Carlos Ghosn is Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., a global automotive company with more than 240,000 employees and over US $110 billion in revenue. As the CEO of both Nissan Motor and Renault, and the chairman of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, Ghosn splits his time each month between Japan, France and other markets where the companies operate, such as the U.S., Brazil, China and the Middle East. This kind of lifestyle can take a toll on anyone – both physically and socially. But it's what's required of many leaders in the age of globalization.
What's life like as a global CEO? What personal experiences – from childhood to university to advancing up the ranks of a company – helped shaped Ghosn on a personal level and as a global business leader? In this special multi-part series, Ghosn shares his life story, offering personal insights and professional lessons on what it takes to succeed.
New installments in this series will be posted here in coming weeks. (This series was originally published on Nikkei.com.)
Chapter 1: Early Life and Education
Up in the Air on New Year's
I'm somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean now, cruising at an altitude of about 14,000 meters. As I fly toward Brazil, my thoughts are in Japan. While it is a tradition for me to spend the New Year holiday with my family in Brazil, a part of me wishes I could also be in Japan, on the most celebrated day of the year. I extend my Happy New Year's wishes to all.
As the CEO of both Nissan Motor and Renault, and the chairman of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, I split my time each month between Japan, France and other markets where the companies operate, such as the U.S., Brazil, China and the Middle East. People often ask me what I do from day to day. It's a difficult question to answer: No one day is like another. It depends on the region where I am working and what decisions need to be made. But while every day is different, it is also the same in the sense that I am focused on the performance and success of these businesses.
Chapter 2: Early Career
On a roll with Michelin: Forgoing further studies to join the tire maker brought lessons of a different kind
One day in May 1978, at around 8:30 in the morning, I woke up to the jarring sound of the phone ringing. When I answered, the man on the other end of the line identified himself as Hidalgo.
"The Michelin Company in France would like to expand its business in Brazil," he said. "They need French engineers who are familiar with the local environment. Would you like to have an interview in Clermont-Ferrand?"
Chapter 3: Renault turnaround
'Le Cost Cutter' strikes again
Management at Renault had gone downhill in the years before I joined in 1996. At that time, the company was facing a massive deficit. Even under pressure from the government, the management team had not come up with an effective strategy for improving labor-management relations. Workers were aging, production facilities were woefully outdated and products were inferior. We had a lot of work to do.
I took two months to study up on the company, talk to people and assess the situation. One of the first problems I identified was how the company was structured. Different departments weren't communicating or coordinating efforts. I also saw too much fruitless finger pointing from the management team, too few solutions.
Chapter 4: Nissan turnaround
Open minds and enthusiasm: Early days in Tokyo
Cultural sensitivity and a sincere desire to fix Nissan help Ghosn break the ice
Before the alliance between Renault and Nissan Motor, I had been to Japan only once in my life. It was in 1984, and I was still with Michelin. I had gone on a business trip to visit Komatsu, but my stay lasted for only two days – too short to get a real impression.
I visited Japan a few other times during the partnership negotiations with Nissan, but my true relationship with the country began when my family moved there in May 1999. I arrived in Japan a month before the rest of my family, and initially lived in a hotel. The Nissan headquarters was then in a prime location in Ginza, near the center of Tokyo. My first office as chief operating officer was a renovated conference room a few doors down from the then-CEO Hanawa-san. My executive assistant, Takahashi-san, was extremely efficient, expertly managing my appointments so that I could work at a brisk pace.
Chapter 5: Nissan growth
A delayed but fortuitous China entry
An unexpected partnership with Dongfeng helped Nissan tap a burgeoning market
Nissan Motor was slow to make a full-scale entry into what has become the world's largest auto market: China. We had been there for 30 years and produced Nissan's first Cedric model for the Chinese market. But it was in 2000 that we started to realize the true opportunities. At the time, there were 1.2 billion people in China buying only 2 million cars a year. That's 10 cars per 1,000 inhabitants. In Japan, there were 600 cars being sold per 1,000 inhabitants. At a certain point, the Chinese market was going to boom.
Chapter 6: Crises and opportunities
Nissan in crisis mode
The outbreak of the global recession prompted a quick rethink
In the spring of 2008, six months before the financial markets would come crashing down, my instincts told me that the economy was about to go into a period of reassessment. But there was no clear indication, at least to those of us in the auto industry, that we were on the brink of economic collapse.
Then, on Sept. 15, we experienced the "Lehman shock," or as they call it in the U.S., the start of the Great Recession. Economic and financial systems all over the world were paralyzed. Even companies on solid financial footing were no longer able to borrow money. Automakers, too, had to face harsh realities, because we needed to move large sums of money to finance purchasing and sales, while also supporting our suppliers.