By on February 1, 2019

Depending who you ask, the November arrest of disgraced auto executive Carlos Ghosn was either swift justice or a coup d’etat — with some help from the Japanese government. Re-arrested in December and held ever since without bail, Ghosn faces breach of trust charges alleging the exec covered losses incurred through foreign exchanges with Nissan’s funds between 2008 and 2012. Those losses add up to $16.6 million, according to the prosecution. He’s also cited for misrepresenting his income.

However, Ghosn doesn’t see things that way. On Wednesday, he told the Nikkei business daily that he believed the charges against him were motivated by Nissan executives opposed to further integration with its French alliance partner, Renault SA. “All the evidence is with Nissan and Nissan forbids all employees to talk to me,” he elaborated.

Whether or not his claim is accurate, Alliance automakers are picking sides. Mitsubishi, the Alliance’s junior partner, is siding with Nissan. Its CEO, Osamu Masuko, said converting the Japanese pair into a holding company with alliance partner Renault is not something that should be on the table — especially with the scandal hanging over their heads.

“I don’t even consider it as one of the options,” the Mitsubishi chief on Friday. “I think it would be difficult to have management on an equal footing under such a structure.”

However, according to Automotive News, Masuko said he hadn’t directly heard about any plan for a holding company. “[Nissan CEO Hiroto] Saikawa personally heard about it, but I wasn’t told about the idea of a holding company myself. I didn’t hear about it at all and thus haven’t given any consideration to it,” he said. “I need to consider if that would be acceptable to our employees … I wonder if it would be possible to ensure a spirit of equal partnership and management on an equal footing.”

Despite always backpedalling when Saikawa and Nissan expressed their collective dismay, Ghosn has pushed to solidify the Alliance for years. While he rarely calls for an official merger, it has long been assumed that this was his pre-retirement goal. Renault holds a 43.4 percent controlling stake in Nissan, while Nissan has a 15 percent stake in Renault, but no voting rights. It also has a 34 percent stake in Mitsubishi. Renault and Mitsubishi have no cross-holdings.

The lack of Japanese independence is a major sticking point for Nissan. But there have also been growing tensions between Alliance leadership. Under Saikawa, Nissan found itself the subject of a highly publicized quality control scandal (which began decades before he took over) in Japan, as well as dwindling sales in the United States. The CEO claimed the volume issue was the direct result of aggressive incentive spending encouraged by Ghosn’s ambitious sales targets. But Ghosn placed most of the onus on Nissan.

“When a company’s performance declines, no CEO is immune to being dismissed,” he told the French press from his Tokyo detention centre, hinting that he planned to fire Saikawa before his initial arrest.

Bloomberg highlighted several tense moments between the two men in a recent article, claiming Saikawa’s repeated public statements that no good could come from a Renault-Nissan merger resulted in Ghosn angrily telling him he had damaged the company’s credibility, and his own, by openly questioning the plan.

From Bloomberg:

He also suggested to Saikawa that his days as CEO could be numbered. The conversation wasn’t an isolated incident — the same source says Ghosn had criticized Saikawa for weak performance in the U.S., where Nissan is badly lagging rivals. And at one point, according to a person close to Ghosn’s family, he told his children Saikawa had only until the end of 2018 to turn things around. (In its statement, Nissan said suggestions that Ghosn and Saikawa were divided, whether over the inspections crisis, a potential merger, or Nissan’s performance, are based on “unsubstantiated speculation and hearsay,” and that claims Saikawa’s job was at risk are “baseless.”)

Ghosn enjoyed a significant advantage in both pay and power. He was still Nissan’s chairman, in addition to being Renault’s CEO and chair, and chair of the Amsterdam-based entity that oversees the alliance. Under a structure that’s changed little since the 1999 rescue, Renault also controlled 43 percent of Nissan’s shares, giving it the power to veto major decisions. Regardless of Saikawa’s position, Ghosn could probably make deeper integration happen.

However, he’s in jail now and Renault recently replaced him with new chairman Jean-Dominique Senard. He’s in no position to make business deals, and that’s precisely where Nissan wants him. In fact, it was an investigation initiated by the Japanese automaker that ultimately led to his arrest.

Last spring, some of Ghosn’s affairs shifted from his American lawyer, Greg Kelly, (who was also arrested and later released) to Malaysian-born attorney Hari Nada. The three were reportedly friends, though Nada eventually grew concerned that Ghosn abetted some illicit financial transactions and sought help from those he deemed trustworthy within the company — kicking off the investigation. He eventually learned that Nissan’s auditors were already looking into Ghosn. Ultimately, the two groups joined forces without ever notifying Renault of the investigation.

Ghosn has denied all allegations against him. But he has confirmed the plan to integrate the alliance partners, including Mitsubishi, and said the matter was discussed with Saikawa shortly before his arrest.

“Nissan’s performance has declined in the last two years,” he said. “If you look at the results and the strengths of Nissan, Mitsubishi and Renault, you can see that there is a problem. I did not expect what happened, but all this led to treason, conspiracy.”

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10 Comments on “Mitsubishi Sides With Nissan in Merger Backlash, Ghosn Claims He Was Set Up...”

  • avatar

    The plot thickens. My initial thought was that this was a coup by Nissan management to avoid losing Japanese control. The financial dealings I’ve read contain a glimmer of real wrongdoing, though the more complicated the explanation, the more they could be nothing more than an excuse to act against a seemingly autocratic leader.

    I’m now back to suspecting this WAS a coup by Nissan management, aided by the Japanese government, to retain Japanese control over Nissan. The financial dealings may have been shady, but were low-dollar events, and may have just served to grease the skids under Ghosn.

    There’s an old saying, be nice to the people as you climb the ladder of success, you’ll meet the same people on your way down. Ghosn’s apparent management style maybe didn’t allow for that. In any event, with the addition of Mitsubishi, Nissan looks more viable as a separate global company than Europe-based Renault.

  • avatar

    Who cares what Mitsubishi thinks? Seriously. It’s not like they’re a lily-white company. In 2000 to 2004 they were found to have covered up defects in cars going back to 1977. Yes it took four years to drag the info out of the company in dribs and drabs. There was a flare-up about fuel economy rating cheating about 2011 and again in 2016 in a major way. That’s how Nissan bought its 38% of them on the cheap and kept them going. Even Wikipedia covers these transgressions, as do others. Just google Mitsubishi Motors scandals. Yeah, like anyone at MMC is going to disagree with Nissan!

    Anyway, it’s none of their business to stick their nose in Renault’s business – there are no financial ties between MMC and Renault, except indirectly through Nissan, the “we forgot to perform legally mandatory final checks on cars for the Japanese market” company.

    Through most of January, Bloomberg seemed to be mildly anti-Ghosn, although never really saying why – just negative tone missing in other reports/opinions.

    Has there ever been a scandal at Renault Like its Japanese alliance partners? Don’t think so. The new guy replacing Ghosn running the Renault side of the Alliance is ex-Michelin, a notoriously secretive and stingy company – he’s supposed to be a charmer personally, so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles Nissan executives hell bent, in my peronal view, going the xenophobic back- stabbing route. Renault still effectively controls Nissan, irrespective of how they (Saikawa) feel about it. And Japan has been exposed as a medieval place to be thrown into jail, where prosecutors, fed tidbits of supposedly damning info from Nissan every few weeks have managed to keep extending Ghosn’s stay on remand at least three times. Again, it’s only my personal feeling, but I don’t think either Nissan or the Japanese legal system have shown much honor in this situation all things considered. People who live in glass house shouldn’t throw bricks.

    • 0 avatar

      The Japanese show their true colors, again.
      I think Mr. Ghosn can beat this rap.
      He is tough enough to prevail.

    • 0 avatar

      Most companies have some kind skeleton in their closet, but I don’t know why we in the US think that Japanese car companies and their suppliers walk on water. Takata is one of the more notorious and recent ones, but others have been there too, if you go back in history.

      I’ve thought from the start that this was a palace coup, and as more time goes on, I think I’m correct. The evidence seems opaque and hard to define (to international tax law ignorant folks like me) and the draconian detention laws Japan makes it seem harsh to my American eyes. However, I have to remember that Japan ain’t the US and other countries (France included) you are guilty until proven innocent.

      Nissan (and possibly Japan) got what they wanted from Renault and it seems now they want to cast them off. It may take some time to unwind, but I hope that Renault manages to do it and take a chunk of Nissan’s business as a consolation prize.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Making Japan Great Again

  • avatar
    GCB Media

    I have done business with the Japanese, an insular and proud bunch of people with very close industry-government ties
    I do hope ghosn survives this and get the hell out of this place
    Don’t expect gratefulness for rescuing them and show them no mercy
    The EU and government of ghosn nationalities need to apply pressure to release them as enough is enough

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