A Nissan Motor Co. badge is displayed on a back of a vehicle displayed at the company’s showroom in Yokohama. (Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg)

Ghosn Arrest Triggers a Reckoning at Nissan

(Bloomberg) -- Carlos Ghosn’s arrest is triggering a reckoning at the Japanese carmaker he once saved from near bankruptcy, with Nissan Motor Co. reviewing its global operations and relationships with key dealers as part of an expanding investigation into the auto titan’s alleged misdeeds, people familiar with the matter said.

Hundreds of people -- including regional and legal compliance teams as well as outside law firms -- are participating in the probe into business practices under Ghosn, the people said, asking not to be named because the details haven’t been made public. The scandal encompassing Ghosn, the automaker and its alliance with France’s Renault SA and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. is now in its third month. He denies wrongdoing.

Ghosn Arrest Triggers a Reckoning at Nissan

Chief Executive Officer Hiroto Saikawa, 65, is trying to move beyond the Ghosn era and rebuild Nissan as a company that doesn’t rely on the relationships and practices spawned during the former CEO’s two-decade reign. He wants to convince investors he’s addressing corporate-governance shortcomings exposed by the scandal -- in which Nissan itself also has been indicted by prosecutors -- and he also wants to reassure employees that Nissan’s place in the world’s largest auto partnership remains unshaken.

“The company’s internal investigation has already uncovered substantial and convincing evidence of misconduct, resulting in a unanimous board vote to dismiss Ghosn as representative director,” Nicholas Maxfield, a spokesman for Nissan, said in an email. “While the investigation is ongoing, and its scope continues to broaden, we cannot share details regarding its areas of focus or recent findings.”

Ghosn, 64, was indicted for allegedly understating his income at Nissan by tens of millions of dollars and for allegedly transferring personal trading losses to the carmaker. Nissan, Japan’s second-largest automaker by vehicle sales, also claims he misused company funds and awarded contracts on questionable merits.

He has been incarcerated in Tokyo since his Nov. 19 arrest, with his trial still months away. Courts rejected several of his bail applications, including one in which he offered to wear an electronic tracker. Shares of Nissan have fallen about 10 percent in Tokyo trading since his arrest.

Ghosn Arrest Triggers a Reckoning at Nissan

Separately, Renault is negotiating with Ghosn over the terms of his departure as its chairman and CEO, and he is ready to resign under the right conditions, a person with knowledge of the talks said. The French company’s board will meet Thursday and is expected to appoint Michelin chief Jean-Dominique Senard as chairman and to make interim Chief Executive Officer Thierry Bollore’s role permanent, said a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing private matters.

Ghosn’s ties with business partners have emerged as a focus in Nissan’s internal investigation, with the company studying its operations in the U.S., Middle East, India and Latin America for patterns of how business was awarded to regional distributors and dealers, the people familiar said. Among other allegations, Ghosn stands accused of giving $14.7 million in compensation to a Saudi Arabian business partner for services whose value is in question.

In the U.S., Nissan is looking into arrangements with its local sellers after some Cleveland-area dealerships sued in 2016, claiming the automaker was favoring one of their rivals. Nissan’s profit in the U.S. plunged because of excessive incentive spending in a push to gain market share, and the carmaker is cutting 700 workers at a Canton, Mississippi, plant because of slowing truck and van sales. This came as overall U.S. auto deliveries are projected to drop this year.

Jose Munoz, the chief performance officer who led North American operations from 2014 to January 2018, resigned this month. He may be asked to cooperate with the investigation into dealer operations in the U.S., one person has said. Munoz headed Nissan’s China business before his departure.

Nissan appointed a new head of sales and marketing in the U.S. in December.

In India, Nissan is looking into its previous ties with Hover Automotive India Pvt. Ltd., according to the people. The Japanese carmaker ended the partnership in 2014, saying its local subsidiary was assuming responsibility for sales, marketing and distribution. Nissan remains a marginal player in the world’s fastest-growing major economy.

Changes also are affecting Nissan’s premium Infiniti brand. Roland Krueger, appointed by Ghosn to lead Infiniti in 2014, also left after the marque lost steam last year in two key markets -- the U.S. and China. Nissan promoted Christian Meunier, the brand’s No. 2 executive for the past year, to take charge.

The lower levels of Nissan management also are being revamped to shore up any perceived shortcomings. The carmaker this month named Manabu Sakane, formerly a program director, as vice president within the office of the CEO. He is in charge of special tasks for improving governance.

Ghosn’s downfall exacerbated already-existing tensions between Nissan and Renault, its largest shareholder. Renault has pushed Nissan to call a shareholder meeting to discuss the Japanese automaker’s governance, a request Nissan denied. Representatives of the French government met with Saikawa in Tokyo Jan. 17 to discuss the matter, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting.

So far, Nissan’s efforts to improve its governance have largely excluded Renault. Nissan’s newly established governance committee, which includes its three independent board members, met Jan. 20 for the first time. Also, the company earlier this month gave its board expanded powers amid the absence of a chairman.

Eliminating the position of chairman altogether also could be an option, Keiko Ihara, one of the independent directors, said this month.

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