Nissan Motor Co. has been wary of renewed criticism toward it since its former Chairman Carlos Ghosn was released on bail Wednesday.
Ghosn is said to believe that his arrest was the result of a coup carried out by senior Nissan officials who were against his plan to integrate Nissan and French automaker Renault SA. It’s possible he will step up criticism of the Nissan leadership.
“We’ll be in a bind if public opinion is swayed,” said a senior Nissan official who couldn’t hide his wariness. The official spoke on Wednesday morning as Ghosn’s release on bail was imminent and apparently feared the coup theory would flare up again.
Ghosn had begun hinting at the integration of Nissan and Renault in the winter of 2017, another senior Nissan official said.
In February 2018, Renault decided to retain Ghosn as its chairman and chief executive officer through 2022. The French government, which is Renault’s largest shareholder, reportedly sought Renault to advance its merger talks with Nissan as a condition for accepting the reappointment. A press release on Ghosn’s reappointment described as one of the priorities: “Take decisive steps to make the Alliance irreversible.”
Under the three-way Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi Motors alliance, Renault holds a 43.4 percent stake in Nissan, while Nissan has a 15 percent stake in the French automaker and a 34 percent stake in Mitsubishi Motors Corp. Nissan’s global vehicle sales are about 1.5 times greater than Renault’s, the reverse of their capital relationship.
Ghosn is said to have envisaged a plan to integrate the three companies by jointly establishing a holding company in an attempt to deter the dissolution of the relationship. He explained the specifics of the plan to Nissan President and CEO Hiroto Saikawa in September last year.
At Nissan, senior officials were among those that strongly opposed the integration plan. Ghosn had planned to explain the proposal to Mitsubishi Motors for the first time during his visit to Japan in November last year, but he was arrested upon arrival. As the arrest came just as he was about to start implementing the plan, he is said to view the situation as a coup by Nissan.
Saikawa has denied the coup theory since the beginning. Several senior Nissan officials have severely criticized Ghosn, with one saying, “Apart from the integration, he was engaged in misconduct that is unacceptable for a corporate leader.”
Nissan’s in-house investigations have found cases in which Ghosn made Nissan bear the costs used for his private purposes, including entering an advisory contract with his sister for which there was no evidence of her activities, and acquiring and renovating luxury residences.
With Renault having recently appointed Jean-Dominique Senard as its new chairman, the three companies have confirmed their commitment to maintaining the alliance. On the surface, there have been no evident moves on integration.
The French government, however, sent a delegation to Japan in mid-January and conveyed to the Japanese government its intention to seek the integration of Nissan and Renault. In Paris on Feb. 1, Saikawa held talks in secret with senior French government officials including Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire. Bargaining over the integration continues.
Nissan plans to dismiss Ghosn from the board of directors and appoint Senard as a new director at an extraordinary shareholders meeting in April.
Ghosn was released on bail just as the Japanese automaker was entering a key stage of launching a reborn Nissan. It’s likely Ghosn will insist on his innocence while ratcheting up criticism of Saikawa and other Nissan executives. Depending on the public opinion trends at home and abroad, Nissan’s efforts to build a new management structure might also be swayed.