Goodbye Mr. Ghosn, hello Carlos

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(January 9, 2020) I was never a fan of Carlos Ghosn for two reasons. I had a hard time stomaching the insistence that he be referred to as “Mr. Ghosn” instead of by his given name, and didn't buy the more “magical” elements of the Nissan-Renault Alliance that sounded like a mash-up of psychology and business school jargon wrapped in a Hallmark Channel movie.

Ask how it all worked, and you would find yourself in a dizzying fog of words and feelings, talk of “mutual respect” by the partners, and a lack of concrete examples of how the thing actually worked. It smelled of a cult of personality, and in many ways it was. Worryingly, no one could say how the N-RA would survive when Ghosn was gone.

Then again, no one had to. The French government assumed Renault would take control of Nissan after Ghosn’s departure, with whatever petty functionary was in charge of the company at that point riding herd over the group. That became more apparent in the year leading up to Ghosn’s arrest by the Japanese, as France’s Macron government pushed — hard — for Renault’s formal takeover of Nissan, and — through Nissan — Mitsubishi.

It was a move Ghosn had fought for years, knowing that the wildly unequal shareholdings and voting power of Nissan and Renault in the alliance were a sore spot for the Japanese (very) junior partner. Yet, with all the skill it had shown during its time in Vietnam, the French government pushed a plan that would keep Nissan subordinate to its colonial master. As a result, Nissan executives, some allegedly allied with members of the government, used the levers of power to prevent that from happening.

Ghosn, as both the architect of the original agreement and as one who slaughtered more than his share of sacred cows, was the most visible target for their attack. After all, it’s easier to eliminate one combatant than engage in an economic war with France.

What no one expected was that Ghosn would buck the system and find a way to escape from a system of “justice” in which 99.4% of the accused are found guilty as charged. Nor did they expect that Ghosn would hold a 2.5-hour live press conference from Lebanon outlining the charges against him, his defense, and naming at least some of those who had participated in his arrest and confinement.

It was riveting, carried live on at least two 24-hour business news channels here in the States, and filled with an animation, charm and humanity seldom seen from Ghosn when he sat atop the N-RA. Scripted, yet from the heart, it was a stark contrast to the stiff, lifeless press conferences he gave at auto shows the world over, and was punctuated at one point by a most unexpected, but immensely guttural and satisfying, profanity: bullshit. Mr. Ghosn never would have used such salty language, but the newly liberated Carlos would.

I will leave it to others to ferret out the story behind the claim that GM pursued Ghosn in 2009, offering twice his N-RA compensation to become its CEO. (It did at the behest of outside directors eager to stem the financial bloodletting taking place under then-CEO Rick Waggoner.) And they also can tell the tale of how close Bill Ford Jr. got to tying Ford’s future to the N-RA prior to naming Alan Mullaly to run the company.

In either case, it would have been the stiff, self-important no-nonsense "Mr. Ghosn" at the helm, not the passionate, sometimes potty-mouthed Carlos we saw at the press conference in Lebanon. It’s that second guy I’d want running my car company, and that’s no bullshit.