The word superstar is overused. It wasn’t in the case of Carlos Ghosn. Over two decades Ghosn saved Nissan Motor Co. from bankruptcy and forged an alliance between Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.
That run ended abruptly today amid Japanese news reports Ghosn, Nissan’s chairman, had been arrested. Nissan disclosed it had investigated Ghosn for “several months” for under-reporting his compensation and “personal use of company assets.” The investigation stemmed from “a whistleblower report,” according to the company.
Nissan (Yokohama, Japan) said CEO Hiroto Saikawa will propose to the automaker’s board that Ghosn be removed. Where once stood an automotive superstar now stands the central figure in a massive scandal.
Ghosn was the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance. While he had stepped down as Nissan’s CEO, he still holds the CEO title at Renault and is chairman of all three automakers. No word yet whether the Nissan affair will affect his Renault and Mitsubishi posts.
The alliance began when Renault and Nissan acquired stakes in each other. Renault dispatched the Brazilian-born Ghosn to Nissan in 1999 and he assumed the title of chief operating officer. Immediately, he became one of the most prominent executives in Japan. Japanese companies rarely had foreigners in top positions. Now, he was running one of the largest Japanese-based automakers.
Ghosn, now 64, cut costs and got Nissan out of danger. In 2001, he became Nissan’s CEO. He added the same title at Renault four years later.
Running two companies, Ghosn flew back and forth between the Eastern and Western hemispheres constantly. The executive speaks “speaks fluent Portuguese, Arabic, English and French,” according to his Nissan company biography (still online as of this morning). And speak those languages he did, often appearing on business television outlets such as CNBC.
Among wire services, Ghosn was among the executive whose mere utterances merited immediate headlines. It didn’t hurt that he had a distinctive manner. When speaking English, he may have had an accent but his words were clear. He also spoke in punchy sentences. A former co-worker once remarked Ghosn could have played the villain in a James Bond movie.
2018 hasn’t been kind to larger-than-life automotive executives. Sergio Marchionne, the chief of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, died earlier this year, before he was scheduled to retire. Fiat Chrysler was his creation, with Fiat taking over a bankrupt Chrysler almost a decade ago.
Ghosn was an even bigger act. However, the Nissan scandal looks to demolish that legacy. In Japan, where once he was seen as a savior, Ghosn now looks to be a figure of greed. Ghosn and Nissan have lost face in a society that values it.
“To have so greatly violated the trust of many, I feel full of disappointment and regret,” Nissan CEO Saikawa said at a press conference, according to Reuters.
That’s typical Japanese understatement. For Nissan, the wound from Ghosn won’t heal quickly.
Bill Koenig, senior editor of Manufacturing Engineering, covered the auto industry from 2001 to 2008.