PARIS (Reuters) – He saved Nissan Motor Co. in Japan from bankruptcy, he is guiding a revival of France’s Renault SA
and now Carlos Ghosn has set his sights on General Motors Corp.
As chief executive at Renault and its partner Nissan, he travels tens of thousands of kilometers a year and divides his time between Japan, Europe and the United States.
He is no stranger to Detroit — called Motown, short for Motors Town — and the U.S. car industry because of Nissan’s activities there and the time he spent as the head of U.S. operations for tire maker Michelin.
In February, he unveiled his recovery plan for Renault up to 2009 — based on a big boost in sales by making more attractive cars at lower costs — and said the French group would not be able to return to the U.S. market until after that.
But a dinner in Nashville with billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian presented him with an opportunity to return to the U.S. market sooner than that, by Renault and Nissan widening their seven-year alliance to include General Motors, the world’s biggest car manufacturer.
Renault sold its American Motors Corporation (AMC) subsidiary to Chrysler in 1987.
The French Le Figaro newspaper, citing unnamed directors at Renault, said on Tuesday that Ghosn made a strong case for a possible tie-up during a board meeting on Monday.
“He detailed the weight of the U.S. group and describing, figures at hand, the power of the world’s biggest car group present industrially in 33 countries and commercially almost everywhere else,” Figaro said.
“Asked about possible problems in Europe between Renault and Opel, the European subsidiary of GM, he said he was confident about the possible future links between the two groups,” the paper said, adding Ghosn re-assured his board that his Commitment 2009 plan remained the first priority.
Adam Jones, an auto industry analyst at Morgan Stanley, said Ghosn could shake up the Detroit-centric culture of GM.
“Carlos Ghosn is an agent of change. He did things in Japan nobody thought could be done. GM needs management, product and direction. Ghosn has a strong track record here,” he said.
Ghosn has roots in many cultures. He was born in Porto Velho in Brazil on March 9, 1954 to Lebanese parents Jorge and Rose Ghosn.
Because of poor health, the family returned to Lebanon when he was six and he was educated by French Jesuits in Beirut until he left for France aged 17.
After studying engineering, Ghosn began his career at Michelin and rose to become chairman and chief executive of its North American arm, where he oversaw a restructuring after the 1990 acquisition of Uniroyal Goodrich.
From Michelin he moved to Renault to tackle another restructuring challenge that cost 3,100 jobs and created much bad will toward the Renault brand in Belgium.
But it was his 1999 move to Japan’s Nissan that cemented his status both as a master of turnarounds and a celebrity manager.
At the conservative firm he lived up to his cost-cutting reputation, slashing 21,000 jobs and closing car plants.
Resistance to his straight, seemingly ruthless style was strong at first, but he eventually won over employees and investors by achieving the goals he set for the company.
“You can make companies work together even if they are on different continents,” Ghosn told the Stanford Graduate School of Business in February this year.
“One company does not need to take over the other, nor is it crucial for both companies’ cultures to meld into one. Preserving distinct styles helps each company’s employees identify with their employer and stay motivated,” he said at the U.S. school where his daughter Caroline studies.
Carlos Ghosn is married to Rita, who owns the My Lebanon restaurant in Tokyo, and they have four children. Their main home is in Paris.