Carlos Ghosn and Results

Back in the ‘90s, Renault was something of a basket case. Back in the ‘90s, Nissan was something of a basket case.

In 1996, Renault hired then-CEO of Michelin North America, Carlos Ghosn. In 1999, Renault and Nissan established the Renault-Nissan Alliance. As time has gone on, the companies have gotten out of those baskets, largely because of Ghosn’s leadership and execution.

For a number of years, Ghosn was to the automotive world what Warren Buffett is to investors. Ghosn hasn’t become any less relevant than he once was. But it is simply a matter of new people gaining attention.

Ghosn made a speech at the opening press breakfast at the New York Auto Show on March 23. As I listened to his speech, during which he was plain-speaking and vision-forward, I recalled a book that Ghosn published in 2005, Shift: Inside Nissan’s Historic Revival, seemingly a long, long time ago, but still highly germane.

In his New York speech, Ghosn talked about the “disruption” that is occurring in the auto industry due to both mobility services (think Uber) and nascent autonomous vehicles (think the Google Car). He stated: “I expect the global auto industry to see more changes in the next five years than it has in the last 20. And those changes will bring tremendous opportunities for those companies with the skills and foresight to seize them. Rather than fear tech companies' interest, I see this new competition as healthy for our industry. We have a lot to learn from them, and they have much to learn from us, which is quite clear considering all the automotive talent they have been hiring.”

The key phrase there is “tremendous opportunities for those companies with the skills and foresight to seize them.” During the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, I had the opportunity to talk with Takashi Sunda, Nissan Deputy General Manager, Mobility Services Laboratory, and learned that Nissan is thoroughly engaged in developing autonomous vehicles; it isn’t worrying; it is working. Ghosn said in New York: “In January, I visited Nissan's Silicon Valley R&D offices. I spent considerable time driving around the streets of Sunnyvale—hands-free and with my eyes off the road.

Autonomous cars that can change lanes on their own, negotiate city streets and handle the drudgery of stop-and-go traffic are coming soon. In fact, the Renault-Nissan Alliance will launch at least 10 models with significant Autonomous Drive functionality by 2020.” Fully automatic driving? No. But highly automatic? Yes.

While it is easy to make claims, it is something different to get results. Which brought me to consult Shift. And it strikes me that Ghosn doesn’t speculate; he performs.

Consider this from Shift, describing the situation when he started the transformation of the ailing Renault: “Some people said, ‘He’s off the deep end. He’s raving mad. Doesn’t he know that at Renault you set the most conservative goals possible so you can be certain to reach them?’ My answer to that sort of thinking was ‘You’re going to get what you ask for. If you set the bar too low, you’ll get a low-level performance. But if you put the bar higher, you’ve got a chance of getting better results.’ They thought I was clueless.” Think 2020 is too early, too soon? “You’re going to get what you ask for.”

New York: “Yes, there's a lot at stake. Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty. But this is not a time for the conservative or the cautious. Because for those open to new ideas and new ways of doing things, the opportunities for our industry to grow and better serve society's needs have never been greater.”

But Ghosn isn’t making bold statements for the sake of statements. In 2007 he stated they’d developed zero-emissions vehicles for the mass market; by the end of 2010, they sold the first Nissan LEAF electric vehicle in northern California. Since then the Alliance has delivered nearly 300,000 electric vehicles of varying types. Ghosn admitted in New York: “Not as much as we had expected, but certainly a healthy start.” The company delivered. And it continues to work in zero-emissions development. Shift: “execution is everything in our industry.”

Maybe come 2020 they’ll have the significantly self-driving cars on the road. Maybe there will be limited demand for them. 

But Nissan won’t be behind the curve. Nissan won’t be following. And Ghosn et al. won’t be doing this just to chase a fancy.

For as Carlos Ghosn wrote in Shift: “But no matter how different or original you may be, if you don’t produce results, you’re just a clown.” And that’s certainly not what he intends to be. 

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Gary Vasilash invented this magazine in 1996 and wrote a column for its predecessor publication starting in 1987.  Chances are, if you’re reading this, you know him by now, possibly for a long, long time.