01/10/2020

Makoto Uchida’s low-key approach raises doubts about his ability to solve crisis

When Nissan’s board met last week in the wake of Carlos Ghosn’s dramatic escape from Japan, the moment cried out for the new chief executive Makoto Uchida to take centre stage.
Instead, the crucial turnround presentation was delivered by the group’s number two, Ashwani Gupta. The boss, already dubbed “invisible” by some colleagues, listened quietly alongside the other directors. 
This low-key approach is already drawing criticism from some insiders, who say it may have its place at other groups — but not at Nissan, which needs a strong and decisive leader who can stop the warring factions splitting the company apart.
Just two months into his tenure, there are doubts among some company executives over whether Mr Uchida is the man to solve the crisis at the group, which still has to heal wounds with its French-owned alliance partner Renault.
A new three-man leadership group launched with a “one team” slogan to mark a decisive end to the dictatorial style of the Ghosn era and bring stability to the business has already dissolved.
A rift has opened up between the CEO and chief operating officer, Mr Gupta, according to three people close to the company’s board, while a third member of the troika left the business in December. 
As the new alliance team prepares to meet on Thursday in Japan, Mr Uchida needs to start taking charge, say these insiders, with the company’s future reliant on whether he can stem crumbling sales worldwide and revive rock-bottom morale, while under a constant bombardment of criticism from ousted former chairman Mr Ghosn in Lebanon. 
Renault, led by chairman Jean-Dominique Senard, will aim to breathe fresh life into the 20-year old partnership with Nissan this week, with a spate of new joint projects intended to bring the businesses closer while also, crucially, respecting their independence. 
On Tuesday, the French carmaker named former Volkswagen and Fiat executive Luca de Meo as its new CEO, although he will not take up the post for several months.
A person close to Mr Senard denied any rifts at the top of either Nissan or the alliance, saying that Mr Senard, Mr Uchida, Mr Gupta, Renault’s interim CEO Clotilde Delbos, and third alliance partner Mitsubishi, worked well together and communicated daily.
The main protagonists
Makoto Uchida, Nissan CEO
The former head of Nissan’s Chinese operation, Mr Uchida, 53, previously worked at Nissan’s joint purchasing division with Renault. Being able to work with the French partner and unite Japanese executives will be key to his success in turning round the business. 
Ashwani Gupta, Nissan chief operating officer 
The ambitious Indian-born executive, 49, has worked across all three companies in the alliance, most recently as Mitsubishi’s chief operating officer. He previously led the alliance’s light commercial vehicles unit. 
Jun Seki, Nissan’s former turnround expert 
The former China head was seen as the strongest CEO candidate after he was assigned the pivotal role of overseeing the company’s recovery plan last May. He left Nissan after three decades to become future CEO of Apple supplier Nidec. 
Yasuhiro Yamauchi, former Nissan interim CEO 
The former chief operating officer is the closest board member and mentor to the new Nissan boss. He was once considered a CEO candidate but his brief tenure as interim chief ended following tensions with alliance partner Renault. 
Hiroto Saikawa, former Nissan CEO 
Once a loyal deputy to Carlos Ghosn, Mr Saikawa’s tenure as CEO was overshadowed by a slide in Nissan profits and a spate of certification scandals. He quit last September following revelations about overpaid compensation. 
Jean-Dominique Senard, Renault chairman 
The former Michelin CEO was parachuted into Renault last January, with the aim of holding the alliance together following Mr Ghosn’s arrest. He sits on Nissan’s board, and also chairs the alliance management committee that includes chief executives from Renault, Nissan, and Mitsubishi.
From the very beginning the dark-horse selection of Mr Uchida, the 53-year-old former head of China operations, was controversial. Many inside Nissan had considered Jun Seki, the turnround expert who was poached by Apple supplier Nidec in December, as the strongest contender. He was also the trusted protégé of Hiroto Saikawa, who stepped down as CEO in September following internal findings of overpayments. 
After the initial internal sounding out of successors to Mr Saikawa by the nomination committee, Mr Seki had garnered the most support while Mr Gupta, the India-born former Renault executive, came in second. Mr Uchida had gained no support.
But the process descended into acrimony as unfounded allegations of personal and professional misconduct were levied at several candidates by competing factions inside Nissan, according to people with knowledge of the nomination procedure.
Renault chairman Mr Senard, who was in favour of Mr Gupta, subsequently opposed Mr Seki and the official vote settled with the little-known Mr Uchida as a compromise candidate.
Jean-Dominique Senard, chairman of Renault ©Magali Delporte
Mr Senard’s intervention sparked some bitterness among Nissan executives as the nomination process, which was put in place after Mr Ghosn was arrested in late 2018, is supposed to be independent.
Nissan and Renault declined to comment on the nomination process. 
Another Nissan executive has been selected to fill Mr Seki’s number three position. But people close to the management say the new team remains divided owing to Mr Uchida’s tight bonding with his former supervisor Yasuhiro Yamauchi, who remains on the board after stepping down as interim CEO.
“The person Mr Uchida should rely on the most is Mr Gupta, but where is the ‘one team’ he pledged if he is only consulting Mr Yamauchi,” one of the people said.
Nissan denied there were tensions, saying Mr Uchida and Mr Gupta are “working closely together to lead the company in order to rebuild Nissan’s performance and trust in the company”. 
But critics say Mr Uchida has added fuel to the fire by siding with his mentor at a time when senior officials were already sparring over retirement packages for a string of former executives who were removed in the turmoil following Mr Ghosn’s arrest.
Rather than apologise for past strategies that saw heavy discounting tarnish the brand’s image, the new CEO repeated previous management directions, asking staff why they were not selling more cars at greater margins
The infighting has put scrutiny on the newly formed compensation committee. Its head Keiko Ihara has proposed granting full performance-based payouts for Mr Yamauchi and another executive associated with Mr Ghosn’s downfall despite a collapse in profits and share price at Nissan.
The proposal, which was formally approved by the committee, has yet to be reported to the board, according to two people familiar with the process.
There are also growing doubts within the board regarding Mr Uchida’s leadership skills. During a trip to Nissan’s struggling US operations earlier in January, it was Mr Gupta who addressed staff at various plants and at Nissan’s research centre in Michigan, while Mr Uchida spoke to an employee gathering in Nashville and the company’s retailers. 
The meetings with dealerships, which are key to reviving the fortunes of the brand in its largest market, were not well received. 
Rather than apologise for past strategies that saw heavy discounting tarnish the brand’s image, the new CEO repeated previous management directions, asking staff why they were not selling more cars at greater margins. “There was no contrition at all,” said one person familiar with the details of the trip. 
Mr Uchida also claimed to be in “listening mode”, a tone that went down badly with retailers looking for a new direction from the new leader. 
People close to Mr Uchida and his former colleagues say the new CEO is hard-working and studious, while the transparency of board discussions has increased under him.
Jun Seki left Nissan after three decades to become future CEO of Apple supplier Nidec © AFP
Others say Mr Uchida, who showed little emotion when he heard of news that Mr Seki was leaving, is also reclusive and difficult to read. “He was suddenly thrust into the CEO position,” said one of the people. “People are worried whether Mr Uchida can pull the new management team together.” 
One person who worked with him in China said he never would have seen Mr Uchida as CEO material. “I didn’t even consider it at that time,” he said, adding that it was in contrast to Mr Seki, who was being groomed for the top position. 
But, as head of the combined purchasing division of Renault and Nissan, he gained the respect of the French side of the partnership, something that made him seem a safe bet for the pro-alliance contingent within both companies. 
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In public remarks so far and in interviews with Mr Senard ahead of his appointment, he has talked about rebuilding the alliance. 
But his loyalty to the entity built by Mr Ghosn has never been fully tested, while a cabal of senior executives within Nissan have accelerated secret contingency planning for a potential split from Renault, putting the future of the partnership in serious doubt. 
For those yearning for direction, Mr Uchida’s pivot from “listening mode” to leading mode cannot come soon enough.
Additional reporting by David Keohane in Paris