By : RACHNA TYAGI
What could possibly go wrong for Brazilian-born Lebanese businessman, Carlos Ghosn, who ran two Fortune 500 companies, Renault and Nissan, successfully and whom Time magazine, as well as Fortune magazine, called the “most influential global business executive,” “ahead of Bill Gates,” and “Asia’s businessman of the year respectively? Apparently, plenty. Two award-winning Journalists, Nick Kostov and Sean McLain, from Wall Street Journal, chronicle the entire saga of industry leader, Carlos Ghosn, in their book Boundless: The Rise, Fall, And Escape of Carlos Ghosn. The 320-page book, published by Harper Collins, describes in abundant detail, the life of Carlos Ghosn, who turned around the fortunes of Renault and Nissan by forging what seemed to many “an unlikely alliance,” back then, and was later felled by a deadly concoction of power, ego, and ambition, which eventually got the better of him, leaving him entangled badly in a web of serious financial allegations.
Carlos Ghosn, the bearer of three passports, and a multilinguist, who spoke fluent French, English, Portugese, and Arabic, was an ambitious man interested in three things: “progress,” “advancing his own position in life,” and in seeking “prosperity.” As a business leader, Ghosn was a quick learner who “not only studied the habits of factory workers but also mingled with other CEOs, taking mental notes of how those men ran their businesses.” In fact, his work which involved “breaking rigid bureaucracy within Renault, forming new cross-departmental teams to break fiefdoms and circumventing tired power centers to get everyone to think about how the company operates as a whole,” held him in good stead, helping him further build his image as a global CEO. Ghosn was best known for chasing both, “profits” and “money,” in order to get the best results for his companies and was of the firm belief that “The more you had the better you were.”
According to Kostov and McLain, not only could Ghosn “woo the press,” but he could also “schmooze with politicians and bureaucrats” alike and was “a social chameleon” perfectly at ease on “the boulevards of Paris,” or while “rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers of the US auto society,” or whilst seated amidst “factory workers.”
We learn about Ghosn, “a Citizen of the World,” known to work thirteen-hour days, spending almost “forty-eight hours a month on a plane with the special tail number N155AN,” which brought him from Renault’s offices in France to Nissan’s offices in Japan and then took him to Nissan’s largest dealerships in the US, with occasional stop overs in the Middle East as well, to check on the dealerships there. Thanks to Ghosn’s emphasis on “diversity” and “globalization” the two companies, with Ghosn’s efforts, now seemed to be on an upward trajectory.
Needless to say, this book makes for a fascinating read and it isn’t only on account of its powerful central character, Carlos Ghosn, but also because the story boasts a vast canvas that spreads across various continents with several characters from different nations who flit in and out of its pages.
As Ghosn’s story progresses, readers learn about his “diminutive salary” which “he always felt should have matched the significant risks that he was taking.” They also learn about Ghosn’s attempts at exploring various ways through which he could pay himself more whether that involved getting “himself a secret salary,” a “Paid remuneration” or “Postponed remuneration,” “consulting fees” or even through “discounted Nissan shares.”
And though Ghosn did run the Renault-Nissan alliance successfully for almost two decades trouble started brewing when over a period of time governance problems vis-a-vis running of two companies began cropping up. There came a time, the authors write, that it became “difficult to trust Ghosn to have Renault’s best interests at heart when he was also running not a partner or an ally but a competitor, a rival car company – and one that was probably paying him much more money than the French firm.”
Kostov and McLain write about how even Emmanuel Macron “felt that the alliance was a house of cards held together almost entirely by Ghosn. The problem with Ghosn, Macron said was his loyalty. “He’s Japanese,” Macron said. “With Ghosn, it’s simple: In Yokohama he’s the emperor, and he’s paid 10 million euros. In France, he’s a manager, and he’s paid 1.5 million euros.””
And that is around the time when things started going downhill for Ghosn as “many felt that the business model was proving an ineffective model of operations in an era of efficiency and competitiveness.” Ghosn too made some bad decisions that didn’t go down too well with other workers. One of them was in 2013, when Ghosn announced moving the production of Nissan Micra hatchback from India’s recently built factory, to a Renault plant in France, despite higher labour costs there. “He justified the move by saying it would free up plant capacity in India. But Nissan managers had questioned the business logic, and their engineers complained that Renault factory workers couldn’t be trusted to build their cars.” Besides, there was also the threat of the ‘Florange’ law that was looming large which saw “short term foreign investors buying up French companies and hollowing their industrial operations.” And while all these events were unfolding, Ghosn was increasingly seen coming across as someone who was “losing his Midas touch.”
Evidently, Ghosn did not want “the French state to have a bigger say on the future of the Alliance, on his succession, or on his pay,” but it was clear that things would never be the same again for him, neither in France nor in Japan.
When the allegations came, they hit him hard. He was accused of not only understating his pay, but also misappropriating company assets, forging “sweetheart deals” with two of Nissan’s Middle Eastern partners, using Nissan’s “Omani distributor to route company funds into his own pocket” and “funneling millions of euros from Renault.”
All of Ghosn’s work which entailed helping Renault “conquer new markets” and bailing Nissan out of a “looming bankruptcy” while ensuring that “both companies functioned as separate entities with parallel structures for everything from finance to research, design to production,” suddenly seemed to not matter to anyone, anymore.
His detention in Japan where his family sent him books by Dan Brown and Harlan Coben provided great headlines to the world Press while he struggled to change lawyers to defend himself and get bail.
However, what the book describes remarkably well and in a fairly detailed manner is Ghosn’s daredevil escape from Japan to Lebanon, in a box carrying musical instruments, on a chartered flight which shocked the entire world. “It was also “one of the most brazen and well-orchestrated escape acts in recent history,” write Kostov and McLain.
We further learn how Ghosn, in the press conference held post his escape, didn’t elaborate much on “how” he escaped but on “why” he found the need to escape “the brutal Japanese justice system.” Ghosn places the betrayal blame squarely on his former allies whom he calls “unscrupulous, vindictive individuals,” who “plotted” against him, “investigated” him and then did him in.
In April 2022, the French prosecutors, issued an international arrest warrant for Ghosn.
It is hard to believe that Ghosn, a stalwart in the auto industry who created “the longest-lasting cross-cultural alliance,” has become “an international fugitive.” He fights a lonely and a rather difficult battle from Lebanon, where he now resides (Lebanon does not have an extradition treaty with Japan). He is fighting for “his reputation, his legacy and his rights,” he says.
Boundless: The Rise, Fall, And Escape of Carlos Ghosn is definitely a book that you should be reading especially if you like delving deep into stories and discovering the nuances of meticulous reporting which very few Journalists manage to bring to a book like this.