick to propose to the board for the prompt removal of Ghosn from his positions as chairman and representative director, along with representative director Greg Kelly who was also implicated in the scandal. Renault’s board of directors on the other hand had elected to keep Ghosn’s position as the company’s chairman and CEO, and have requested for Nissan to provide all of their information in regards to their internal investigations on Ghosn.

On the surface, the scandal looks nothing more than another high-powered executive that flew too close to the sun, a narrative that is not uncommon for nearly every white-collar crime. However, despite the harmonious image Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi fosters, there have been reports of tensions between the two main players in the alliance, Renault and Nissan, that elevates this story beyond it being just a straightforward case of fraud, particularly one recent report from the Financial Times.

Ghosn was named Nissan’s CEO in 1999, here with Nissan Motor’s president (1996-2000) Yoshikazu Hanawa

Key to this growing tension is the lopsided arrangement between Renault and Nissan. When Renault entered into a partnership with Nissan back in 1998, it bought a 36.8 per cent share of the latter. This gave the French company voting rights over Nissan, which allowed Renault to appoint Ghosn as Nissan’s new CEO.

Over time Renault had increased their share of Nissan to 43 per cent, though Nissan’s own stake in Renault has remained at 15 per cent since 2002. This means that while Renault still has voting rights to make executive changes in Nissan, Nissan still has no say in Renault.

This relationship is further complicated by the presence of the French government, who themselves, have a 15 per cent stake in Renault, making them the company’s largest shareholder. According to reports from Bloomberg, the French government’s plan on buying Renault shares to secure special voting rights in 2015 was spearheaded by its then-economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, the current-president of France.

Earlier this year, rumours were abound that the alliance between Renault and Nissan was set to become a merger, with news reports putting a positive spin on the affair – that it would create a new, unified automaker giant. It has since been revealed that behind the scenes, things weren’t so rosy in the relationship.

Nissan wasn’t too happy with Renault’s control over Nissan’s affairs, considering that Nissan is 60 per cent bigger than the French carmaker in terms of sales. Not only that, Nissan is present in the crucial North American market, which Renault had recently refused to return to, they also have a whole range of market-ready SUVs just as Renault is struggling to get their off the ground, a 34 per cent stake in Mitsubishi, and not to mention billions more in profit. Nissan being controlled by a much smaller entity like Renault is like Volkswagen being taken over by Porsche, and look at how that turned out.

Ghosn with Mitsubishi Motors CEO Osamu Masuko

Nissan had expressed interest to buy over Paris’ stake in the company in a bid to increase their own stake in Renault from 15 per cent to 25 per cent and wrestle some of its autonomy back to Yokohama, but things were about to turn ugly.

The Nikkei Asian Review reported back in April that Ghosn had been fending off the French government’s involvement in the French car maker’s affairs for several years since acquiring a stake in Renault. However recent developments saw the French government pressuring Ghosn into forcing a merger with the two companies, as Macron sought to prop his failing popularity with France’s economy floundering.

It was alleged that Paris started imposing a “number of conditions” on Ghosn in order for him to keep his position at Renault. It was said that after that Ghosn started cozying up to the French’s point of view for a merger, which set alarm bells off at Nissan.

While the non-Japanese news outlets were continuing its narrative of cordial cooperation, reports from both the Nikkei Asian Review and the Financial Times paint a picture of defiance amongst Nissan executives as they were not going to accept any proposals for a merger or reorganisation that would entrench their second-tier status.

The Financial Times report says that the proposal of a full merger, Nissan’s underperformance in China and a vehicle inspection scandal, drove a wedge between Ghosn and one of his most trusted lieutenants, Nissan’s CEO Hiroto Saikawa, the man who quickly proposed the sacking of Ghosn to the board shortly after his arrest. If this indeed was an orchestrated coup, Saikawa is Ghosn’s Brutus.

Nissan’s current CEO Hiroto Saikawa

At this point there is no solid evidence that Saikawa, or Nissan as a whole, was themselves complicit in Ghosn’s arrest, and it could all have been a curious set of coincidences that sees one of the world’s most influential and powerful industry leaders being taken down in the midst of a highly unpopular power play by allegations that many fellow executives might have been, to a certain degree, aware of. However, if you are one that doesn’t believe in coincidences…

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