Thoughts on the rise and fall of Nissan’s controversial ex-CEO by
Carlos Ghosn would scoff at my contention that I wrote “something like 250,000 words he uttered” as his speechwriter from 2005 through 2008. Having once said, “I have a horror of approximation,” he would demand the exact figure. However many, every word was a challenge to write given his standard brief: “Send me something, I’ll tell you if it’s wrong.”
That made it like golf in the fog. In order to anticipate his thinking, I had to imprint in my brain his voice, his Latinate mode of expression and every word ever said by or about him. Ten years later it’s still all there. And since his arrest on Nov. 19, 2018, all that verbiage has continuously run through my mind as I try to make sense of this shocking event.
Speechwriters learn to enter the C-suite like the guy who cleans the lion cage at the zoo, showing boundless respect but no fear, equally ready for a purring schmoozer or a snarling furniture thrower. Ghosn was neither of these. There was no small talk. Behind a cool-as-ice demeanor lay palpable potential for volcanic anger (luckily never directed my way) and a sense that his mere displeasure could lead to dispassionate beheading. But above all, what stood out was his discipline, focus and grasp of detail. An intimidating cat for sure.
No minutes of my life have ticked by more slowly than the three I sat in silence across the table as he read my very first draft. Occasionally, his imposing eyebrows would lift with questions like, “Mr. Harris, is there one ‘l’ in fueled or two?”
I might have been more intimidated, and might not have survived, but for the fact that I’d spent the three prior years working closely with two Ford appointed Mazda CEOs (Mark Fields and Lewis Booth) on a turnaround equally significant if less high profile than Nissan’s “Revival.”
Having been close witness to two analogous automaker turnarounds, I have an informed perspective on the first of two questions the “Ghosn Affair” raises in my mind.
What did Ghosn do for Nissan?
“Le Cost Killer,” the nickname French media gave Ghosn before his arrival in Japan, has led too many journalists into the lazy trope that curing a sick automaker is mainly about cost cutting. In fact, what Ghosn did was much more complex and profound. Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa further distorted history in his post arrest presser by dismissing Ghosn’s contribution to Nissan’s revival. Fact is, it would never have happened without him, if only because Renault would never have bet $5 billion on Nissan without Ghosn to drive it.
In 1999, Nissan was a dysfunctional mess. Where other Japanese automakers, like Mazda, have head offices inside their plants with the roosts ruled by oil stained engineers, Nissan’s Ginza HQ was stuffed with headless chickens, Keio and Todai men with clean fingernails, each jealously guarding his own fiefdom. Not just unable to see the forest for the trees, they were obsessed with the sacred cows grazing beneath them.
When confronted with a forest, Ghosn has an analytical brilliance that instantly gauges its extent and the average size of each tree before precisely calculating the market value of the timber within. That’s why his crucial first move in 1999 was to bring over a hand picked team and direct their bench marking of every function in Nissan just as he had done with spectacular results two years earlier at Renault.
Once armed with a detailed diagnosis, Ghosn moved quickly to fix what he found. Sure, cost cuts were part of the remedy. But any automaker is like a giant clock with literally millions of moving parts, and Ghosn quickly and brilliantly got the whole works ticking in harmony.
He broke down siloed fiefdoms by slaughtering sacred cows their chieftains had long defended and mandating “cross functional teams.” He eradicated the headless chickens by focusing each team on three do-or-die commitments. He instituted promotion by merit, not seniority. But crucially, he got everyone onside by communicating brilliantly to the workforce. This was true leadership.
Equally significant, as an Arab outsider, Ghosn shunned what his French colleagues might have tried. Raised on the Babar books, about an elephant who is turned into a proper French man, the French have a powerful instinct to impose their own norms. Instead, Ghosn was careful to maintain Nissan’s Japanese “identity” (one of his favorite words) in the Alliance.
The result: after eight years in the red, Nissan was back in the black within two years recording its highest profit ever.
Ghosn made other brilliant contributions, too. Stung by criticism that Nissan was an environmental laggard, at the FCCJ in 2006 he quipped that “if you criticize hybrids people think you are retarded.” Shortly after I counseled him not to use that term again, he had a road-to-Damascus conversion, leading the industry in deciding that the future was all electric. Overriding the objections of Nissan engineers, he launched development of the LEAF EV.
What did Ghosn do for Nissan? Beyond question, he saved the company. There was no one else to do it, and he did it. The question is . . .
What did saving Nissan do to Carlos Ghosn?
It made him a rock star, and as many a poor boy has learned, that can be a lethal dose of success. To understand his trajectory, consider who Ghosn was before he burst onto Japan’s stage in 1999.
Forget the boilerplate that dubs him, “French Brazilian.” In his socks, Ghosn is Maronite Christian Lebanese, a cohesive Arab tribe with a vast diaspora found even in remote locales like the Amazon, where his grandfather ran a bush airline. Both wives have been of this tribe, and first wife Rita started a restaurant in Daikanyama because Tokyo had no decent Lebanese food.
GENIUS COMES IN A COMPLICATED PACKAGE
His Frenchness was painted on by Jesuit schooling in Beirut, and math brilliance opened doors to the top schools in Paris. But as a nerdy lad in a snobbish city that generally shuns Arabs, it’s unlikely that university was a garden of carnal delight for young Carlos.
Most of his career was spent in drab backwaters like Clermont Ferrand, the grim French industrial city where he met first wife Rita playing bridge. And Greenville, South Carolina, where three of four offspring were born. Social life there revolved around playing cards with the Rotary set. By some accounts Ghosn was a henpecked husband. “Was Rita domineering?” I asked someone who socialized with the couple in Tokyo. “Oh, totally! Over the top.”
It was only two years before his first Tokyo visit that Ghosn hit anything like the big time. Catapulted into the number two spot at Renault in late 1996, he returned to the bright lights of Paris and quickly pulled the rabbit from the hat that presaged his feats at Nissan. Even after moving to Tokyo, though, Saturday night chez Ghosn was hardly a glamorous affair. While four teenagers did homework, Rita would often invite neighbors over to play cards.
In 2008, after 10 years of dogged effort at Nissan, Ghosn at 54 was at the pinnacle of success just as his personal circum- stances started to shift. Once the youngest child departed for university, his marriage began to dissolve. After decades of highly disciplined existence, he was ripe for a midlife crisis.
Ghosn is studiously discreet, but a number of puzzle pieces from that era suggest a pattern. His long time personal assistant was shunted off to a new role. In the name of diversity, he began surrounding himself with women who just happened to be attractive. Rumors of affairs began to circulate. Like that classic comic about a nerdy, sexually repressed gaijin who finds fulfillment in Japan, it seems Ghosn discovered his inner Charisma Man. Add to that the 2009 arrival in Japan of his co-accused, Greg Kelly, the Tennessee fixer who secured tax incentives that greased the move of Nissan’s North American base to Nashville.
Fast-forward to October 2016, when Ghosn rented Versailles for an opulent Marie Antoinette themed second wedding to the glamorous blonde Carole Nahas. Her kids were in the photos, his were nowhere in sight. How far Ghosn had gone in a decade from Saturday night bridge with the neighbors.
None of this is to suggest Ghosn is guilty of anything. The point is that rock star success seems to have changed him. Had his most notable traits discipline and focus not somehow slipped, surely he would not be in his current predicament.
And, while any knife thrust from an embittered ex-wife must be taken with a whole shaker of salt, Rita’s social media comments since Ghosn’s arrest are disturbing:
“All narcissists are hypocrites. They pretend to have morals and values that they really don’t possess. Behind closed doors, they lie, insult, criticize, disrespect and abuse. They can do and say whatever they want, but how dare you say anything back to them or criticize them. They have a whole set of rules for others, but follow none of their own rules, and practice nothing of what they preach.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked. Genius often comes in a complicated package, and according to a study widely reported in 2016, one-in-five CEOs are psycho paths. That’s not to say Ghosn is, but the man I encountered would turn on impressive charm when required then flick it off straight after which made his warmth feel somehow feigned. So while my own experience with Ghosn left me with enduring respect for his ability, I have few warm memories.
Still, I sympathize with his current plight, jailed indefinitely with no chance to defend himself as his reputation is destroyed by a daily torrent of abuse. This hideous process reveals Japan’s justice system as only one step removed from Saudi Arabia’s. While Japanese prosecutors have not dismembered Ghosn with a bone saw, denying anyone the right defend himself or to bail goes against all principles of natural justice. At the end of this sordid affair I believe Japan’s reputation will have suffered more than Ghosn’s.
John R. Harris is a veteran speechwriter who has served CEOs and politicians on three continents from his forest lair on Chiba’s Pacific coast.