Nissan pins revival hopes on ‘foreigner with a Japanese face’
Nissan Motor Co named the head of its Chinese business as its next CEO on Tuesday, picking an executive known for close ties to top shareholder Renault and for a frank, straight-talking manner that has marked him as an outsider.
By selecting Senior Vice President Makoto Uchida, Nissan’s board has gone with someone slightly at odds with its traditional corporate culture. He joined the carmaker mid-career in 2003, a rarity in a country where top executives usually spend their entire working lives at the same company.
Known for his unflagging work ethic and relentless focus on cost control, Uchida was described by one long-time associate who spoke on condition of anonymity as a “foreigner with a Japanese face” – direct and to the point in conversations.
He will be joined by newly appointed Chief Operating Officer (COO) Ashwani Gupta, currently COO of junior partner Mitsubishi Motors Corp (7211.T), in trying to find new ways to revive a business that has been struggling for months with plunging profits, management scandal and tensions with Renault.
Japan’s second-largest automaker has been shaken in particular by the arrest of former Chairman Carlos Ghosn last year on allegations of financial misconduct, which he denies, and the more recent departure of CEO Hiroto Saikawa after he admitted to being improperly overpaid.
Whether the 53-year-old former theology student can deliver a miracle turnaround – particularly at Nissan’s business in the United States – and repair ties with Renault will now be a focus for investors.
“The biggest business challenge for Nissan is speeding up,” the head of Nissan’s nominations committee, Masakazu Toyoda, told a news conference.
“Speedy decision making is a challenge that Uchida raised, and to this end he said that he wants to empower people as much as possible, so we decided to ask Uchida to take on the CEO role.”
One source close to Renault described the selection as “a victory for the alliance”, saying that both Uchida and Gupta knew the business and were ready to help Nissan recover.
‘ISN’T REALLY JAPANESE’
Before his ouster, Ghosn had been working on a plan for a full merger of Renault and Nissan, but had met resistance in Japan, which is concerned about French influence in the alliance. The French government is a major Renault shareholder.
Relations were further strained this year when Renault held abortive merger talks with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU.N).
Nissan’s former China chief Jun Seki, who was seen as one of the top contenders for the CEO job, will be vice COO, the company said. The three appointees will take up their positions by Jan. 1.
“All three are global citizens, attach importance to the alliance, and are motivated to speed decision making” Toyoda said.
The Uchida associate described him as a “Japanese person who isn’t really Japanese inside. Very direct in his language, to the point, easy to understand.”
He is extremely proficient in English and worked with Renault, which owns 43.4% of Nissan, on alliance procurement.
Although he is steeped in cost control and rose through ranks in purchasing and procurement – two key things for Nissan – there are other traits that mark him as an outsider.
Unlike other top executives, he has not spent his entire career at Nissan, having joined from Nissho Iwai, now part of trading house Sojitz. He also graduated from Doshisha University in Kyoto, where he studied theology. Many top executives in Japan come from the University of Tokyo, and often study law.
As such he is seen as a “tozama”, a lord who was considered an outsider in feudal Japan, the associate said.
Directors at Nissan, including those from Renault, voted unanimously in favor of the two executives, a source familiar with the matter said.
APE, which handles the French state’s holdings in companies, said it was delighted “with a unanimous decision that will allow Nissan and the alliance to move forward.”