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Nissan plans to fire Chairman Carlos Ghosn, putting 3-automaker alliance's future in doubt

Nissan plans to fire Chairman Carlos Ghosn, putting 3-automaker alliance's future in doubt
Nissan Motor Co. Chairman Carlos Ghosn was underreporting his compensation to securities regulators in Japan and committed other misconduct, "such as personal use of company assets," the company said. (Etienne Laurent / Associated Press)

The cult of Carlos Ghosn collapsed Monday as the boss of Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co. was arrested in Tokyo for alleged financial crimes, likely ending his tenure at the Japanese automaker.

Ghosn, who is widely credited with saving Nissan from failure and bringing it together with Renault and Mitsubishi Motors Corp., was detained Monday over a suspected breach of Japanese financial laws, according to Nissan Chief Executive Hiroto Saikawa. Ghosn and board director Greg Kelly have been under investigation at Nissan for several months after a whistleblower complaint, and the board is set to meet Thursday to remove them both.

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The two underreported their compensation to securities regulators in Tokyo, Nissan said. And the automaker said it had uncovered “numerous other significant acts of misconduct” by Ghosn. These include “personal use of company assets — and Kelly’s deep involvement has also been confirmed,” Nissan said in a statement.

Mitsubishi, where the 64-year-old Ghosn also serves as chairman, said it will also investigate his conduct and evaluate whether he should lose that position. The board of Renault, taken by surprise by the allegations, is set to meet Tuesday evening, said a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be named discussing private plans. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told reporters he is working with all sides to maintain stability.

The bombshell allegations cast doubt over the future of the alliance, a three-way tie-up that Ghosn has sought to strengthen as the industry grapples with the shift toward electric and self-driving cars, and challenges from newcomers such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Tesla Inc.

U.S.-traded shares of Nissan fell 5.8% to $16.90. In Paris, shares of Nissan's partner Renault dropped 8.4%.

In a news conference at Nissan headquarters in Yokohama, Saikawa expressed disappointment, indignation and despair at Ghosn’s conduct, which included using company funds for personal investments and misusing corporate assets. Saikawa didn’t give any details, but news agency Kyodo reported that Ghosn may have understated his income by $44 million over five years.

“This is an act that cannot be tolerated by the company,” Saikawa said. “It is sufficient grounds for his dismissal.”

Saikawa repeatedly questioned Ghosn’s legacy and the conventional narrative of Nissan’s turnaround, emphasizing that it had been due to the work of many employees and their families, not the heroic efforts of any individual.

A concentration of power in the hands of one person set the stage for the misconduct, Saikawa said, and Nissan lacked the transparency needed to detect it. In the future, he said, the company will look for a sustainable structure that doesn’t rely on one person.

The CEO also took a swipe at the Renault-Nissan partnership, saying the Japanese market had been undervalued and that some product decisions were biased.

Although he was no longer Nissan’s CEO, as chairman Ghosn had been laying the groundwork to make the alliance permanent after his departure. In September, Ghosn said he planned to pare back his role at the three automakers while continuing to head their alliance.

“Investors need to be reassured,” as Ghosn is a key driver of the collaboration, Jose M. Asumendi, an analyst with JPMorgan, said in a research note. Cooperation with Nissan “is critical to Renault’s strategy going forward.”

Nissan said it has been providing information to Japanese officials and is cooperating fully with the investigation. Ghosn went voluntarily with investigators, the Asahi newspaper reported. It’s unclear where he is now and how long the legal process will take. The Tokyo prosecutors’ office and Renault declined to comment. Ghosn couldn’t be reached for comment.

Among the best-paid executives in both Japan and France, Ghosn has regularly drawn criticism for his compensation. He receives numerous paychecks in his roles as chairman of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, CEO of Renault and chairman of both Nissan and Mitsubishi.

At Nissan, he was paid about $10 million for 2016 and about $6.5 million in the most recent fiscal year. He took home about $8.5 million at Renault and about $2 million from Mitsubishi in the latest period. At Renault, his package for 2017 was narrowly passed by Renault shareholders, but only after he agreed to a 20% reduction. France owns about 15% of Renault and supported Ghosn’s contract renewal.

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In France, officials were quick to demand continuity in a pact that observers have said has long favored the French side. French President Emmanuel Macron said he would remain “extremely vigilant” regarding the stability of the Renault-Nissan alliance.

Ghosn has been contemplating his next career step as the companies look to change the pact’s structure, possibly through a merger. Ghosn gave up his role as CEO of Nissan last year and has said he may step down as CEO of Renault before his four-year term ends in 2022. The carmakers have given themselves two years to decide on a possible merger or an alternative mechanism to enhance their partnership, Bloomberg reported in July.

A Brazilian-born French national, Ghosn revived Renault as executive vice president from 1996 to 1999. He then was assigned to turn around Nissan, where he reduced the company’s purchasing costs, shut factories, eliminated 21,000 jobs and invested the savings back into 22 car and truck models in three years.

The latest developments add to a string of crises in the Japanese auto industry, where scandals have involved such topics as product quality and falsification of records. Nissan was embroiled in controversy last year when Japan’s regulators discovered uncertified inspectors were approving vehicles, leading to a recall of more than 1.2 million cars.

4:15 p.m.: This article was updated with stock prices, a comment by France’s president and additional details.

7:35 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details.

6:25 a.m.: This article was updated with Carlos Ghosn’s arrest.

This article was originally published at 4 a.m.

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