Ghosn shoots down trouble at Nissan

April 25, 2005|by JASON STEIN/ Wheelbase Communications

He has been nicknamed the "Icebreaker," for his ability at ignoring local business practices that stand in the way of making money.

(He likes that name a lot.)

He has been called an iconoclast, for his ability to blow off power breakfasts so he can stay home and eat with his four kids.

(He likes that role a lot.)

But what makes Carlos Ghosn, the troubleshooting chief executive officer who has been charged with reviving Nissan and Renault, really tick?

Challenges. Discipline. And, mostly, no excuses.

"He's just the most disciplined man I've ever worked with," Nissan marketing boss Steve Wilhite recently told AutoWeek magazine.

Having worked for Apple Computer's Steve Jobs and Volkswagen's Ferdinand Piech, Whilhite hardly throws those kinds of accolades around.

Ghosn is unlike many others in the complex world of sheetmetal and stock watching.

In his brief time at Nissan, he has pulled the automaker from the flames of bankruptcy, taking the company from a debt load of $22.9 billion in 2000 to a $7 billion profit, and turned it into a global force again.


Actually, maybe it's Ghosn who is the global force.

Born in Brazil to Lebanese parents, then educated in France, Ghosn, 50, has become a rock star of the automotive world. He has been asked to run for the president of Lebanon. A Japanese company has created a comic book using Ghosn as the central character.

Oh, and Wall Street wouldn't mind a few private speeches on cost-cutting. If only he had the time (he averages 11 speeches a month).

So how did the Ghosn aura become so radiant?

You only have to look at his accomplishments to find out.

After being dispatched by Renault to rescue its stake in Nissan, Ghosn quickly put his methodology to work. He closed plants, hired new designers and turned a sinking ship into a powerhouse using an ideology he titled the "Nissan Revival" plan.

Two words. One mission. (Ghosn doesn't waste time anywhere, including restructuring titles.)

"You have to explain why you need to change, how you are going to change, and what is the expected result. If you can explain, then people will give you their full support," Ghosn once said.

In short order, Ghosn gave his full support and focused Nissan on building fewer, better products on a narrow range of architectures. Mostly, he listened to everyone by using a philosophy he called "transparency." Everyone is involved. Everyone can offer a solution.

But not everyone believed it could be done.

When Ghosn arrived at Nissan in 1999 and word spread that a "revival" was taking place, longtime auto giant, and General Motors product chief Bob Lutz, suggested Renault would be better off piling gold bullion on a barge and sinking it into the ocean.

But it was Ghosn's methods that sunk in, instead.

He cracked the uncrackable Japanese culture by defying normal etiquette, shaking hands with every employee he meets, not just top managers. He shattered the typical Japanese work ethic by avoiding 18-hour days to spend time at home with his kids.

For that he was awarded Japan's "Father of the Year."

His personality - a comfortable charisma that includes an ability to joke in five different languages - quickly outshone everything.

Although not an imposing figure, as AutoWeek wrote after spending an extensive amount of time with Ghosn, he "exudes confidence when he speaks. He shows few signs of wasted motion and fewer signs of wasted emotion."

Ghosn describes motivation of people and environment as key elements in the success of any organization.

"Your employees must be interested in what is going on in the company. Nothing is more inefficient than a boring company. You have to create an interesting environment where people are interested in the story you are creating and want to hear the happy ending," he has said.

And what is his happy ending? With the Revival Plan in motion, Ghosn set to work on another plan, called the Nissan 180, a plan that served as an acronym for one million extra sales worldwide. Nissan achieved that this April.

What did Ghosn do?

He went back to work. Life is that simple.

"If you have a problem," he said, "people should not sleep at night until the problem is solved."

Chances are he's not catching many winks.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at :

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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