The Lowdown: That's what you call a road map

Carlos Ghosn tells Sheridan Winn how he steered the car giant Nissan from huge debts to huge profits
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The Independent Online

Carlos Ghosn is restless. Despite his calm demeanour, there is something eating at him. The man who turned round Nissan believes his job is not done.

Speaking a few days after Nissan announced spectacular results – post-tax profits of ¥495bn (£2.4bn) for the year that ended in March, predicted profits for this year of ¥737bn, no debt in the motor business, margins of 10.8 per cent, the envy of almost anyone else in the industry – Ghosn refuses to admit he is pleased with the figures.

"I'm OK," he says. Surprised? "No. I get a lot of surprises, but not this one. We were so far from our potential - the capacity has always been there. It's a good feeling to be already there, but I don't think we're finished."

Things have moved on since March 1999, when Renault took a strategic stake in Nissan and sent Ghosn to Tokyo to save the struggling Japanese car giant. The Brazilian-born, French-educated Lebanese businessman inherited a ¥2.1 trillion debt, a conservative and bureaucratic management, an uncompetitive product portfolio and a diminishing brand. Le cost cutter, as Ghosn was nicknamed, set to work with the three-year Nissan Revival Plan, which stabilised the business. Its successor, Nissan 180, aims to eliminate the motor business's debt, deliver a sustainable operating margin of 8 per cent and improve sales by a million extra units a year when it is completed at the end of 2004.

To many, Ghosn is a business hero. But he is also an enigma. Though his mother is French and he studied at the Ecole des Mines in Paris, his Lebanese background makes him very much an outsider in the cliquey French business establishment. The 48-year-old rose through the ranks of first Michelin then Renault, building a reputation for the very un-French practice of cutting costs. Nissan is his fourth turnaround. At Michelin he sorted out its Brazilian business and oversaw a merger with Goodrich Uniroyal. After being headhunted by Louis Schweitzer, chairman of Renault, he earned his nickname by closing a large assembly plant in Belgium.

Immaculately dressed, exquisitely polite, with the build of a heavyweight boxer, Ghosn measures each word carefully. And he listens. It is little surprise to discover he met his wife when playing bridge against her. A man who likes to start a project with a blank piece of paper, he is mindful that transformation becomes easier with evidence of success.

"Believing by seeing is easy," he says. "Believing without seeing anything is much more difficult, even when you are the main dealer of the action. You have to move fast, but at the same time be very cautious. Any step can lead to disaster. The most difficult part is when you see something other people don't see and can't back it by evidence. You question yourself. 'Am I doing the right thing? Am I going in the right direction?'"

The first years of the Nissan Revival Plan, 1999 and 2000, were the most testing. "There were no results to back anything – nothing at all," he says. "You just have to hang on in there with your own belief and try to continue to advance. Once the evidence comes, it's easier: you show that profits are established and can continue to be maintained."

Ghosn points to his decision in November 2000 to invest $1.43bn (£880m) in a manufacturing plant in Canton, Mississippi. Earlier that year he had recognised that a US base would create more production balance between America and Japan, as well as allowing Nissan to build more models and target lucrative segments within the North American market. Ghosn waited for the announcement of the six-month results before he put the plan to his team: the reaction was mixed.

"There are moments when you have to make bold decisions," says Ghosn. "Our debt was high, we had no profit – just a sense that things would be under control. At the time, people followed me more by discipline than conviction. Now everybody says it was obviously the right decision, but the challenge was to take the decision so early in the process. We could have waited another year, maybe two, before we had to make an investment, but we would have lost a lot of time."

In 2004, Nissan will begin sales of its Titan truck, made at Canton. The half-ton truck, with its 5.6 litre V8 engine, is pitched against Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge and Toyota. It is a key launch for Nissan.

Despite the element of surprise in the Canton decision, transparency has been a key feature of Ghosn's approach to Nissan's transformation. "Making an announcement and then delivering 10 per cent of the goods weakens corporate performance," he says. "You cannot easily fool people about integrity. It's something profoundly human to detect a lack of it."

Running a global company does not mean Ghosn is not concerned about the effects of globalisation. He has seen many organisations suffer an erosion of the values linked to their country of origin.

"Take a company like Nissan – based in Japan, a strong US operation, a partner in Europe, developing in China. What are the basic cultural values? They need to be stated – and they cannot be only and strictly Japanese," he argues. "They have to be more Nissan than Japanese. They have to incorporate elements from all these countries, to be above the boundary of any one country or any particular aspect of its history.

"Companies with strong values are usually the long-lasting organisations. Those that forget about values and hit a bump in the road can disintegrate quickly because there is nothing holding them together. In moments of difficulty, values are your only reference."

The 21st century, he believes, has two trends: the pursuit of globalisation and the strengthening of personal identity. They might appear mutually exclusive, but as Ghosn explains: "To me, globalisation means, 'If you're different, I'm interested in you', rather than 'If you're different, I'm scared of you'. Young people don't want walls; they want bridges. They want trade. At the same time, globalisation is fought by people who believe it damages their identity. They have their roots and want to preserve them. [But] globalisation will progress in a way that preserves identity."

Has the current anti-French feeling in America affected Nissan's business? "It's a factor, but I don't know how to measure it," replies Ghosn. "I think it's an issue based around the Iraqi war. I don't think it will be sustained."

Back in Tokyo, Ghosn will start working out where the business should develop post-Nissan 180. "I need to have my own beliefs, make my own case, before we open up the discussion," he says. "The only thing you learn in a company is that you have to be ready for the future. The future always starts with small pieces. It only makes sense afterwards."