Carlos Ghosn: the Machiavelli of the motor industry

Carlos Ghosn © Getty images
Le Cost Killer, Carlos Ghosn

Carlos Ghosn, aka “Le Cost Killer”, managed to resuscitate Renault and Nissan in the 1990s and 2000s. But can he stay ahead of the game in the era of electric and self-driving cars? Jane Lewis reports.

Famously known as “Le Cost Killer”, Carlos Ghosn has long enjoyed celebrity status in the car business for dramatically restoring the fortunes of first Renault and then Nissan following near-death experiences in the 1990s.

He was “once even portrayed as a superhero in a Japanese comic book”, says the Harvard Business Review. But he will need all the manga powers he can muster to stay ahead in the car industry’s state of “disruption” amid “dramatic advances” in electric and self-driving technologies. With upstarts like Tesla, Google, Apple and Uber all revving up in the wings, “the transformation is sure to crown new market leaders and ding some incumbents”.

Ghosn’s last challenge

At 64, Ghosn seems to be relishing the challenge, says the Financial Times. As both CEO and chairman of an alliance spanning Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors (added in 2016), he’s at the helm of the world’s second-largest carmaker, “now playing his last, though no less ambitious act”. Ghosn is known as “the hardest working man” in a “brutally competitive business”, says Forbes. In 2014, he confessed to living “like a monk”: keeping to a strict schedule of eating, sleeping and exercise as he criss-crossed the world in his corporate jet.

However, after marrying for a second time recently, retirement has a new-found appeal, says the Financial Times. He plans “a gradual retreat”, but, for the moment, is still up for the challenge. Disruption, he says, “is a huge stimulation”. Ghosn is “the quintessential global citizen”. Born in Brazil to Lebanese parents, he moved with his mother and siblings to Lebanon when he was six and excelled at Jesuit school there, says Forbes. He speaks four languages (French, English, Arabic and Portuguese), but despite leading Nissan since 2001 hasn’t bothered with Japanese. “He talks business in English.”

On his mother’s advice, he set off to Paris to study engineering at the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique, later landing his first job as a trainee at Michelin. He made his name there when he was sent to Madrid to lead a struggling manufacturing operation, which he turned around in a few years.

Taking on Japan Inc

In 1996, Ghosn moved to Renault and repeated the trick in a controversial overhaul involving mass lay-offs in Belgium. That made him the obvious candidate to head to Tokyo when Renault stepped in to rescue Nissan in 1999, says Fortune. He succeeded in doing “what everyone said couldn’t be done in Japan: he broke up Nissan’s cosy keiretsu” – convoluted cross-holdings typical of Japanese conglomerates – and restored profitability in two years.

By 2005, however, when he took the top job at Renault too, he had emerged as a “Machiavelli of management” in the car industry, presiding over “the most complicated management structure anywhere outside the Vatican”.

A no-nonsense individual, with few airs and graces, Ghosn has long disliked the epithet “Le Cost Killer”. “[Everyone] starts by being le cost killer. If a revival plan is only about cost-cutting, it will last two years; revival is when after 15 years the company is still on the right track.”

By investing heavily early in electric cars – Nissan’s Leaf  is the current world best-seller – Ghosn is betting he has put his empire on the right track. He has also put the company at the forefront of driverless-car technology, notes Forbes: earlier this year, Nissan announced plans to launch its own self-driving “robo-taxis” in Tokyo.

It is often said that “none of the horse-and-cart companies became automakers”, concludes the FT. The same has been said about the next generation of electric cars. Ghosn intends to prove the sceptics wrong.