June 23, 2021

Gp Delivers1

The excellent automotive artisans1

Nissan’s Unlikely CEO Guides Car Maker in Post-Ghosn Era

Makoto Uchida

was the dark horse in the race to be

Nissan Motor Co.

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’s latest chief executive officer.

When

Carlos Ghosn

ruled the Japanese auto maker, few saw Mr. Uchida on the shortlist of future Nissan leaders. Then came Mr. Ghosn’s arrest in November 2018 and, less than a year later, the ouster of his successor. People familiar with the deliberations said the top contenders at that point couldn’t win a majority of Nissan’s fractious board, which includes directors affiliated with alliance partner

Renault SA

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. So the call unexpectedly went to Mr. Uchida, then head of Nissan’s China business.

His tenure so far has been bumpy: Soon after Mr. Uchida took the helm, Mr. Ghosn fled Japan to Lebanon. (Mr. Ghosn has said he is innocent of the charges of financial misconduct against him.) Nissan is a co-defendant with Mr. Ghosn and another former Nissan executive,

Greg Kelly,

in a criminal trial, in which infighting between Nissan and Renault executives has been aired in public. U.S. sales of Nissan cars, meanwhile, fell 33{184722e0e226bcc33313b73fd463388417f454aa3a20797559fe2c0007fff18a} in 2020, and combined losses in the current fiscal year and the previous one are set to top $10 billion.

Mr. Uchida, 54 years old, said the car maker is on track to returning to profitability in the next few years, in part because of plans to divide world markets and cut duplicate spending with Renault and its other alliance partner,

Mitsubishi Motors Corp.

A new model lineup is in the works. The price of Nissan’s shares is down 10{184722e0e226bcc33313b73fd463388417f454aa3a20797559fe2c0007fff18a} since Mr. Uchida took the helm in December 2019, though it has nearly doubled since hitting a 2020 low of 316 yen, equivalent to $2.91, in April. The stock price closed at ¥605.5 in Tokyo on Friday.

The Wall Street Journal spoke with Mr. Uchida by video from his office. Here are edited excerpts:

WSJ: It’s a little more than a year since you became CEO. What was your mind-set taking the job?

Mr. Uchida: The company’s situation at that time was quite tough in terms of the brand reputation, employee motivation. I had in my mind that maybe some people might say it was too early—a senior vice president becoming the CEO of this huge company. But I was determined that, if I had to take this job, I had to deliver.

Makoto Uchida speaking by video link in September at the Auto China show in Beijing.



Photo:

Thomas Peter/Reuters

WSJ: What are the challenges of managing a turnaround of a company shaken by the arrest of Carlos Ghosn?

Mr. Uchida: We had to remind ourselves about our culture. We had an atmosphere where we weren’t able to speak out and put the facts on the table. When I joined Nissan nearly 20 years ago, I loved the three words the company taught me: transparency, respect and trust. But has it really been demonstrated recently? It probably hasn’t.

WSJ: How have you gone about boosting employee morale?

Mr. Uchida: If you’re in an automotive company and employees don’t see the cars, they become insecure. They see all the numbers—the fixed-cost reductions, the investments. We had to take an impairment charge. OK, but what does it mean for Nissan moving forward? Where’s Nissan going next?

So we showed a video called “A to Z”—of Nissan’s new cars. That was very meaningful to us. We started with our Ariya [Nissan’s new electric SUV]. Then we went to the Z sports car prototype [a redesigned version of the Nissan Z sports car launched a half-century ago], which has a manual transmission. By the way, not many people are going to launch a car with manual transmission. But it has a lot of meaning for the Nissan people—it is our history. People started to feel motivated after seeing the cars.

WSJ: How much have you been able to meet employees face to face?

Mr. Uchida: My first month, I went to all our factories, all our technical centers in Japan. In January, I went to the U.S. Then I went to Europe the following month. Unfortunately, Covid started in March, so I couldn’t travel after that.

The Covid situation helped me to be closer to employees, because of our roundtables connected through Teams or Zoom. You feel like you are one on one. I had 1,000 people connected at one time, but through my screen they can even hear my breath.

WSJ: A lot of the criticisms about Nissan’s management have been directed at you personally. They question your ability to lead, or say you’re not a great communicator.

Mr. Uchida: Yeah, I think the word was “invisible.”

WSJ: Do you feel like you have something to prove?

Mr. Uchida: Of course. That is one of the reasons I said in front of the general shareholders meeting last year: If Nissan can’t turn around, please fire me.

I do understand what people are saying. But I am serious about making this company into what Nissan was. The Nissan of the past two years was not Nissan.

WSJ: How do you respond to the comparisons to Carlos Ghosn? Within a year of his arrival at Nissan in 1999, the company was making money again.

Mr. Uchida: I won’t talk about Carlos Ghosn, but I can talk about what is different. If you look at the industry back in 1999, it was in a period of growth. Today, the industry is dramatically changing. I have to demonstrate steady growth, and it has to be on a strong foundation.

At a press conference in Beirut, former automotive executive Carlos Ghosn said he “fled injustice” in Japan. WSJ’s Chip Cummins discusses what Mr. Ghosn said and didn’t say, and what it revealed about possible next steps. Photo: Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press (Video from 1/8/20)

Write to Sean McLain at [email protected]

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