Understanding Change: Carlos Ghosn’s Turnaround at Nissan

Setting the Stage

During the summer of 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported on the trend of foreign ownership of Japanese companies. The periodical noted in 1990, foreign ownership of Japanese companies was less than 5% and by 2014, it had risen to more than 30% (Fujikawa, 2014). The trend of foreign ownership paralleled the liberalization of the Japanese financial sector which began in the late 1990’s following what business historians call the lost decade (Kuepper, 2015). Japan’s lost decade was preceded by the largest capitalization of the Japanese Stock market in history reaching record highs in 1989 (“Tokyo Stocks at New Record,” 1989). This bubble was caused largely in part by a real estate speculation.

The US Dollar helped to rebuild Japan after the Japanese surrender in World War II under the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers in 1945. There were shortages of food, supplies and goods. A top-down approach led by New Deal Democrats under George Marshall’s team helped to rebuild the infrastructure and institutions in this postwar economy (“The Reconstruction of Japan,” 2015). Instead of building laissez-faire capitalist structures or classical liberal institutions, Marshall’s team reshaped the landscape. They broke up family owned conglomerations of companies called Zaibatsu. These intertwined industries had risen to power during the Meiji Era of Japan (Watkins, 2015b). This era of Japanese history is known as an ending of isolation or Sakoku. This happened roughly the same time as the industrial revolution in the West. It remained coordinated with the central government of Japan and allowed businesses to maintain virtual monopolies over entire market sectors (“The Meiji Restoration and Modernization,” 2009). Following World War II and as the US purchased many goods from Japan to fight the Korean War, Japan continued to retool and rebuild its domestic infrastructure. This investment evolved into a different form of corporatism called Keiretsu. Instead of having family linkages these corporations bought each other’s shares and swapped member’s of the board which insulating the businesses against failure (Watkins, 2015a). These companies were usually formed around a bank and during this time companies like Toyota, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Isuzu, and Daihatsu Motors emerged as economic producers. Japan wanted to get out of debt and remained cautious with its international capitalization until the 1970’s where it began to invest in foreign economies, including the US more than foreign companies were investing in Japan. Japan exported more goods than it imported in the 1970’s and this brought more capital to the Japanese economy.

This investment saw money go into other economies and as a result, capital leaving Japan did not go back into domestic industries. While this did not matter in the short-term, the long-term implications of this created an asset bubble which burst in the late 1980’s (Okina, Shirakawa, & Shiratsuka, 2001). The Japanese central bank sold Yen for dollars to limit the rise of the Yen during this time which made Japanese goods made in Japan more expensive. Many view this as an extension of international monetary policy agreed on by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, West Germany, which depreciated the dollar against the Yen and Mark (Twomey, 2015). A report published by the International Monetary Fund asserted that this manipulation of the foreign exchange markets by the G5 created the asset bubble in Japan and made the correction, even more, painful (“Did the Plaza Accord Cause Japan’s Lost Decades?,” 2011). Foreign assets held by Japan grew from nearly $160 billion in 1980 to more than $2 trillion by 1991 and were aided by the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Control Law which deregulated the financial sector. The overheated Japanese economy saw drops in key exports and several companies were in trouble.

In the Automotive markets, Japanese car makers emerged as export giants and the Toyota brand worked hard to pass General Motors as the world’s largest car maker in 2008 (Kageyama, 2014). Daimler-Benz merged with Chrysler-Dodge in 1998 (“Daimler-Chrysler dawns,” 1998). Eagle and Plymouth were eliminated while Chrysler held the Jeep brand through a series of mergers and acquisitions (Holusha, 1987). Chrysler and Daimler’s merger remained strained as cultures between the companies remained incompatible. These irreconcilable differences split the company and Chrysler entered Chapter 11 in 2009 (Isidore, 2009). Struggling General Motors wanted a bailout by the US Government and the taxpayers of the United States lost more than $9 billion in the deal (Shepardson, 2013). The American economy experienced a housing bubble and a major market correction in 2009 (Ruppert & Campbell, 2009). Chrysler dropped in value and some credited this to a failed hostile takeover attempt by famed billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. He tried to buy Chrysler out with the car company’s former Chief Executive Officer Lee Iacocca in 1995 (Snyder & Wernle, 1995). Kerkorian remained the largest single stockholder in Chrysler until he sold his shares after the failed deal.

In France, Renault struggled to gain market share and tried to merge with Volvo before Ford bought them out (“Ford Buys Volvo Car Arm,” 1999). This buy became a loss for Ford when it sold the Volvo brand to Chinese-based Zhejiang Geely Holding Group for $1.8 billion in 2014 (“Volvo sold to Chinese Automaker for $1.8 billion,” 2014). Renault early in 1999 also failed in negotiating with Daimler to increase its market share and struggling position (“Daimler Scraps Nissan Deal,” 1999). When Daimler created a strategic partnership with Chrysler they became the number one automotive maker in Europe and the number three in the world. This partnership placed significant pressure on smaller makers like Nissan in Japan and Renault in Japan. Carlos Ghosn, the number two at Renault, echoed this sentiment when he noted, “All of a sudden, Renault felt very small. Daimler-Chrysler was twice the size of Volkswagen, the number-one carmaker in Europe. The analysts predicted that only automotive manufacturers capable of building, at least, four million vehicles a year would survive in [that] global market,” (Ghosn, 2007b).

As China’s economy continued to grow it passed the United States in Gross Domestic Product in 2014 (Halbert, 2015). In 2010, the car market in China superseded the United States in gross sales and preserved that position for four years (Young, 2014). These tectonic shifts in the global economy caused many successful companies to reconsider their market position and reinvent themselves. Nissan Motors in 1999 found itself in trouble. In the fall of 1998, the New York Times reported that Nissan tried to restructure $35 billion of debt with the Japanese government (Strom, 1998). Car sales had fallen 14% and Nissan expected to have their stock relegated to junk bond status by the end of the year (Strom, 1998). In 1999, Nissan tripled its loss forecast for a company whose brand in Japanese meant “Japanese Industry” (“Nissan Triples its Loss Forecast,” 1999; Reyes, 2007).

The Problem

When Nissan’s negotiations with Daimler-Chrysler fell through a previous offer from Renault’s remained the only offer on the table. Louis Schweitzer, head of Renault, sent Carlos Ghosn, a leader credited with turning around Renault, to Japan to solidify the details of a Nissan turn around (Ghosn, 2007b). When the deal was finalized Ghosn noted, “The two companies had just agreed to a major strategic alliance in which Renault would assume $5.4 billion of Nissan’s debt in return for a 36.6% equity stake in the Japanese company,” (Ghosn, 2002).

Spector’s case study on Ghosn’s approach to leadership exclaimed the turnaround at Nissan once Ghosn was at the helm (Spector, 2013). He noted in 2005 that, “Over the past five and a half years, Ghosn had engineered a remarkable turnaround at Nissan Motors, headquartered in the Ginza district of Tokyo,” (Spector, 2013). With glowing praise his approach to change management proved a dramatic approach that earned him a respected reputation for turning around Michelin, Renault and, in this case, Nissan (Spector 2013). Spector noted that problems at Nissan involved lack of innovation, advanced costs of 15%-20% above their competitors, and increased competition from other exporters like Honda which chipped away at market shares (Spector 2013). In its home Market only four of Nissan’s 43 models were profitable (Hughes, 2003). Ghosn voiced these problems further when he noted:

It had been struggling to turn a profit for eight years. Its margins were notoriously low; specialists estimated that Nissan gave away $1,000 for every car it sold in the United States due to the lack of brand power. Purchasing costs, I was soon to discover, were 15% to 25% higher at Nissan than at Renault. Further adding to the cost burden was a plant capacity far more than the company’s needs: The Japanese factories alone could produce almost a million more cars a year than the company sold (Ghosn, 2002).

This excess capacity, lack of brand power, and advance buying costs were the targets of opportunity at Nissan. Ghosn’s had called Nissan’s problems a “performance crisis” and sought to fix these challenges facing the Japanese giant of industry (“Tough Ghosn,” 2007). He would soon earn a reputation of being a merciless “cost cutter” who challenged Japanese social conventions by closing plants and severing suppliers (Harner, 2013).

The Purpose and Thesis

This purpose of this case study will be to address the strengths and weaknesses of Carlos Ghosn’s approach to change leadership at Nissan. It is theorized that Ghosn’s approach to change management remained consistent with the cannibalization of Japanese markets following a decade of economic contraction.


The theoretical background to Ghosn’s style focuses on cross-functionalism. Kreitner and Kinicki note that cross-functionalism is a common feature of self-managed teams where specialists from different areas are put on the same teams to solve problems within a business (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2007). French and Bell note that these teams are also known as intact work teams, formal work groups or natural teams (French & Bell, 1999). French and Bell notes that these teams are unique in that they are multidisciplinary where instead of a function of design or production, they provide oversight over all processes (French & Bell, 1999). Schermerhorn exclaims that these teams are supposed to break down functional chimneys or barriers inside of an organization and “create more effective lateral relations for problem-solving and work performance,” (Schermerhorn, 2008). In other words, cross-functionalism improves qualitative outcomes.

This view is differentiated from Ivancevich, Lorenzi, Skinner and Crosby who note that work teams are a special organizational work group. Citing a change in the American manufacturing, they asserted that this team approach grew from about 150 firms in 1970 to nearly half of all US firms performing with some team management in the United States by the end of the century (Ivancevich, Lorenzi, Skinner, & Crosby, 1994). Besides, they also inferred that this approach improved quality outcomes. Ivancevich, Lorenzi, Skinner, and Crosby noted, “The team’s self-regulating nature allows for greater error detection and correction on the spot rather than at the end of the assembly line when something is wrong,” (Ivancevich et al., 1994). This error correction ensures that fewer deficiencies make it through the production line (Ivancevich et al., 1994). Last, they differentiated this team from a quality circle which performed similar functions but instead of being a core function of the business, remained supplemental (Ivancevich et al., 1994).

Ghosn noted that when he arrived in Japan he observed that the Japanese were not champions of theory but started from simple observation and tried to create solutions from that (Ghosn, 2007a). During his tenure and turnaround at Renault he created cross-functional teams in an effort to cut 20 billion Francs from the operating budget by which he was successful (Ghosn, 2007c). When working on the deal for Nissan, Ghosn advocated for cross-functional teams and sought to expel 20 billion in waste (Ghosn, 2007b). These teams included roughly 200 cross-functional management members who set out to reorganize Nissan (Mayersohn, 2002).

In terms of outcomes Nissan was able to trim the fat from its supply chain. The Economist magazine reported in 2007 that joint purchasing covered 70% of the parts bought by both companies (“Tough Ghosn,” 2007). Ghosn noted that when he examined the books at Nissan they were strapped for cash but had more than $4 billion in leverage with other companies because of the Keiretsu partnerships (Ghosn, 2002). Nissan failed to have leverage with any of several hundred companies it was invested in. Ghosn sought to sever those relationships as an investor and focused efforts on being a better customer in those relationships (Ghosn, 2002).

Nissan announced significant layoffs in its reorganization. The Christian Science Monitor reported that Nissan cut 21,000 jobs from the labor force which was a 14% reduction from its overall workforce and a 30% reduction in domestic output (Gaouette, 1999). The New York Times reported that Ghosn’s reorganization plan included the closure of 10% of its dealerships and that 10 of its 24 plants would close (Strom, 1999). The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported that of the 21,000 jobs to be cut, 16,500 jobs would be cut in Japan, 2,400 in Europe and 1,400 in the United States (“Nissan announces plant closings, layoffs,” 1999). If these efforts were not successful Ghosn and his team promised to resign (DeKrey, Messick, & Anderson, 2007).

In just less than two years, Nissan returned to profitability by selling 2.7 million cars and cutting more than 1.5 trillion Yen from the bottom line of the company in less than two years (“Nissan Returns to Profitability; CEO Vows to Succeed Or Resign,” 2005). Chief Executive Magazine learned that Nissan Motors reported its most successful year in history with $2.7 billion dollar profit which was a 34% improvement over the previous year and a margin of 6.3% (Mayersohn, 2002). Ghosn kept his promise and delivered on the things he said he would.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The challenge with this snapshot is that the scope of the study as provided by Spector and enunciated by the Harvard Business Review is that is very narrowly focused (Ghosn, 2002; Spector, 2013). Austrian economists see ups and downs as part of a normal business cycle (Mahoney, 2001). Austrian economists argue that credit inflation as driven by monetary systems and governed by central bankers usually create distortions in markets that at some point in the future will require a correction (Mahoney, 2001). The market corrections in Japan’s lost decade pushed Nissan toward insolvency. The Market Realist reported that this lost decade was the result of banks consolidating and issuing a credit to corporations that could not pay it back (Ashworth, 2015). When companies like Nissan had expanded to meet expected demands and bought assets on credit, it leveraged its business and made the alliance with Renault a business need. The only alternative for Nissan executives was to approach the Japanese government who would have had to borrow money through a credit scheme of the central bank. This would have made Japan’s lost decade worse since that credit would have been against the future earnings of the taxpayers of Japan. Nissan’s return to profitability came against the ebb and flow of quantitative easing in Japan, which is largely viewed as a failure and an economic condition that made the recession worse for Japan (Knight, 2015).

This is important because France following World War II nationalized of many aspects of its industrial sector. This included nationalizing Renault following its alleged collusion with Adolf Hitler during the war and following its founder’s mysterious death in prison (Brooks, 2011; Saltmarsh & Jolly, 2011). France’s economic shortfall in the 1980’s was fraught with labor disputes and even terrorist attacks associated with the conflict. Many of these disputes were violent and resulted in the death of workers, security forces and managers (Mantle, 1995). In the late 1980’s speculation of France denationalizing Renault began to surface in Western papers–which attracted foreign investment in the cash-strapped welfare state of France (Neher, 1987). In the 1990’s the nationalist government of France got out of the car making business after Renault secured private financing to move the company private while the government maintained an much smaller interest (Cohen, 1993). Many subsidiaries were also sold off during this time, illegally and to foreign investment companies in the US (Schmidt, 1996). Financing from foreign US investment played a huge part in restructuring Renault and allowed it to capitalize on an opportunity with Nissan.

Ghosn also understood emerging markets and worked hard to bring the Nissan brand to places where it could create products that would sell. Since the car market was shifting Nissan focused its brand on emerging markets and tailored its product line to meet the economic needs there. Nissan noted it would revive its Datsun brand and sell in Russia, India and Indonesia (Gibbs, 2014). These relationships allowed Nissan to capitalize on opportunities that other car companies were missing as they focused on larger car markets. The result of selling more cars abroad meant more for the bottom line where Nissan’s last quarter in 2013 and first quarter in 2014 surged 37% to $1.1 billion in sales (Stock, 2014).

Ghosn’s approach to this clearly understood that borrowing extra cash was not the way to solvency for the company. Expelling waste, reducing cost and cutting excess capacity from the assets of the company became the focus of his strategy and it worked for a few years. Nissan became more efficient. It became more profitable. It delivered better quality products.

Besides some of the big picture objectives Ghosn focused his attention on human innovation at the grass-roots of the company. When Ghosn went to Japan he was told by experts in Japan that change should have been slow. He was unhappy with this perspective and instead decided to look inward towards the company to help it find solutions to the company’s problems (Ghosn, 2007b). In his review of the company, there were many meetings where his approach to individual process improvement sought to get the lowest members of the company to embrace change and to build trust at all levels of the company (Ghosn, 2007b). This approach increased efficiencies throughout the organization and increased qualitative outputs. This outcome made the company more responsive to how it made cars and nimbler in a highly competitive market. Ghosn’s approach to this using cross-functional teams aided in the turnaround.

The early turnaround is heralded as a great turnaround story of the industry. It is not without criticism. Nissan and Renault’s challenges in the following decade followed the trends of the rest of the automotive industry. Nissan-Renault sought a $3.9 billion dollar bailout from the French government following the housing bubble crash in the United States in 2009 (“Auto Bailout, French Style,” 2009). Nissan had lost money and laid off another 20,000 workers off, cut overtime, and gave out zero bonuses (Rowley, 2009). Nissan built a huge assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi and as the state faced a $1.3 billion dollar education shortfall it gave $1.3 billion in incentives to Nissan to keep the plant open in Canton (Gibson, 2014). In neighboring Alabama, a local Nissan dealership allegedly took part in a conspiracy to illegally approve unqualified auto loans. The US Attorney prosecuting the case commented on its severity when she noted that, “This type of fraud is the auto-industry equivalent of the mortgage fraud that contributed to the financial meltdown, and could threaten the security of our financial markets,” (Lutz, 2014). Even challenges with the Nissan suppliers rose with Aisan Industry Co. Ltd. obtaining a fine of $6.86 million dollars for fixing prices on electronic throttle bodies sold to Nissan and elsewhere (“Asian to Plead Guilty, Pay $6.86 Million Fine,” 2014). Similarly, another group plead guilty to US officials over price-fixing at Japanese-owned Takata Corporation which makes seat belts for Nissan and agreed to pay $71.3 million in fines (“Takata officials to plead guilty in U.S. price-fixing case -govt,” 2013).

Lastly in finance, the French government blocked further integration between Nissan and Renault (Aubernon, 2015). The largest financial scandal in history fixed the prices of exchange between countries in what has been called the LIBOR scandal (Alessi, 2013). It involved banks in London as well as New York (Gandel, 2013) and may have involved the Gold and Silver exchanges around the globe (Willis, 2013). When large companies secure financing to merge or gain more companies some argue the entire game is rigged from London and New York (LIBOR Scandal More Than Fraud – Whole Game is Rigged, 2012).


Renault’s choice of Ghosn to head a collaborative effort between these Franco-Japanese interests saw a significant turn around in a large enterprise. The leadership efforts allowed a global competitor to lean up and remain competitive. These efforts also helped to push Japan into a financial competition where their banks had to also compete for dollars. These changes should be viewed as positive for Nissan as a whole, but allegations of price fixing and collusion remain around the corner as Nissan and Renault move into seedier markets like Russia and the Ukraine. These parts of the world are infamous for their corruption and bribery. A company that takes pride in quality, efficiency, and profit may not want to have corruption, bribery added to its most memorable features as many Russians and Ukrainians buy cars from others partners in this alliance. Overall it appears the critics were disproved as Ghosn took the helm and continued to lead the company into prosperity and not much is said of the displaced workers who have had to retool and employ themselves elsewhere in the Japanese economy. The peace of Westphalia remains inadequate to address the buyout of the Japanese economy by multinationals and this remains the real issue.


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