Bob Lutz didn’t think Nissan could be saved.
Lutz was CEO of battery maker Exide in the late 1990s, after his Chrysler years and before joining General Motors. At that moment, Nissan was on the brink of failure, and the scuttlebutt making the rounds suggested that Lutz’s former employer, now known as DaimlerChrysler, was interested in taking over Nissan.
Lutz was asked what he thought of that idea, and his response was a colorfully blunt representation of prevailing attitudes.
You’d be better off putting $5 billion worth of gold bullion into a container with the word “Nissan” painted on the side and dumping it all into the Pacific, he said.
Such was the hopelessness that surrounded the Japanese company that Renault CEO Louis Schweitzer hooked up with in 1999. Schweitzer would dispatch one of his most-promising young executives, Carlos Ghosn, to lead the urgent rescue effort.
One month into his new job, Ghosn was promising a quick return to profit. After seven Nissan losses in eight years, that would be no slam-dunk.
Then, three months after that, Ghosn would mesmerize a packed hotel ballroom in Tokyo, outlining with brilliant precision his Nissan Revival Plan.
Talk is cheap, of course. But connecting with your audience matters, too -- especially when you’re a Brazilian-born Frenchman of Lebanese descent charged with saving a Japanese icon.
There was more than a business at stake.
There were death threats, recalls Jason Vines, who worked PR for Ghosn at the time.
Extra security had to be hired for Ghosn leading up to that October 1999 announcement.
And sure enough, just as the Japanese feared, there would be plenty of bitter medicine. Job cuts, plant closings, eliminated suppliers, shuttered dealerships were all part of the Nissan remedy. In short, Ghosn would dismantle Japan Inc.
But the strategy also included the promise of higher spending on r&d and a product-led recovery.
If Ghosn’s performance that day wasn’t enough to convince a suspicious Japanese audience that Nissan could be saved, he reinforced the point later that week. He gave his address to the Tokyo auto show -- in Japanese.
“He embraced the culture,” Vines said. “He understood the Japanese.”
True enough. But even those most impressed with him that week could not have predicted that he’d still be leading Nissan today.
He’ll be CEO for five more weeks. Then, on April 1, for the first time in 18 years, day-to-day control of Nissan will be back in the hands of a Japanese executive.