Carlos Ghosn Calls Nissan ‘Thugs,’ Says They’ll ‘Pay a High Price’ for His Downfall
The ex-Nissan CEO sits down with The Drive to talk about what happened in Japan, his night in the box, and his life as an international fugitive.
Carlos Ghosn, holding his iPhone in one hand and a profound sense of righteous anger in the other, sat on a low couch in his well-appointed home in Beirut across the room from his ceaselessly loyal wife and across the ocean from a very curious reporter, who sat waiting to hear The Thing, The Thing that would make it all make sense: how the former CEO of Nissan and Renault ended up an international fugitive wanted by Interpol, a once-exalted corporate titan cast out of the Mt. Olympus of business, trapped in a Lebanon-sized prison, fighting to clear his name and restore his reputation one conversation at a time.
Of course, if Carlos Ghosn could do that, he might not still be cooling his heels in a country with no extradition treaties over two years after fleeing Japan and the charges of financial crimes that ended his illustrious career in swift and stunning fashion.
By now, his story is legend. A Brazilian-Lebanese-French polyglot who rose from managing a tire plant in the early 1980s to engineering Nissan's miraculous global turnaround as its CEO in the 2000s, Ghosn waltzed into Japan as an economic hero in 1999 and left it curled up in a box 20 years later, smuggled out of the country by a former Green Beret and a Turkish charter jet crew. In between, he was widely perceived as one of the best executives anywhere, one of those who could march a company—any company—straight into the black through meticulous cost-cutting and rational product planning. He's perhaps the only person in the world who could've kept the Nissan-Renault Alliance together for almost two decades thanks to the respect he commanded in both countries.
He eventually added CEO of Renault and Chairman of Mitsubishi onto his growing list of titles, somehow juggling all three companies as he hopscotched around the globe on private planes, visiting plants, making boardroom speeches, and keeping a surprisingly close eye on the details. And then one day, everything fell apart.
Ghosn was arrested by Japanese authorities in November 2018 in Tokyo, charged with scheming to hide millions of dollars in unreported compensation, misusing company funds for lavish personal expenses, and other financial wrongdoing. Shocking as that was, so too was the look it provided at Japan's justice system, as Ghosn was held without bail, released, re-arrested, thrown in solitary confinement, released again, arrested again, and held under strict house arrest as the case metastasized through 2019. Still, the evidence seemed to pile up; Nissan was forthcoming with apparent proof, French authorities abandoned their initial defense of Ghosn and started their own investigations, and Ghosn's own silence was deafening until he shocked the world once more by popping up in Lebanon, proclaiming his complete innocence after arranging his own escape from Japan—infamously, now, in an instrument case.
If you ask him why he escaped, he'll tell you it's because he's innocent, he knew he wasn't going to get a fair trial, he loves his family and he didn't want to die in prison. But what's clear is that it's also because being silent was killing him, and Carlos Ghosn has a lot to say. He remains a singularly gifted and charismatic communicator—deprived of exercising that ability, he's, well, he's Sinatra with a cold.
But now? Now he's unleashed, writing a new memoir published in September called Broken Alliances, sitting down with outlets the AP and the BBC and The Drive, participating in podcasts and documentaries. And what Ghosn has to say is this: not only is he innocent, he's the victim of a coup, picked off by extremists inside Nissan who feared he was about to fully merge Renault and Nissan into one company and colluded with Japanese prosecutors to take him down. He says he wasn't going to do that, for the record, but the historical suspicion of foreigners meddling in Japan made him a convenient scapegoat at exactly the wrong moment. He's been expanding on his case since in various interviews since escaping, often done from a Beirut mansion that Nissan paid for years ago—though really, he's been stewing on this since the first hours after his arrest on the tarmac at Haneda over three years ago.
There's little in life that can prepare you for the sight of Carlos Ghosn popping up on your computer screen, his stern face and graying hair framed a bit too low by his phone's selfie camera, his eyes alight with a cool fury as he starts to unload on the "thugs" at Nissan that tried to destroy him. Ghosn and I spoke for nearly an hour, touching on everything from what he was thinking while he was inside the box, to his personal views on the proposed merger, to whether he can still stand to get into a Nissan.
- Ghosn claims that he never even wanted a true merger between Nissan and Renault because he knew it would be a bad idea: "I thought that from a management point of view, a merger would be a mistake. Because all of a sudden the Japanese would appear as a second rate citizen and that’s something I know is a basis of decline, and the basis of lack of motivation...so I didn’t believe in the merger, and I had no intent to do a merger. And frankly, if I was forced to make a merger, I would have resigned. That would’ve been better for me."
- Ghosn shared what he was thinking when he was inside the box: "From the moment I left my house to the moment I landed in Beirut, I was single-mindedly focused on, I’m now here, there are a lot of risks, I have to be attentive, I have to be totally aware of these risks, and I need to be able to react very quickly if something happens."
- He's not a fan of Interpol, believe it or not: "It’s a tragic joke. You know how Interpol works? I’m discovering this world. Interpol is just a kind of cooperative. These guys have no opinion. They don’t examine anything. You have one state asking for the arrest of a citizen, they transmit it to Interpol, Interpol doesn’t make any judgment about how serious is this accusation, they just distribute it all over the world. That’s how it happens."
- Despite everything, Ghosn still owns a Nissan Patrol and remains a huge fan of the truck: "I get into Nissan cars that I have done. For example, I spent a lot of time supervising the development of the Patrol, which is a car that I revived, that I practically imposed on the product planning because it was extremely important, particularly for the Middle East. And today I have a Patrol."
- Ghosn thinks Mitsubishi is in serious trouble as what he calls the "zombie alliance" stumbles on.
The Full Interview
Carlos Ghosn: Ok, hello Kyle.
The Drive: Hello sir. How are you doing today?
Ghosn: Fine, everything’s OK. I’m ready for you.
TD: That’s good, and again I appreciate you taking the time. I just want to hear everything that you have to say about…pretty much everything.
Ghosn: [Laughs] Gonna be easy in 45 minutes.
TD: Well, we’ll do our best, right? I wanted to start by asking you about your life in Lebanon now. How has it been for you? What’s your daily life like? Are you appreciating the slowdown, I guess that’s a good way to put it?
Ghosn: Look, I’m appreciating this phase in my life because frankly this is the first time I’m able to do what I like to do, what I want to do, and not mostly what I have to do. So this is a big difference between the corporate life that I had—that, by the way, I liked very much. But there were a lot of constraints in terms of schedules, in terms of geographical presence, the jet lag, the official meetings. But now, I’m finding myself without jet lag. I’ve not been on a plane for maybe 18 months, which is something exceptional. The fact that I can take the time to have breakfast with my wife, I can take the time to talk with my kids without having the stress of the next meeting, et cetera. So this part of my life I appreciate a lot, because this is something which is exceptional.
Now, my days are busy, but they are busy in a different way. As you know I have part of my schedule which is about education, because I am managing programs at the university where I’m contributing with a pro bono approach. Obviously I spend a lot of time also defending myself in multiple countries against civil suits, in France, in Japan, and in Holland. I spend time taking care of my own businesses, because I have some investments mainly in Lebanon. On top of the fact that I’m participating into many startups. And also spend a lot of time writing, I’ve already written two books, I’ve participated in one documentary. There is a TV series coming on, there is a potential movie. So, all of these things keep me very busy, but also very relaxed. It’s a very relaxed life, which is very very different from the one I had until the famous November 19, 2018.
TD: Right. It’s been over two years that you’ve been back there. But now the country has gone through some tough times since you arrived—the port explosion last year, the economic crisis. Has being there for all that made you want to give back to Lebanon? How has it been to experience all that firsthand?
Ghosn: You know, it’s very difficult to live in a country that you love and not be very affected by the trouble that the country is going through. As you know this is a financial crisis that translated into an economic crisis which translated into a social crisis, with the background of political turmoil. But the political turmoil had been in Lebanon here for the last 30 years, so that’s not something new. What was something new was the sudden and brutal and merciless financial crisis. So yes, anything I can do with my own experience of turning around situations, without doing politics obviously, but helping the leaders, helping the people who are selected to do the job, with my experience I would do it.
But also, I’m contributing by helping education, by supporting startups, by participating in some NGOs to relieve some of the pressure people are living with in their day to day lives with the shortages of electricity and the shortages of gasoline and the shortages of medicine, et cetera. We’re affected by this, and we’re trying as much as possible to help with our means to get through this difficult patch. The country has a lot of potential. There are solutions to the problems, I’m convinced of it. But you’re gonna have to endure some tough moments before the recovery comes.
TD: I want to switch gears to talk about your career, your legacy, really your life’s work. Just looking back over a 40+ year career, what are you most proud of if you could point to one single thing?
Ghosn: If I had to point to one single thing—one—I would say it is the turnaround of a Japanese company by a foreigner. That is something which is unique. And it’s a major company, it’s a company where big things have been done and they failed. As you know for the Japanese to accept a foreigner as CEO it means that they were really hopeless, so everybody recognized that it was not possible to do it. So the fact that I was able to come in, not knowing anything about Japan, not speaking Japanese, and turn around the situation in a relatively short period of time…and this is something that lasted for 18 years. It’s not a turnaround where it lasted for a few short years and the company went bust. I think this is the accomplishment that will stay. That’s number one.
There are many others, but if you ask me to pick one of them, that would be it.
TD: That’s interesting because that element of you being a foreigner running a major Japanese company is often said to be one of the things that led to all the trouble. And yet you point to that exact thing as something that’s a source of enormous pride for you. Is there some stubbornness in that view?
Ghosn: No, no, no. Because it is something unique. This is something that very few people would be able to do, and I was able to do it. And I was able to do it in the car industry, which is an industry as you know the Japanese are very proud of. Doing it in 1999 when the car industry was a bright spot of Japan. And I’ve done it in a way where, you know, I was very respected, became a kind of iconic figure in Japan. For many years.
The hostility, the plot that was organized against me, came really in 2018, which was 19 years after I arrived to the job. It was not something that was widespread in Japan. It was forced by a small group of people, and then they used character assassination techniques in order to make sure that the big part of the public would only hear one voice about this story. But I’m also hopeful that with the launch of the documentary—The Last Flight, which by the way has been aired in Japan for the first time—this is gonna give the public the opportunity to hear another version about what happened, and another version about what kind of plot was organized, and why this was organized against me.
TD: Where do you think that breakdown of trust began, between this group that you’re describing within Nissan, the French, and yourself. When and where was that point that it all started to unravel?
Ghosn: I think the start of the distrust came when the French government voted in the Florange Law [in 2015]. The Florange Law that gave shareholders who keep their shares more than two years double voting rights. And obviously, that allowed the French state, who has a lot of stake in the company, to be able to double their voting rights without having to buy any additional shares. This was the beginning. And this triggered a huge distrust from the Japanese side, because the way they implemented it in Renault was frankly, I would qualify it as a forced implementation.
Why? The law said if two-thirds of the shareholders refuse to implement it in one company, it will not be implemented. This is French law. I was campaigning against the implementation of the law at Renault, and I was close with the vote. But Mr. [Emmanuel] Macron, who was at that moment Minister of Economy—he didn’t want to lose on this battle, so what he did was he asked the French state to buy more shares in Renault, in order to avoid me and get more than a third of the vote [to implement the law].
The way it was done created distrust with the Japanese. As in, OK you voted [in] the law, which is already unfair. And then, the insult is you oppose Nissan benefiting from the law, because Nissan has similar shares [in Renault] as the French state [but with no voting rights], and they said OK, we are going to double our voting rights, but Nissan won't get to do the same. So this was too much for the Japanese. And frankly, I was on the Japanese side, because I thought the French government went too far. This was a huge, big shock that shook the whole alliance. Because all of a sudden the Japanese executives started to doubt the intention of the French state.
Second shock came when in 2018, the French asked me to go for another mandate, even though I was very much hesitating to take a new mandate. And the French state asked me, on top of continuing the strategy that worked so much for Renault, to make the alliance with Nissan irreversible. They knew that I was against the merger, I told them, you know, if you want to do a merger, it’s gonna be without me. They said no no no, we want you to do a convergence. I said ok, I don’t agree on a true merger, but I will put something together that will allow the alliance to be irreversible through a holding company.
So at that moment, the Japanese knew that I wanted to [step down as Chairman] in June 2018, and then all of a sudden I accept a new contract with this mission to make the alliance irreversible. Some people said, you know, if we let him continue, we’re gonna end up merging with Renault and having the French state having a say in a major Japanese company. And they didn’t want that to happen. The only way to stop that, in their opinion, is to get rid of me. Because they knew that I would be the only person capable of carrying this convergence between the companies, because I was legitimate on all sides. I was legitimate at Mitsubishi, I was legitimate at Nissan, and I was legitimate over at Renault.
And this was good thinking, because the day they got rid of me, the alliance became a zombie. Frankly there is no work being done; it’s just some gimmicks, and nice words, and we are all brothers, and we’re making a consensus decision, which means no decision at all. There is a lot of talk and not much action, and it shows in the results of those companies. And I’m expecting this alliance to dissolve because it doesn’t make sense anymore.
TD: So you were against the merger, and you decided that in the best interests of the shareholders and the company, you were gonna explore whatever this irreversible partnership could look like. What is the actual difference between some sort of arrangement that’s “irreversible” and a merger?
Ghosn: It’s very simple. Something that’s irreversible is something that would be legal and financial. For example, my idea was to create a holding company based in Holland with one share that would be common to Nissan and Renault and Mitsubishi, that would be traded both in Tokyo and in Paris, and probably in Holland, with one board for the entities. But there would be three executive committees, one for Nissan, one for Renault, one for Mitsubishi. There would be three headquarters. But in a certain way, we would create one entity that would group the common functions of the alliance that would be based in Amsterdam with one board, one share, and this would make it irreversible.
But, we would respect the autonomy of each company, and we respect the nationality and the culture of each company because the headquarters of Renault would remain in France, Nissan in Yokohama, Mitsubishi in Tokyo.
TD: And you think that would’ve been a successful arrangement?
Ghosn: Oh, I had the buy in from many many people, except the extremists. One extremist was the diehard on the French side, both in the administration and some in Renault saying, “We just want a merger, because, you know, we own this company, and so we would just need to merge it.” And from the other side, the old boys with Nissan, in collaboration with the prosecutors and the people of the [Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry] who said, “We don’t want interference of a foreign state in our company.”
TD: Do you have any negative feelings about the idea that you didn’t really want to pursue this merger, and yet doing so is what led to the situation you’re in now?
Ghosn: I don’t think the merger would have happened. I think if I had announced that yeah, we’re going to do a merger, the arrest would’ve taken place much sooner. Because there was a completely hostile position towards the merger [in Nissan]. On top of this, for a management reason—I thought that from a management point of view, a merger would be a mistake. Because all of a sudden the Japanese would appear as a second rate citizen and that’s something I know is a basis of decline, and the basis of lack of motivation.
I followed what happened between Daimler and Mitsubishi [in 2000]. One of the reasons Mitsubishi collapsed is because they didn’t feel motivated anymore. Stuttgart was the place where all the decisions were made, and the Mitsubishi people didn’t care about the results because they say at the end of the day if we make a profit, it’s gonna go to Germany. And they had no connection to that. So I didn’t believe in the merger, and I had no intent to do a merger. And frankly, if I was forced to make a merger, I would have resigned. That would’ve been better for me.
When I said OK [to the "irreversible" plan], because I understand it was unacceptable for the French government to remain with the status quo. They knew that a lot of the status quo was resting on my shoulders. The day I retired, it would become very shaky. At the same time, I couldn’t go through the merger because I didn’t believe it was a good thing. So this is where I put together this holding company with one share, one board but three different executive committee, local headquarters, et cetera, that would marry at the same time the irreversibility of the alliance and the operational autonomy of each company.
But again, when you try to come to the middle ground, the extremes come out. The extremes are really opposed to this. Unfortunately for me, one of the extreme sides was the old boys at Nissan, and I never thought they would go so far to stop it.
TD: How did you piece all this together on your own after your arrest in 2018? You weren’t informed of the full scope of the charges for a while, so how did you come to know all this?
Ghosn: Kyle, you start by using reasoning, and then little by little you start to have clues, and statements, and witnesses, which is the case today. But at the beginning, I couldn’t understand. Because you know, I was arrested and there was one charge—which by the way, lasted 40 days. They wanted to bring something else because they discovered this [first] charge wasn’t flying. They had to come with something else to cover up what they were doing. But I didn’t understand the first charge. I’m being arrested for not declaring compensation that was neither decided nor paid? I couldn’t understand that.
I mean, somebody like me, you know, CEO of the first automotive group in the world. $200 billion of revenue. Four hundred and fifty thousand employees. Nine or $10 billion of profit. You arrest me for not declaring compensation that’s not paid, or even decided? It was very hard to follow. So I said, because it’s such a bogus reason, I said oh my god, this must not be the reason. There must be something else.
And the only something else—when [then-Nissan CEO Hiroto] Saikawa the day of my arrest said, “Now it’s time to reconsider the balance of the relationship between Renault and Nissan," well, he said it all. He said it all. He said, "Now we are in a new phase. We don’t want this dictatorship of Carlos Ghosn. It is time to re-examine and renegotiate the relationship between Renault and Nissan." He said it all. The day of my arrest! He didn’t wait two weeks for that. He said it the same day.
TD: That must’ve been infuriating.
Ghosn: Shocked, yeah. Shocked, shocked.
TD: And I don’t mean to dwell on what I know was a trying experience for you, but in detention—to go from the life you were living to being in jail, to being under house arrest, to being in solitary confinement, what was that like?
Ghosn: It was very hard, as you can imagine. I’m not gonna dwell on it either. The conditions were particularly harsh. You know, with the charges against me, it’s not like I was representing any danger for anybody, or that I could escape from [the jail] or anything like this. But they maintained very strict conditions like I was some kind of dangerous terrorist. This was shocking to me.
But in a certain way, what helped me resist all of this is the profound and deep revolt I felt, thinking, this is so unjust. Not only unjust, but also unfair. Unjust in the sense that, I didn’t see justice anywhere. They were not looking for the truth, they were looking just for a confession on a charge that they fabricated. And unfair because I kept saying, you know, with everything I’ve done for Japan, I have consecrated 18 years of my professional life resuscitating a Japanese company, helping Japan in foreign direct investment. I was an advisor of [Junichiro] Koizumi when he was prime minister. I’ve been many times in Davos supporting Japan, supporting the efforts of Japan to open up. And this is the way I’m being rewarded for all this? So I consider it unjust and unfair.
This sentiment was so strong, it was one of the pillars of my resistance. Me saying, I’m not gonna let them destroy me because this is so unfair and so unjust. That’s for myself. On the other side, I love my wife and I love my children, and I don’t want them to be in despair. I said, I’m gonna fight for them. I want to fight for my wife, and I want to fight for my children. These two pillars, the profound revolt against injustice and unfairness, and the profound love I have for my wife and for my children helped me overcome all the obstacles.
And they would’ve done anything in order to get me to kneel. They were not able to do it, they were not able to do it. But they were so confident, because you know, they thought that even though I would not confess, they would put me away for the next 20 years. Look at poor Greg Kelly, my ex colleague Greg Kelly. I’ve been told that his trial will finish, the decision will be made in March 2022. Three years, three years and four months after his arrest for such a bogus charge. Again, I’m using “bogus charge,” because that’s what Senator Wicker has said in the Senate.
So these are the secrets of my resistance. Love, and rebellion in the face of injustice and unfairness.
TD: Whatever that first conversation was that you had about getting out of Japan, I imagine all that coalesced in one moment, where you felt like OK, this is what has to be done. Can you take me back to when you decided to leave?
Ghosn: I decided when I saw many many things converging. The first thing is this scary statistic [in Japan] where the prosecutor wins in 99.4% of cases. Not only is this a scary statistic, but what’s particularly scary is the explanation the Japanese authorities give, saying, you know, "We have great prosecutors who do a great job." 99.4% of prosecutor wins is scary, but on top of this the explanation is our prosecutors have done a great job, which means that all the lawyers are worms, nobody cares about them, and the judges are also inexistent, because they’re always aligned with the prosecution.
The second scary thing was my lawyers kept telling me, "Don’t expect fair treatment. You’re not gonna get fair treatment, you’re seeing it now. But, we still think that we have enough elements in order to get you released." Frankly, I started to doubt it when I’ve seen so much bad faith coming not only from the prosecutor, but even from the judge. I met the judge who was in fact working on the conditions of my bail during the pre-trial sessions. And this judge has forbidden me to talk to or see my wife with the frankly dishonest explanation that she could tamper with evidence or influence witnesses.
If I wanted to tamper with evidence or influence witnesses, I have cousins, friends, colleagues visiting me in Japan, I could use any one of them to do that. Or my kids. Or my sisters. But he was focusing on my wife because he knew that I have a very strong relationship with her. And by forbidding me from talking to my wife, they were weakening me, they were putting me in a situation where they said he’s going to be so distressed by not being able to live all these years without his wife, we’re gonna get from him some kind of confession.
So the unfairness, the horrible statistics, the treatment, the fact that they were not looking to understand my arguments, they were just looking to make their case much stronger, I came to the conclusion that there is no justice for me in Japan. I’m never going to get anything from Japan. If I want to really defend myself, I need to get out.
And don’t forget that I was also forbidden to talk to the press. You didn’t hear from me for about 14 months. Because the whole time after my arrest when I was in Japan, I couldn’t talk to the press. When I called for a press conference [while out on bail] in April 2019, I was back to detention. They charged me with more things, and they brought me back to prison. And when they released me, the prosecutor said you know Mr. Ghosn is free to talk to the press, but we are free to bring additional charges. It wasn’t even a veiled threat. It was an open threat that if you open your mouth, you go back to jail.
When I left Japan—frankly, I don’t think they were expecting this to happen.
TD: I think that’s accurate.
Ghosn: The Japanese are so arrogant from a certain point of view. They said, you know what, this guy is gonna die in Japan. He’s gonna die a dog’s death in Japan, we’re gonna do whatever we want with him, can’t talk to the press, so he’s nothing to be afraid of. And then when I popped up in Beirut, it was a shock. Because now I can write books, make movies, explain my case, go after the hostage justice system. They’re not gonna stop hearing from me, both the legal system and also Nissan, who abused their shareholders, the people who are today the board of Nissan, abused their shareholders, and the situation of the company today is terrible.
TD: I know you’ve declined to talk about this before, but the gentlemen who helped you escape Japan were sentenced by a Japanese court for their involvement. Do you have any thoughts about how they were treated?
Ghosn: Look, I think the Japanese hostage justice system is a system that is based on, you know, you need to confess, and if you confess you get a speedy trial. That’s what happened. But if you don’t confess, you have a lengthy trial. Which is the case of Greg Kelly, because he’s pleading innocent whereas the other guys are pleading guilty. But at the end of the day you’re going to get the maximum sentence no matter what. These guys are so radical. And frankly, I don’t only think about [the Taylors] and I feel for them, but I feel for all the people unknown who are going through this system without the means to defend themselves.
In a certain way I was globally known, so press around the world followed my case. But put yourself in the shoes of a normal Japanese citizen who goes through the system. It’s horrible.
Since I came to Beirut, I’ve been contacted by many foreigners who have been through the same treatment in Japan. And you have disheartening stories being told to you about how the Japanese are dealing with the people going through their justice system. And particularly the foreigners, because—and this is something we don’t say loud enough, there is discrimination against foreigners [in Japan]. There’s clear discrimination against the foreigner when it comes to the justice system.
TD: Do you think about the fact that you’re an international fugitive often? Does it pop into your mind on a daily basis?
Ghosn: Oh yeah, yeah. But it’s such a joke, that’s the way I qualify it. It’s a tragic joke. You know how Interpol works? I’m discovering this world. Interpol is just a kind of cooperative. These guys have no opinion. They don’t examine anything. You have one state asking for the arrest of a citizen, they transmit it to Interpol, Interpol doesn’t make any judgment about how serious is this accusation, they just distribute it all over the world. That’s how it happens. Even though I have the United Nations taking a clear position, saying my arrest in Japan was arbitrary, my human rights have been violated, et cetera—which by the way, are all reasons for Interpol to not tackle the case. It’s in the rules of Interpol that if an issue is political, or if human rights are being violated, they cannot act. OK? So they’re going against their own principles just because probably Japan is one of the payers to Interpol. And they are turning a blind eye on everything.
You know that my wife also has an arrest warrant on her? And the accusation is perjury, because she was asked questions about me and they said oh, you know, she—there are many countries where there is no perjury when a wife is talking about her husband, or a husband talking about his wife. The whole thing is frankly, when you look at it, it’s a joke. And I said to the Japanese public, I said, your legal system is a joke. It is something which is not at the level of the Japan I know. It is something which is so odd, so dark, within an overall good picture of Japan, which is a civilized, well-organized country, peaceful people, et cetera. But when you look at the whole hostage justice system, it’s the dark side of Japan appearing.
TD: During the actual escape, what were you thinking that night, when you were inside the box?
Ghosn: It was single-minded focus. When you are in a situation which is extremely dangerous, where you’re extremely motivated by the results, you don’t think about the past, you don’t think about the future, you’re just stuck in the moment. You’re stuck in the moment. Because you really don’t want to fail. You want to have your attention, your senses, taking in what’s taking place now, because if something goes wrong you don’t want to be wandering around somewhere else and lose your opportunity. So I was really, from the moment I left my house to the moment I landed in Beirut, I was single-mindedly focused on, I’m now here, there are a lot of risks, I have to be attentive, I have to be totally aware of these risks, and I need to be able to react very quickly if something happens.
It’s only when I landed in Beirut that I started to feel a little bit more relaxed, and started to think not about the past, but about the future. Because my single and most important objective was, now I need to talk. I was forbidden to talk for 14 months, now it’s time to talk and as you know, a couple of weeks after my arrival I held that press conference.
TD: Speaking of talking, there was a quote in an interview you gave in the fall that got a lot of attention in the U.S., about how you were looking at what Nissan has done since your departure, what the alliance has become, and you described Nissan as a “boring and mediocre” car company. Given the timelines of product decisions and development, the impacts of your leadership are still being felt in cars it sells today to some degree. So how do we square that with you saying it’s a boring, mediocre company since you led it for 18 years?
Ghosn: I led the company as you know from 1999 to 2016. I stopped being the CEO of Nissan at the end of 2016. So when I was arrested, this was practically two years since I was CEO, and now today—I said, Nissan is becoming a boring and mediocre company. I didn’t say it was. Though certainly, it was. Frankly in 1999 it was a boring and not even mediocre company. It was a bankrupt company in 1999.
So little by little, with the growth of Nissan with a lot of products, with the sense of Nissan was a brand that was reviving, it became a normal company. And then it became a company that was a leader, you know, the initiative of taking 34% of the shares of Mitsubishi, joining with Mitsubishi, becoming the largest car manufacturer in 2018 jointly with Renault. There were a lot of things going on. We launched an electric car, there were advances with the autonomous cars, and there were many many new products coming.
In 2016, I passed the reins [as Nissan CEO] to Mr. Saikawa. Unfortunately the result, and I’m partly responsible for it, because I obviously selected the wrong guy. I was starting to discover it when I saw the results in 2017, and then the results in 2018, that he would not be the guy to able to maintain the performance of Nissan. Certainly not to grow the company, but not even to maintain the performance of Nissan. So when I say it is today and it became a boring and mediocre car company, because frankly, I mean I’m trying desperately to see what’s the vision for Nissan. I see none. What are the objectives? I see none.
Everything is about correcting the past. They are blaming all their problems on the fact that Nissan has been very aggressive on the North American market. Well guess what? The guy who was responsible for the North American market was José Muñoz. You know, José Muñoz left in 2018 when I was arrested.
Between some of the top executives of Nissan—by the way, a lot of people say you know, you leave alone and the company collapsed? No, I didn’t leave alone. A lot of people left with me, and that’s why the company collapsed. A large company mainly is based on this very delicate balance between maybe ten critical people at the top. And if seven or eight of them leave, then you are totally unbalanced. You can go in any direction. And that’s what happened to Nissan.
So to come back, José Muñoz went to Hyundai, and guess what? Hyundai’s on a roll in North America, and Nissan is down. Now they are saying oh, Nissan is down because I was too ambitious, I was too aggressive, I was this and that. Hey, but the guy who was leading the offensive in North America changed to another team, and now this team is winning over and gaining market share on Nissan, and as I understand made record profit last year. It’s unbelievable. And the media gobbles all this up without any minimum sense of asking, you know, is this true? Does it stand up analysis? So these are the comments I’ve made.
But you know what, my best revenge is going to be the reality. You look at the performance in 2021, in 2022, 2023—compare it to the performance of the company between 1999 and 2018, and you get your answer.
TD: I get what you mean about reality being revenge, but I would also add that living in a mansion paid for by Nissan where they can’t touch you is also a kick. Speaking of, if you have any information about the new GT-R that you might want to share now that you’re not part of the company, I’m all ears.
Ghosn: Uh, no. You know what? I try not to look too much into the details. I’ve turned the page on Renault and Nissan and Mitsubishi. I’m looking only at a very broad level, the growth of the company, the profits, and particularly the vision of the company. And everything I see is mediocre, so I stop there.
TD: Do you think Mitsubishi is in serious trouble now that the rest of the—
Ghosn: Ohhhh yeah. Oh yeah.
TD: What’s the future for them?
Ghosn: Oh my god. Mitsubishi—when I moved into Mitsubishi in 2016, you know, when [former Mitsubishi CEO Osamu] Masuko came to see me and said, is there anything we can do together? I say yeah, sure. But you’re gonna have to accept a lot of changes, and you’re gonna have to accept to remain as CEO because you’re gonna do the changes, and I’m gonna watch. This is the way it happened. This was the typical zombie Japanese company, alive from outside, but dead from inside. It was typical.
And what was amazing was that with just a little bit of oxygen that we put inside, Mitsubishi made a remarkable recovery if you look at the numbers in 2017 and 2018. The growth, the profit came back very quickly. And immediately after me exiting and obviously some other people exiting, it went back even to probably worse than it was. But again, the numbers speak for themselves. Not only do the numbers speak for themselves, but also, you trust management when management spends time looking forward, not backward.
I remember in 1999, I forced myself to say that I shouldn’t criticize what happened before, I should only be looking onward in order to make sure everyone looking to Nissan in 2000, 2001, 2002, and not looking to what they’ve done in the past. Well today we have management who is still talking about what happened in the past and they’re not looking forward. So how are you gonna move forward if you’re looking backward? And if you have people who are unable to vocalize a simple vision and strategy that would not make you yawn, that is believable where you say ok, they’re gonna have a chance to survive in this very competitive market.
TD: Something that I don’t think gets mentioned much in your story is that Nissan developed the Leaf under your leadership, which gave it this massive head start on electrification. The industry has caught up and surpassed it, but that was over a decade of lead time that Nissan got. Was a mass-market electric car something you specifically wanted to get done, or was it a result of R&D just moving in that direction?
Ghosn: No. Making the Leaf is not an R&D problem, it’s a marketing and sales problem, and a leadership problem. When you come with an innovation like an electric car, you need to exercise a lot of leadership. Because if you go through consensus, you’re never gonna get it done. You’re not gonna get an electric car to the mass market by consensus for a very simple reason: you’re gonna have to dedicate a lot of resources, and these resources, you’re gonna have to take them from somewhere else. Stopping some engine, stopping some cars, stopping some development in countries in order to dedicate resources to an electric car.
And this cannot be done without exercising leadership, which is the contrary of consensus. It doesn’t make sense. When you are in a technological revolution, consensus doesn’t make sense. You are sometimes going to need to do things which are odd, to do things which are bold, and by definition when you’re going in a bold direction, you’re not gonna have a lot of people who are agreeing with you. But what’s important is you’re gonna try to convince them that you’re going in the right direction, and show the results that are going to fortify the fact that the company should go in that direction.
I had this many times in my career. I can think of Nissan moving into China in 2002, 2003. I was super criticized. Building a plant in Brazil, I was super criticized. Even doing the alliance with Mitsubishi, a lot of people hate Mitsubishi and super criticized. Launching the electric car, super criticized. Why don’t we do a hybrid, same thing as Toyota? You know, it was always… If I had to say you know what, I’m a consensus guy, we’re gonna have a meeting and we’re gonna come to a conclusion, we would not have done any of that.
And all of these elements were key factors in the growth of Nissan and the company having a shot at playing an important role in the industry—which by the way, they are abandoning very quickly now by saying, "You know what, small is beautiful, consensus is the new norm," and all of this bullshit that, as you know, leads companies in a few years to total collapse.
TD: I’ve read before that you don’t really consider yourself a car person necessarily, you’ve described yourself as a manufacturer first. Do you currently own a car, and do you have one in Lebanon?
Ghosn: I have many cars, yes.
TD: Can you still get in a Nissan and appreciate it for what it is without feeling angry?
Ghosn: Yeah, yeah, because I get into Nissan cars that I have done. For example, I spent a lot of time supervising the development of the Patrol, which is a car that I revived, that I practically imposed on the product planning because it was extremely important, particularly for the Middle East. And today I have a Patrol, between the cars that I have, I like the Patrol. It’s not because it carries a brand of the company I led for 18 years, and I have nothing against the company itself. I have a lot against the board of this company, and some of the executives of this company. I think these people are thugs, there’s no other way to qualify that, and their employees are gonna pay a high price for their leaders. That’s it.
TD: Do you have a favorite car?
Ghosn: Well, it depends on if I’m driven, or if I’m driving. So yes, favorite car to be driven in, I think probably one of the most comfortable is without any doubt the Mercedes [S-Class]. You know, whether you are in the Series 5 or Series 4, I think it’s still the top of the line in comfort if you’re being driven. And if you want to drive a car today, I think particularly with the road conditions in Lebanon, the Porsche Hybrid is a great car to drive.
TD: So I have more questions, but I know we’re already way over time and I don’t want to take up too much of your evening. I appreciate you spending this hour with me.
Ghosn: Thank you, thank you. And thank you for allowing the public in the United States to really access the book. Because frankly a lot of people have a very very artificial analysis of what happened, so I think this book at least gives the opportunity for people who are interested to get a hint about what happened.
TD: Ok, so final final question. Just to state it plainly, is there any legitimacy, any truth to what Nissan and Japan have accused you of doing?
Ghosn: Let me answer you very plainly. The compensation charge is bogus, it really doesn’t make sense. The story about me putting losses—the story about me putting losses, and by the way, Nissan did not pay one cent, and it was about foreign exchange rate—this was a benefit that all company banks offer to their executives, and Nissan, it was unknown, that’s why we were forced to do it with [other] banks. Making a big fuss about the fact that I had losses that I put on Nissan, which is not true because Nissan didn’t pay anything, anything for this, which is just a mere foreign exchange rate program allowing you to transform your yen into dollars. It’s just another bogus reason.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.