Carlos Ghosn will step down as Nissan’s chief executive on April 1, ending a 16-year run that included rescuing the Japanese automaker at its lowest and building the Renault-Nissan Alliance partnership into a global powerhouse. Ghosn will still lead the Alliance, but he’s stepping back from his day-to-day duties.
It’s hardly surprising that a 62-year-old executive is slowing down after nearly two decades of high-pressure management, but it also feels a bit emblematic given the international backlash against globalism. Within the auto industry, Ghosn wasn’t simply a proponent of open markets and shared design concepts, he was the movement’s poster child.
Born in Brazil to Lebanese parents, he grew up in Brazil and Lebanon before moving to France for school. He began his career with tire maker Michelin, working in France, South America, and eventually South Carolina. In the early 1990s, he moved back to France to work for Renault where he developed a reputation as a cost cutter who returned that automaker to profitability. With Nissan failing rapidly in the late 1990s, Renault bailed it out, eventually putting Ghosn in charge, making him Nissan’s first non-Japanese CEO. He became a pop-culture icon in Japan, winning constant media coverage and getting his own comic book.
Before the age of 50, he had used the same basic business strategies to succeed on four continents with vastly different business cultures – focus on costs, force people in scattered departments to collaborate with each other, and pay attention to overall performance instead of the results of any single part of the company. By 2005, he was CEO of both Nissan and Renault.
He also came very close to being a major player in Detroit. In 2005, an activist investor bought a large stake in General Motors (GM) and tried to arrange a merger with Renault-Nissan. The deal never materialized. In 2006, then Ford Motor Co. Chairman and CEO Bill Ford reportedly offered Ghosn the CEO job at that company. He declined. In 2008, when the global automotive industry collapsed, Ghosn’s Renault-Nissan Alliance entered talks to buy Chrysler, eventually backing away from that deal because the finances didn’t make sense.
Last year, the Alliance bought a controlling stake in Mitsubishi Motors, and Ghosn serves as chairman of that automaker.
Despite those successes, Ghosn’s global approach may be falling out of favor. At the time of this writing, GM was in talks to shed its European Opel and Vauxhall brands to France’s Peugeot-Citroen (PSA Groupe) [Update: That sale took place for $2.3 billion on March 6, 2017]. At Nissan, plans to co-develop luxury cars with Mercedes parent company Daimler were on hold. Both of those changes appear driven by economics, not politics, but the environment seems to favor sticking close to local markets instead of focusing on global scale.
At Nissan, Ghosn will be replaced April 1, 2017, by Hiroto Saikawa, a lifelong Nissan executive who has been Ghosn’s co-CEO for nearly a year. So following nearly two decades of Brazilian/Lebanese/French leadership, the company will once again be run by a Japanese leader. This isn’t a retirement, but it is a changing of a guard at a time when it seems the entire industry is changing too.