One of the most visible faces of the global auto industry has been fired and reportedly arrested, Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn accused of financial misconduct.
Once so popular after helping save the then-struggling automaker, Ghosn inspired a widely read Japanese comic book. But on Monday, Tokyo media reported, he was brought in before Japanese prosecutors who are questioning the executive about claims he both falsified income statements and misused company assets. A second senior executive is also facing allegations of corruption.
“Based on a whistleblower report, Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. (Nissan) has been conducting an internal investigation over the past several months regarding misconduct involving the company’s Representative Director and Chairman Carlos Ghosn and Representative Director Greg Kelly,” the automaker said in a statement.
The automaker went on to say, “The investigation showed that over many years both Ghosn and Kelly have been reporting compensation amounts in the Tokyo Stock Exchange securities report that were less than the actual amount, in order to reduce the disclosed amount of Carlos Ghosn’s compensation.”
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The allegations mark the fall of one of the most powerful men in the auto industry. Brazilian-born, but of Lebanese descent, Ghosn started out in the tire business, working for the French-based Michelin for 18 years. He was recruited to help turn around Paris-based automaker Renault in 1996, quickly ordering a radical restructuring that put the company back in the black barely a year later.
Ghosn’s skills came under an even bigger test in 1999, Renault buying a 36.8% stake in Nissan. The second-largest of the Japanese automakers was facing collapse after years of mounting losses and a lack of direction. But, within just three years, Ghosn’s Nissan Revival Plan had slashed the company’s debt, boosted sales and generated a solid profit.
In the years to follow, Ghosn took on the role of not only Nissan chief executive officer, but that of CEO of its French partner Renault, as well as head of the Alliance that in 2016 grew larger with Ghosn’s decision to take a controlling stake in the collapsing Mitsubishi. He shortly after relinquished his post as Nissan CEO to concentrate on a turnaround at the smaller carmaker. But Ghosn has continued to serve as Nissan chairman, as well as CEO of Renault, Mitsubishi and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance.
“This was a man who was performing brilliantly, keeping all these balls in the air and driving the company forward,” said Joe Phillippi, a veteran auto analyst and head of AutoTrends Consulting.
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It was unclear, as of mid-afternoon European time, whether the Renault and Alliance operations would take similar steps and terminate Ghosn in the wake of the accusations leveled by Nissan. A spokesman in Paris said a statement from the Alliance would be forthcoming.
News of Ghosn’s firing and arrest shocked not just the automotive industry but the business world, in general, where the 64-year-old executive had an outsized following. Investors quickly sent shares in Nissan tumbling by as much as 14% in European trading.
While Ghosn has been one of the most high-profile executives in the auto industry since being assigned to take on the Nissan turnaround two decades ago, Kelly has been one of the company’s most low-profile executives.
He started out at the automaker’s big assembly plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, working in the Human Resources Department. Kelly rose through the corporate ranks at Nissan’s U.S. operations before joining Ghosn in Japan where he oversaw a number of departments, including legal, HR and communications. He officially retired from his day-to-day role in 2016 but continued to serve as a representative director.
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Kelly, 62, was also detained by Japanese authorities.