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Carlos Ghosn, the auto world’s ‘cost killer,’ won praise in Japan for hard-nosed, workaholic image

AFP-JIJI

Brazilian-born Carlos Ghosn has long stood out among the world’s auto executives as a hard-nosed workaholic able to get a troubled company back on its feet quickly.

As head of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, Ghosn has created an industrial behemoth, its combined 470,000 employees selling 10.6 million vehicles last year from 122 factories around the globe.

But the combined group now looks troubled after Japanese police arrested Ghosn on suspicion he failed to report his full compensation to stock market authorities as chairman of Nissan.

Nissan’s board has said it will seek his removal after a monthslong inquiry prompted by a whistleblower uncovered “significant acts of misconduct.”

Long nicknamed “Le Cost Killer” in France, Ghosn began his career with the tire maker Michelin and, after a early stint in Brazil, was quickly promoted and earned a reputation for turning around its North American operations.

From there, he was recruited by Renault in 1996 to work alongside then CEO Louis Schweitzer where he helped return the company to profitability.

Just three years later, he was sent to head the newly acquired Nissan group with the challenge of doing the same thing within two years. He managed it within one.

The performance made him a hero in Japan, where manga comics are devoted to the suave businessman known for always being up before dawn after just six hours of sleep a night.

“A boss has to have 100 percent freedom to act and 100 percent responsibility for what he does. I have never tolerated any wavering from that principle, I will never accept any interference,” he once said.

Crossing borders has never been a problem for 64-year-old Ghosn.

His Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French and English are fluent, and he has picked up a working knowledge of Japanese during his time at Nissan.

Born in Brazil on March 9, 1954, to Lebanese parents, he was reportedly able to distinguish types of cars at the age of 5 just by the sound of their horns.

At the age of 6, he went to live in the Lebanese capital Beirut with his mother and attended a Jesuit high school there.

Later he went to Paris where he picked up degrees at two of France’s most elite schools, including the Polytechnique engineering university, and he has a French passport.

After restoring Renault and Nissan to sound financial footing, he soon shifted into higher gear by pressing hard to develop electric cars, one of the first in the industry.

Yet he also fiercely guarded his personal time with his wife and four children.

“I do not bring my work home. I play with my four children and spend time with my family on weekends,” he once told Fortune magazine.

“When I go to work on Monday … I come up with good ideas as a result of becoming stronger after being recharged.”

But the hefty pay packages that have come with his success have at times raised hackles, not least with the French government, which owns 20 percent of Renault.

His combined compensation reached €13 million ($14.8 million) last year, according to the corporate governance advisory firm Proxinvest.

In 2016 the French state joined 54 percent of voters at the automaker’s annual meeting in refusing to authorize a €7.25 million pay package for his position at Renault.

The vote was overruled by Renault’s board, but Ghosn later accepted a pay cut after Emmanuel Macron, France’s finance minister at the time, threatened to step in with a new compensation law.

Relations have eased since then, with the government approving a new mandate for Ghosn as Renault CEO in exchange for a 30 percent pay cut and the nomination of Thierry Bollore, his expected successor, as his deputy.