Howes: Ghosn escape from Japan is wider tale of hubris, justice, nationalism
Not since General Motors Corp. purchasing czar Inaki Lopez filched the Detroit automaker’s master parts lists roughly 27 years ago and bolted to rival Volkswagen AG has the global auto industry seen anything close to Carlos Ghosn’s New Year’s holiday escape from Japan.
That’s saying something for an industry replete with rogues, scandal and corruption — at VW and the Renault-Nissan alliance, at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and a United Auto Workers subject to a continuing federal investigation. The former CEO of Renault-Nissan, charged in Japan with financial wrongdoing, earlier this week slipped surveillance, boarded a private jet to Turkey and continued on to Beirut.
Outfoxed Japanese officials are apoplectic, embarrassed in front of the whole world as they are forced to start a new round of investigations. The Turks, hungry for continued Japanese investment, ordered seven people detained— including four pilots — and demanded answers to Ghosn's "illegal" transit through Istanbul Atatürk Airport.
The international police agency, Interpol, issued a "red notice" to Lebanon signaling that Ghosn is a wanted man, but governments are not compelled to detain or arrest the suspect. And the Lebanese get the world's most famous fugitive and all the attention that comes with it.
The tale's got all the makings of a Hollywood political thriller, buffed by the shifting iconography of the modern auto industry, power politics animated by towering egos in Paris and Tokyo, and the cultural dissonance exposed by Japan’s comparatively harsh legal treatment of a rock star CEO the country once celebrated as the savior of Nissan Motor Co.
With Ghosn scheduled to hold a news conference next Wednesday in Beirut, this story isn’t close to being over. It’s just beginning, a tale of national hubris, an international battle for control and how one executive born in Brazil, reared in Lebanon and schooled in France straddled the 20-year-old transcontinental alliance — and became a liability to the Japanese who once hailed his arrival.
"I have not fled justice — I have escaped injustice and political persecution," Ghosn said in a statement dated New Year's Eve, subsequently denying reports that his wife, Carole, assisted in his escape. "I am now in Lebanon and will no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied, in flagrant disregard of Japan's legal obligations under international law and treaties it is bound to uphold."
He has a point. All throughout this stunning debacle, too many things haven't added up: the timing; surprise at just how many of Nissan's corporate dollars were spent to keep Ghosn and his family in the globe-trotting style to which they'd long ago grown accustomed; the Japanese insistence that the white-collar crackdown, and its ferocity, had nothing to do with Ghosn's efforts to potentially merge Renault and Nissan.
Really? It had to. One version circulating among the global media suggests Ghosn's warming to a fuller merger of Renault and Nissan was driven by the strategic desire to ready the group for a blockbuster tie-up with Fiat Chrysler. Instead, the maker of profit-rich Ram pickups and Jeep SUVs is poised to combine with arch-rival Groupe PSA, maker of Peugeot and Citroën vehicles.
Pay attention to what people do, not what they say. Ghosn's schooled enough in Japan's intertwined political, business and legal cultures to know that his escape would rock official circles in Tokyo, would unleash a diplomatic pressure game, and would complicate efforts by Renault, Nissan and their respective governments to repair their fractured alliance.
The lavish corporate support for Ghosn's peripatetic lifestyle became outrageous when his thinking on merging the larger, more profitable Nissan into the smaller, less profitable Renault tilted in favor of the French government's preference to more closely align the sprawling group under the control of Paris.
Couldn't happen. Not in today's zeitgeist, where resurgent nationalistic tendencies are not limited to Donald Trump's America or Boris Johnson's Britain. From Japan and South Korea to Germany and the United States, automakers are repositories of national pride, and the legal vise gripping Ghosn is one glaring symptom of deepening tensions between France's Renault and Japan's Nissan.
That's one reason the French government is so keen to support PSA's merger with Fiat Chrysler: it's in the French national interest to ensure at least one of its automakers allies with a profitable partner whose brands and earnings power are rooted in a rich American market powered by pickups and SUVs.
Renault and Nissan are instead left to unwind their deep governance, leadership and business troubles amid the "Where's Carlos" drama likely to play out for weeks and months, if not many years. The soap opera is not likely to help either automaker cope with the mounting challenges of scale in an era of creeping electrification anymore than it's likely to help repair Ghosn's reputation.
Twenty years as arguably the hottest CEO in the global industry (rivaled only by GM's Mary Barra and the late Fiat Chrysler boss, Sergio Marchionne) would cause just about anyone to succumb to what longtime industry executive Bob Lutz derisively calls "CEO disease." Ghosn is no exception.
Symptoms include fat paychecks, lavish perks, generally uncritical media attention and an overweening sense of self-importance — up to and including slipping the law to live life on the lam in a chronically unstable country in the Middle East.
How much was getting out of Japan worth to Ghosn? At least the $14 million bail he forfeited and the cost associated with spiriting him through an Osaka airport, on to a executive jet and into Istanbul before changing planes for the flight to Beirut.
"So he now has burnt his bridges to Japan," Stephen Givens, a lawyer and expert on Japan's legal and corporate systems, told Japan's national daily, the Mainchi, this week. "This is going to end in basically a stalemate with him spending the rest of his life in Lebanon."
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.