What The Foxtrot Is Going On At Nissan?

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
what the foxtrot is going on at nissan

Like most modern corporations, car companies tend to be extremely opaque. Only rarely do non-insiders like us get a peek behind the PR curtains of a major automaker, and when we do, we have to wonder why we’re getting the show… and what are we looking at, anyway? Just such a moment has arrived, as a tipster has pointed us to coolsprings.com, where an interview with a Nissan consultant based at Nissan North America’s headquarters in Tennessee appears to be literally overflowing with the kinds of juicy scandals, corporate gossip, and inside baseball that we so rarely see in print. But can the self-described whistleblower Sharyn Bovat be trusted? Is Nissan-Renault’s upper management really locked in a global struggle for control of the company? Do Tennessee taxpayers really pay for Nissan executives’ spa treatments? Did Nissan really relocate a number of employees from California to Tennessee, only to try to fire them shortly thereafter? This is The Truth About Cars, so we’ll proceed with caution… but this story is just too juicy to ignore.

Ms Bovat’s story would be complicated enough if it were simply the story of one whistleblower outing her company for a number of poor practices. Unfortunately, because the mainstream media has yet to pick up on the story, we have to piece the narrative together from one interview and a number of Ms Bovat’s own postings at her websites, thegirlintheblackhonda.com, sharynbovat.com and nissanwhistleblower.com. Moreover, at the time of publication, TTAC has not been able to obtain official comment from Nissan, Nissan North America, nor have we yet spoken to Ms Bovat. As we follow this story, we will make all attempts to fill these gaps… in the meantime, here’s what we’ve been able to put together.

Bovat’s accusations against Nissan are far-reaching, and touch nearly every aspect of the company’s corporate culture. But from what we’ve been able to determine, her story begins with the relocation of Nissan First Executive VP Carlos Tavares to Tennessee. Ms Bovat, a corporate relocation consultant, was brought in to manage Mr Tavares’ move to Tennessee, and she ended up becoming a personal conduit between Nissan’s Tennessee staff and Mr Tavares.

Ms Bovat frames much of her discussion of Nissan’s internal politics as her struggle against an “Good Old Boys Network” inside Nissan’s North American operations. According to her account, this “alliance” based in Franklin, TN, had schemed to oust Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, and “set up” Tavares for failure. Throughout her many writings on the subject, it’s clear that Ms Bovat saw a “Good Old Boys Team” squaring off with the “Ghosn Team,” and that Tavares was being sent to Tennessee to head off the plotting of the “Good Old Boy Team.”

Whether this deep corporate battle is actually under way isn’t entirely clear, but Ms Bovat certainly didn’t hesitate to send her thoughts to Tavares, and in the process exposed a number of questionable practices. For one thing, she found that Nissan’s credibility on matters of diversity were being hurt by the “Good Old Boys,” who she alleges protected their personal backers during personnel cuts, resulting in a 30 percent reduction in the number of women in leadership roles.When she confronted Nissan’s HR team about possible discrimination, Bovat was reportedly told that “skirts don’t talk.”

Another symptom of cronyism inside Nissan NA, according to Bovat: Californians who had relocated to Tennessee in 2006-07 were supposed to be the first fired in last year’s staff-trimming, despite the fact that they’d moved their entire families from the West coast for the company. According to Bovat, her decision to pass this information to Tavares prevented the firing of these relocated employees.

From there, we turn to Bovat’s interview with coolsprings.com for the rest of the story:

After she “saved the Californians”, NISSAN’s HR Director called Bovat into four meetings. She sensed HR wanted to “get rid of her”, although she knew Tavares appreciated her efficiency and honesty. During one of those meetings, the Director of NISSAN HR asked Bovat to do something unethical to prove she was a team player. She refused. Bovat knew if she wanted to work for NISSAN she would have to comply. Bovat told Tavares, who then referred her to the HR Director’s supervisor Mark Stout, the head of NISSAN HR. In a later meeting on the executive floor, Mark Stout offered Bovat money to be silent. Instead of “cashing in” she told Tavares about HR being unethical.

Starting June 4 2009, Bovat has documented and stated the allegations on her public blog. Since then, Bovat says she has been harassed and slandered by NISSAN HR. Bovat wanted to keep quiet and expressed to Carlos Tavares that she wanted to return to work at NISSAN. Several months ago, Tavares emailed her to relay that things were proceeding.

Becoming frustrated, Bovat ended up writing an open letter to the ACLU, accusing Nissan “Good Old Boys” of wasting taxpayer money, discrimination, and insider land deals. She wrote:

Initial investigation shows that some land deals were done before Nissan made the announcement to relocate to TN so I believe that is called “insider” information. After talking to an “asset” investigator I learned that easily a “bunch” of these good ole boys could be taken down. If the state did an “audit” of all real estate transactions starting 8 months prior to Nissans official announcement, then property could be seized that was obtained with insider information and then sold and the proceeds could go back to the community.

On July 7, Bovat went in person to Nissan’s US headquarters in search of answers. Instead, she was arrested for criminal trespassing. Bovat tells coldsprings.com:

Rob from Nissan legal bullied the Franklin police into arresting me, using a year old, outdated photocopy of a cease and desist originally intended to intimidate me and to shut down my blog

Now released, Bovat insists that she will keep her blogs up until Tavares asks her to take them down. Since her arrest, Bovat appears to have tried to contact Tavares, but she says that she was threatened with further charges if she persisted in contacting Tavares. And that, as far as we can tell, is where the case stands.

Which leads to the really big question: what to make of all this? Bovat makes a convincing case for internal problems with discrimination, backed by internal Nissan data that confirms the 30 percent reduction in female managers. The core of her claims, that a Tennessee-based group of insiders are actively fighting against Carlos Ghosn and his deputy Carlos Tavares is more compelling and less well-documented. We have yet to find proof that anyone at Nissan benefited from land sales based on inside information about Nissan’s move to Tennessee, or that the move to Tennessee was dreamed up as a way to entrench a cabal in Nissan North America’s leadership. Nor does Bovat document any misuse of taxpayer money for executive relocation to Tennessee, instead forcing the curious to take her at face value.

There’s a lot of dirt to dig through here before we get to the truth, but one thing is for certain: somehow or another Nissan North America’s veil of corporate opacity has been broken, and the internal dynamics that are showing through do not look healthy. Bovat dedicates part of her site to quotes from Nissan employees, and they certainly don’t make the picture sound any prettier. The fact that this controversy has bubbled up this far without attracting ,much attention from the mainstream media is telling: we will continue to dig into this story, and we welcome any tips from workers inside Nissan North America who wish to weigh in on Ms Bovat’s claims (editors@ttac.com).

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3 of 37 comments
  • Tricky Dicky Tricky Dicky on Jul 20, 2010

    Well, IMO, even a person who is ranting, lacks discretion or judgement, can still raise some interesting points, even if they are made badly or indiscretely. I've had jackass consultants working for me who really believed they were doing the best for the company by trying to get in and raise their concerns directly with the President.... cue phone call from President's P.A. to walk the guy off-site. I was discussing the appointment of Jim Press the other day with a guy who used to be high up in the Renault hierarchy, and his feeling was that this was Carlos Ghosn's way of p1ssing someone off in Nissan NA or he had a real problem to be resolved that needed an experienced but 'clean' pair of hands to deal with it. Hmmm. Smoke and fire relationship...

  • Tricky Dicky Tricky Dicky on Jul 20, 2010

    Mind you, just had a look at those 3 websites. "Kooky" would be a bit generous! I imagine she is a very challenging personality and she really seems to project a "NEED to be heard". Given that she worked as a consultant for the HR division doing relocation activities, I can't imagine she would have any meaningful and consistent contact with 'el numero uno' exec Tavares. Which is not to say that NNA doesn't have problems with a Tennessee hegemony, abuse of power, insider knowledge or an inclination not to value the capabilities of women in the company (which is different from which other Japanese auto firm?!).

    • Psarhjinian Psarhjinian on Jul 20, 2010

      It's interesting how many people don't seem to understand the value of presentation. It's not restricted to crazy people**, either. Anyone sufficiently self-centered tends to make the same same mistake. A common trait shared by both the self-important and the delusional is a lack of empathy. They're not very good at considering how other people perceive them. The might be concerned about it, but they're so self-centered that they're unable to get outside their own head. We're not talking about self-confidence, either: there's a difference between being confident in your ability and opinion and being a pathological narcissist. ** I'm not saying she's crazy or lying, but she probably shares the, ah, personality traits I see in a number of people who, eg, design their own PowerPoint presentations when they really, really shouldn't

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