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Ghosn’s arrest creates leadership void at Renault-Nissan alliance

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The leadership void stems from Carlos Ghosn’s outsize role as head of the alliance.

PARIS/LONDON — Renault and Nissan’s alliance is threatened with disarray over a rift between the partners about how to fill a leadership vacuum as Carlos Ghosn remains in custody in Japan.

Executives overseeing the Amsterdam-based alliance are scheduled to meet Thursday, their first encounter since Ghosn was arrested last week on allegations of understating his income and misusing Nissan’s assets. Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa and others may attend by video conference, according to people familiar with the matter.

Ghosn remains chairman of the partnership, which includes the smaller Mitsubishi Motors. In his absence, one option being pushed by Nissan is to split the top job at the alliance among the three companies, one of the people said. But the French government, Renault’s most important shareholder, is sticking to the principle that the automaker’s chairman should lead the alliance, a view shared by officials at Renault.

The leadership void stems from Ghosn’s outsize role atop the alliance. He engineered the partnership between the French and Japanese companies that has grown to challenge Volkswagen Group as the world’s biggest vehicle producer.

Under governance rules and a broad outline of the way it functions, decisions and recommendations “are always made by consensus between the two shareholders.” This worked when Ghosn headed all three partners, but in the last week, he has been removed as chairman of Nissan and Mitsubishi.

Nissan aims to make a decision on who will succeed Ghosn as interim chairman by its next board meeting Dec. 17, according to a person familiar with the matter. Nissan has said three external directors will nominate a candidate from the board’s remaining members.

Crucial moment

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The Franco-Brazilian executive has denied wrongdoing, according to NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster.

The turmoil atop the alliance comes at a critical moment, when automakers across the globe are wrestling with an array of challenges, from slowing sales in key markets to long-term technological change that requires massive investment. That is why analysts say it’s essential for the partners to sort out their differences or risk falling behind rivals from Germany to Silicon Valley.

Nissan is aiming to redress perceived imbalances in the alliance by limiting the power of its French partner to nominate officials to its own board and appoint the chairman of the alliance, Bloomberg has reported.

The Japanese automaker does not expect shareholding changes will be discussed at the meeting, although there will be discussions on who should be the alliance chairman going forward, a person familiar with the matter said.

Status quo

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire on Sunday called the alliance “indispensable” and said he wants to strengthen it while maintaining the existing cross-holdings and governance rules — including one that requires Renault’s chairman to serve in the same role as head of the alliance. Renault’s board stopped short of ousting Ghosn, instead naming deputy Thierry Bollore as interim CEO.

Renault has a 43 percent voting stake in Nissan, which in turn owns just 15 percent of Renault, with no voting rights.

It’s clear that tension between the two automakers would render decision-making within the alliance tricky. While the French partner has the power to appoint the chairman, the vice chairman — currently Saikawa — comes from Nissan. Spokesmen for both companies declined to comment.

Mitsubishi Motors CEO Osamu Masuko said Monday he would follow the meeting in Amsterdam via video conference, adding, “I don’t think one meeting will set everything about the future.”

A Daimler executive also may participate in the meeting, two people said. The automaker has stakes in both Renault and Nissan.

The Franco-Japanese alliance began almost two decades ago, and in 2002, the partners formed Renault-Nissan BV, an equally owned company incorporated under Dutch law that is responsible for the alliance’s strategic management. Mitsubishi joined in 2016.

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