Carlos Ghosn: Charting his rise and fall

From the edge of the Amazon to Paris and Yokohama, and now a small cell in a Tokyo detention centre.
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Carlos Ghosn was born in 1954 in Porto Velho, a Brazilian city on the fringe of the Amazon rainforest. In his autobiography "Shift", Ghosn recounts his grandfather, a member of the Maronite minority, moving to Brazil from Lebanon to escape the crumbling Ottoman Empire and, eventually, running several companies.

Due to an illness he contracted from dirty water, at the age of two he and his family moved to Rio de Janeiro. By eight he, his mum and sister moved to Beirut, Lebanon, to be with his grandmother.

Studying in a Jesuit school, the young Ghosn discovered his aptitude for languages, and picked up French to go along with his knowledge of Portuguese and Arabic.

With the help of a cousin living in Paris, Ghosn was able to enrol in a Parisian university. After completing his second engineering degree in 1978, he joined Michelin. He quickly rose through the ranks to become head of the industrial tyre division.

In 1984 he was made chief operating officer (COO) of the company's Brazilian arm. There he established one of the patterns which he would use throughout his executive career: forming teams that cut across cultural lines. His embrace of cultural diversity has often been cited for his success at Nissan year's later.

After bringing Michelin Brazil back into profit within two years, Ghosn moved on to become COO and later CEO of Michelin North America.

Possibly because the Michelin family kept a tight grip of the CEO's chair, Ghosn moved to Renault in 1996, where he was in charge of engineering, manufacturing, research and development, and the South American division.

Again he was able to turn the company's fortunes, but his aggressive restructuring earned him the sobriquet "Le Cost Killer", a name he hasn't been able to shake since.

In May 1999, Renault purchased almost 37 per cent of Nissan, saving the Japanese automaker from imminent financial meltdown.

Although seen as risky move, this was an era of consolidation within the automotive industry, with DaimlerChrysler having been formed in 1998, and Ford creating the Premier Automotive Group to house Jaguar, Aston Martin, Land Rover, Volvo and Lincoln.

Ghosn was initially appointed Nissan's chief operating officer (COO), and kicked off a program which saw him challenge Japanese corporate norms, including jobs for life, promotion based on seniority, and close relationships with partners and suppliers.

Nissan was saddled with almost ¥4.3 trillion ($54.6 billion) of debt thanks to a hangover from Japan's bubble economy and a sprawling model range, which generally sat in the spectrum between dull and dreary.

Ghosn fired roughly one in seven Nissan employees, closed factories, renegotiated supplier contracts, and rationalised the product range.

In short order the company was back to profitability, and in 2001 he was elevated to the post of chief executive officer (CEO), becoming just the fourth non-Japanese person to head a Japanese automaker — the other three were Ford appointees at Mazda.

His rescue of Nissan made him into a celebrity, his story turned into a manga comic book and his face plastered across bento boxes. It also allowed the company to revive the Z-car, turn GT-R into a standalone brand, and bring the Datsun name back from the dead.

By 2009 he was chairman and CEO of both Nissan and Renault, becoming the first person to be CEO of two Fortune 500 companies.

Other car makers have tried to lure him away. In 2005 activist investor Kirk Kerkorian took a seat on GM's board, and agitated for Ghosn be installed as CEO.

Ford came close to succeeding in 2006, but Ghosn reportedly demanded he be made both CEO and chairman, a move chairman Bill Ford Jr. refused to sanction. Ford then hired Alan Mulally from Boeing.

Although the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance operates in many ways like a single automaker with common platforms, shared purchasing agreements and intertwined manufacturing plants, its structure and management systems are more complex.

When Renault took control of Nissan, it still had fresh memories of its disastrous acquisition of American Motor Corporation (AMC) and its aborted merger with Volvo.

Instead of attempting a merger, the two companies entered an alliance, which would eventually see Renault own 44 per cent voting stake in Nissan, and the ability to appoint board members and its CEO. When Nissan returned to good health, it purchased a 15 per cent non-voting stake in Renault.

During the last decade or so, Nissan has eclipsed its French partner in production and profitability, leading to reports of unease in Japan about its continued second-tier status.

Whatever unease or dissatisfaction was brewing on either side, it seems Ghosn was able to mediate or paper over the cracks as the head of not only both companies, but also the Alliance.

In 2016 Ghosn orchestrated what may turn out to be his last great corporate move: the effective takeover of Mitsubishi Motors and its addition to the French-Japanese automotive alliance.

The three-diamond brand was reeling from revelations it had doctored fuel economy figures on its domestic vehicle range for around a decade, including some kei car models shared with Nissan.

As part of the takeover, Ghosn added the title of chairman of Mitsubishi Motors, but gave up a bit of control at Nissan, sharing the CEO's role with Hiroto Saikawa before handing it over completely.

And it was his successor who repudiated much of his predecessor's legacy in an extraordinary press conference just hours after Ghosn was arrested in his Gulfstream jet on November 19, 2018.

Along with Greg Kelly, another Nissan executive, Ghosn was accused of hiding a significant portion of his income, diverting corporate investment funds for private use, and misusing company expenses.

While Kelly has been released on bail, Ghosn remains in custody and will likely remain in detention until his trial begins later this year.

Regardless of the result of his trial, Ghosn will likely be remembered as much for his downfall as his rescue of Nissan and his championing of electric cars before they became fashionable.