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Revivalist Art

TOKYO He has been called everything from cost killer and fix-it artist to miracle worker and magician. But in the case of Carlos Ghosn, the Brazilian-born CEO of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., there is no sleight of hand, no smoke and mirrors. What you see is what you get. And what you get is that two years after unveiling one of the boldest restructuring plans in the history of the auto industry, the 47-year-old

TOKYO — He has been called everything from “cost killer” and “fix-it artist” to miracle worker and magician. But in the case of Carlos Ghosn, the Brazilian-born CEO of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., there is no sleight of hand, no smoke and mirrors. What you see is what you get.

And what you get is that two years after unveiling one of the boldest restructuring plans in the history of the auto industry, the 47-year-old executive is as focused and driven as ever. In a far-ranging interview with WAW, he insists that the automaker will stick to its aggressive targets despite the prospect of a deepening global recession following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

“Obviously the targets will be more difficult,” he says, “but we're not going to change them.”

Those targets, outlined to a packed audience of skeptical analysts and journalists in October 1999, include returning the company to profitability in fiscal 2000 (achieved), slashing Nissan's massive debt in half to less than ¥700 billion ($5.8 billion) by fiscal 2002 (more than halfway there), and realizing a 4.5% operating profit margin, also by fiscal 2002 (achieved in fiscal 2000; in doubt in fiscal 2001).

Measures taken to achieve these goals — reducing purchasing costs by 20% over three years, closing five domestic plants, cutting 21,000 jobs and selling off indispensable assets — comprise the Nissan Revival Plan. “There were no sacred cows, no constraints, no taboos,” he explains.

The news of record profits this May, though expected by analysts, came so suddenly and seamlessly that many observers had forgotten the predicament the company was in when Mr. Ghosn arrived two years earlier. At the time, Nissan's automotive debt had swelled to ¥2.1 trillion ($17.5 billion), and for 26 years (now 27) the company lost market share in Japan; for eight years it had lost share in the global market. And the one instance the automaker reported a net profit in the same 8-year period was due more to exchange rates than operations.

No surprise that when Nissan announced a ¥331 billion ($2.7 billion) profit in the fiscal year ending March, Mr. Ghosn's already Herculean reputation grew larger. And with the company's consolidated debt shrinking to ¥953 billion ($7.9 billion), he was anointed CEO in June, to go along with his other title of president.

Although the rumor mill continues to predict his imminent departure — back to Renault, his former employer and Nissan's major shareholder, or possibly to General Motors Corp., an even bigger turnaround challenge — Mr. Ghosn last month said he would stay at Nissan until at least 2005 and insists he has no plans to leave Nissan until his job is complete. “Completion,” he says, means “putting the company on track for lasting profitable growth.”

Time will tell whether the lure of bigger and tougher challenges draws him away — or just general impatience with the pace of integrating two large auto companies that combined produce more than 5 million vehicles annually and whose operations span five continents. Prior to his arrival in Japan, Mr. Ghosn restructured Michelin North America in the early 1990s; then in the latter part of the decade, he performed similar magic at Renault, where he oversaw the controversial closure of the French automaker's Vilvoorde plant in Belgium.

With no heir apparent named, Mr. Ghosn confirms that a list of potential candidates has been drawn up. And the current plan is to promote from within, thus one of Nissan's Japanese executives. “There is plenty of talent inside the company,” he says. “I hope we'll have the time to position and test this talent before making a decision.”

It's the period after the NRP ends in March 2003 that has fueled so much speculation. One insider claims that plans are being made to turn the Global Alliance Convention, the 12-member coordinating body between Nissan and Renault, into a formal board of directors. That board would be headed by Mr. Ghosn, who will take the reins from Renault Chairman Louis Schweitzer when the 58-year-old executive retires.

For this to happen, several big issues still must be resolved, including deciding on a headquarters — Paris or Tokyo — and deciding on future cross-holdings between companies. At present, Renault has a 36.8% equity in Nissan, which could rise to 44.4% by 2004. Reports say Nissan might also take a 15% stake in Renault, but company officials say the size of the stake has not yet been decided. And Mr. Ghosn says it is not an NRP priority.

Equally important are post-NRP goals. These include what Nissan calls its “180” plan: an additional 1 million sales annually by 2005, raising global sales volume to 3.6 million units; an 8% return on sales, the same level as Honda Motor Co. Ltd.; and zero debt.

Turning to the company's current business, the Nissan executive is still bullish about the Japanese domestic market, despite new forecasts predicting a 2% drop in overall demand this year. Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, analysts had predicted modest growth.

Mr. Ghosn notes that Nissan's share, which fell to a 27-year low of 17.4% last year, actually inched upward by 0.2% between April and September. And he expects a full percentage point growth, to at least 18.6%, in the fiscal year beginning next April.

“What leads me to be optimistic is that we plan a substantial renewal of our product line, especially in the entry or B segment with the new March, new Cube and new (Suzuki Motor Corp.-built) minicar.”

Under the current schedule, Suzuki, Japan's leading producer of 0.66L cars, will supply 3,000 units monthly to Nissan beginning next year. The mini segment now accounts for more than 30% of new vehicle demand in Japan, up from around 20% in the early 1990s. Nissan's failure to participate in this segment is one reason why the company's market share has fallen.

The Nissan executive has long felt the need to participate in the segment and pushed the project through despite skeptics inside the company and among Tokyo's analyst corps. “It is too significant a segment to ignore,” he said prior to the April announcement with Suzuki.

With plans to put 15 new and revamped models into the market by March 2003 (the formal end of the Nissan Revival Plan), Mr. Ghosn expects the automaker's share to rise above 20% and stay there “consistently” between 2003 and 2005. How much above will depend on the company's pricing policy and the activities of its competitors.

“You can always increase market share if you choose not to manage profits,” he says. “But when I say ‘above 20%,’ I mean 20% while meeting our profit objectives.” In fiscal 2000, Mr. Ghosn claims that 80% of Nissan cars were sold at a loss.

In other major markets, Nissan is making progress across a wide front:

  • In North America, Mr. Ghosn explains that the company is attempting to reposition the new Altima, just introduced in September, in a separate segment from the Maxima. Ever the realist, he cautions that “ultimately the customers will decide whether they like what we've done or not.”

    Nissan plans to introduce 10 new models to the market by 2003.

  • In Europe, the company continues to make progress in integrating its marketing and sales organization with Renault. Under a program to be completed in 2003, the companies are setting up a network of more than 100 joint dealerships in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.

    “We're proceeding in a pragmatic way,” says Mr. Ghosn, who adds: “Hopefully the development of ‘hubs’ and common back offices will allow both companies to concentrate on their core businesses while providing the most cost-effective support for the market.” Estimated savings between 2000 and 2005: €1 billion ($910 million). On the manufacturing side, Nissan will open its Canton, MS, truck plant in early 2003.

  • In Asia, Nissan is still struggling to gain a foothold in China. The automaker continues to talk with Donfeng Automotive Group reportedly on joint production of a Micra-class car; the companies have been producing pickup trucks since 1995. Mr. Ghosn admits that China is a “weak spot” in Nissan's Asia strategy, though he declines to provide details on the status of negotiations or a timeframe for their completion.

Elsewhere in Asia, Nissan remains a small player compared with Toyota Motor Corp., Isuzu Motors Ltd. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp., and it reportedly has no plans to return to the South Korean market, where Renault is partnered with Samsung Motors Inc.

Looking at the market as a whole, Mr. Ghosn expects the second half of the current fiscal year (ending March 31, 2002) to be difficult. “And probably fiscal 2002 as well,” he says. “But we don't think anything happening today will have lasting consequences on the economy.”

On the product front, he is bullish, like many car enthusiasts, about the new Z car. A near-final engineering model was to be shown at the Tokyo Motor Show last month, and when the car hits showrooms next summer it will list for under $30,000, roughly the same price as the new Mazda RX-8.

“It has all the basic ingredients of a hit,” says Mr. Ghosn, “good design, high performance and affordability. Although no one can ever guarantee a success, we feel this model will be important for our brand because it shows in concrete terms that we can utilize assets from the past, change and rejuvenate them, without losing our roots.”

In the alternative vehicle field, the straight-talking executive insists that Nissan will not follow longtime rival Toyota into gas-electric “hybrids.” Earlier this year Toyota announced plans to sell 300,000 units in 2005, roughly 10 times more than current sales volumes. Nissan sells only the limited-production — and considerably overpriced — Tino hybrid.

Says Mr. Ghosn, “We are developing hybrids, we are developing diesels, we are developing all of the technologies we may need in the future. But at this point in time we can't say which one will prevail. However, I am confident that the one which will prevail will be the most affordable.”

For the moment, Nissan is placing emphasis on super-ULEV technology and CVTs (continuously variable transmissions). The super-ULEV Bluebird Sylphy, which went on sale in August last year, has less than a $200 cost penalty when compared to a ULEV version of the model.

And in the CVT field Nissan continues to be the industry leader with a lineup that includes both belt-driven and torroidal types. In fiscal 2000, 12% of Nissan cars sold in Japan had CVTs — and the share is rising.

Meanwhile, the company, jointly with subsidiary JATCO TranTechnology, reached basic agreement with Mitsubishi in October to integrate their respective automatic transmission and CVT operations. The move, part of Mitsubishi's efforts to bring down development costs, would create the world's largest transmission maker, passing Toyota affiliate Aisin AW. Scheduled startup: mid-2002.

Says Mr. Ghosn: “It's a win-win situation for Nissan, the (Renault-Nissan) alliance and our eventual partner, Mitsubishi Motors. We are currently going through due diligence, and hopefully everything will go well. This is an opportunity.”

Since Carlos Ghosn's arrival 2-plus years ago, everything has been an opportunity for Nissan.

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