The Race to Succeed Carlos Ghosn

Nissan's president is putting possible successors to the test

The reign of Carlos Ghosn at Nissan Motor Co. has been so dramatic that it's almost impossible to imagine anyone taking his place. Since the hyperkinetic Lebanese-Brazilian-Frenchman took over a near-bankrupt Nissan in 1999, the carmaker has gone from roadkill to profit machine in almost record time. Nissan expects to sell 2.8 million cars and trucks in the year ending this month, compared with 2.6 million last year. Profits? Look for them to rise a third, to $4.1 billion on sales of $56.7 billion.

Yet sooner than investors may like, somebody else will have to meet or beat those figures. Super-gaijin Ghosn is scheduled to leave Japan in 2005 to take over as CEO of both Nissan and its controlling shareholder, France's Renault. Although he isn't expected to name his successor until next year, the race to succeed Ghosn is already in full swing. To narrow down the field, taskmaster Ghosn is making top candidates -- most of them unknowns outside Nissan -- clear a series of ever-higher hurdles to test their managerial mettle and money-making moxie. "The first criterion is a good track record," says Ghosn. "The second is obviously being a highly skilled manager. It has to be somebody with a lot of ambition for the company."

The winner of this iron man competition will need plenty of ambition for himself as well. The short list will grow shorter later this month when Ghosn announces a management reshuffle that, company officials say, will throw a spotlight on who's up and who's down in upper management. The top-tier contest will parallel a race being run by about 300 fast-tracking younger execs who are known internally as "hypos," shorthand for what Ghosn calls his high-potential candidates.

When the smoke clears, analysts and rival auto companies should have a better idea of who's in the running for the top slots, including the prized and currently vacant chief operating officer job. That position is the stepping-stone to the president's suite. Whoever takes that post will have to do a lot more than crack a whip. "The person has to have charisma," says Koji Endo, analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston. "After a very strong leader, the next guy can have difficulty with control issues."

Ghosn has all but promised that his successor will be Japanese, so that rules out members of the French brain trust he brought along with him from Renault. Nissan is keeping mum about possible contenders, but privately company insiders say the front-runners include Katsumi Nakamura, 54, who's in charge of an ambitious move into China, and Toshiyuki Shiga, 49, who oversees the company's fast-growing business in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Yet the field is still considered wide open. "That's the hard part about personnel decisions," says Nissan's chairman, Yoshikazu Hanawa, who is also expected to step down in 2005. "Everything's fluid until the day it's announced."

Each candidate has accomplishments to point to. Shiga helped negotiate the 1999 accord that led Renault to take a controlling 44.3% stake in Nissan. Nakamura, for his part, sealed a deal last year with Chinese auto maker Dongfeng Motor Corp. to manufacture Nissan cars in China -- a key Ghosn goal. But neither executive has done time overseas, a weakness when heading a company that earns almost all of its profits outside Japan, mostly in the U.S.

That possible flaw aside, Nakamura is considered the lead candidate by some analysts and industry officials because of his near-perfect pedigree: He graduated from top-ranked University of Tokyo with a degree in aeronautical science in 1978, then joined Nissan, working his way up through the product-development and corporate-planning divisions. Nakamura engineered the first-generation Primera sedan and, more recently, takes credit for developing Nissan's brand new, full-size Titan pickup truck, a core vehicle for the company's expansion in the U.S.

A lot is riding on the success of that truck and a full-size sport-utility vehicle, both to be built at a new $1.43 billion plant in Canton, Miss. Ghosn sees the Titan, unveiled to much fanfare in January, as crucial to Nissan's next great leap: By 2005, he wants the company to boost global sales by one million vehicles, to 3.59 million, maintain an 8% profit margin, and cut net debt to zero.

The choice of Nakamura last April to head Nissan's underdeveloped Chinese business further enhances his standing. Ghosn considers Nissan's success in the China market so important that he has upgraded the unit to full division status. For his part, Nakamura notes that negotiating the $1 billion purchase of a 50% stake in Dongfeng Motors was just a first step. "To stabilize the China business, it should take around four years," he says.

Modesty aside, the job of Nissan COO could be Nakamura's to lose. Rival candidates are sure to do their best to unseat him from his first-among-equals position. His competition, sources say, includes Nissan's popular human-resources chief, Kuniyuki Watanabe, 54; domestic-marketing guru Shirou Tomii, 50; and domestic-sales head Yukio Kitahora, 56. Watanabe, a former seat-belt technician who caught Ghosn's eye, charmed Nissan's union into submission, despite thousands of job cuts. Tomii, for his part, gets credit for the success of such Japan-only models as the March and Cube subcompacts.

But Watanabe and Tomii also lack overseas experience. That's where dark horse Kitahora shines. He spent most of the 1990s outside Japan, at first in Europe and then in the U.S. -- most recently as senior vice-president of Nissan North America Inc. in Gardena, Calif. While Nissan was losing market share and racking up losses at home, Kitahora helped pull the U.S. business out of the red after a poorly priced leasing scheme went awry. Now, he's in charge of restoring profits to Nissan in Japan. That's one of the toughest jobs around, since the deflation-stricken Japanese auto market shrank for a second year in a row in 2002. Still, Nissan grew its market share from 18% in 2001, to a recent 18.6% last year. Nissan also expects to eke out a small profit from its Japanese business for the year ending this month -- another feather in Kitahora's cap. Maybe none of these candidates will prove the perfect Ghosn clone. But for the first time in years Nissan has execs who know how to win.

By Chester Dawson in Tokyo

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