Nissan Motor Co.’s board has voted unanimously to oust chairman Carlos Ghosn over allegations of financial misconduct, after French partner Groupe Renault backed away from a last-minute demand to postpone the decision on their alliance leader’s fate.
The vote – supported by Renault appointees on the Nissan board after a four-hour meeting – may begin to defuse a crisis that threatened to upend the alliance and spark a diplomatic rift between Japan and France, Renault’s main shareholder.
It also drew a firm line under Mr. Ghosn’s stewardship of the car empire that was his life’s work.
Mr. Ghosn was arrested in Japan on Monday after a Nissan investigation uncovered evidence of serious wrongdoing including under-reporting of his remuneration and personal use of company assets.
“The board acknowledged the significance of the matter and confirmed that the long-standing alliance partnership with Renault remains unchanged,” the Japanese car maker said.
Nissan said its board dismissed Mr. Ghosn and fellow representative director Greg Kelly, an alleged co-conspirator,“ after reviewing a detailed report of the internal investigation” – the first time Renault had seen key findings.
With Mr. Ghosn and Mr. Kelly still in custody, neither man has been able to defend himself publicly against the allegations.
Before the meeting, two Renault board directors had demanded a postponement of the vote to fire Mr. Ghosn until the internal probe and legal proceedings were complete, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Failing that, they had warned that the French automaker would exercise its right under the alliance master agreement to appoint a successor and a fourth Renault nominee to the Nissan board, the sources said.
The ultimatum was issued in a strongly worded response to Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa – who had informed Renault in an earlier confidential missive that the Nissan investigation was expanding to include Renault-Nissan finances.
Nissan is 43.4-per-cent-owned by Renault. While almost 60 per cent bigger by sales, it remains the junior partner in their shareholding hierarchy with a smaller reciprocal 15 per cent non-voting stake in its French parent.
Mr. Ghosn had been exploring a deeper Renault-Nissan tie-up that was resisted by the Japanese firm – a fact which has fuelled speculation about ulterior motives for his arrest.
After the board presentation and its summary of findings, however, the tune in Paris changed.
“The accusations are extreme, certainly, but they are also precise,” said an official at French President Emmanuel Macron’s Elysée Palace office.
“We know there’s a flourishing conspiracy theory about all this, but that’s really not our thinking.”
The Japanese company did not announce a replacement for Mr. Ghosn – confounding reports that Mr. Saikawa was to be appointed interim chairman.
Japanese prosecutors say Mr. Ghosn and Mr. Kelly conspired to understate Mr. Ghosn’s remuneration by about half the 10 billion yen (US$88-million) he earned at Nissan over five years from 2010.
Following an internal probe resulting from a whistle-blower alert, Mr. Ghosn is also accused of misappropriating Nissan assets and “misrepresenting the purpose” of company investments.
A Nissan executive with direct knowledge of the board meeting said Renault’s representatives had initially voiced incomprehension over the accusations.
“There was some talk and frustration about an unjust arrest,” he said. “But they suddenly changed when they heard the contents – and understood that this wasn’t some strange conspiracy.”
Japanese newspapers have been awash with leaked details of the Tokyo prosecutor’s investigation into Mr. Ghosn. Asahi Shimbun reported on Thursday he had e-mailed Mr. Kelly orders to make false statements about his remuneration.
The Yomiuri, Japan’s biggest-circulation daily, said Nissan had been paying Mr. Ghosn’s elder sister US$100,000 a year since 2002 for a non-existent advisory role. She lived in a luxury Rio de Janeiro apartment funded by a Nissan subsidiary, according the report, which cited unidentified sources.
Mitsubishi Motors, which joined the Nissan-Renault alliance in 2016, also plans to oust Mr. Ghosn as chairman next week. Renault’s board named interim replacements on Tuesday but kept Mr. Ghosn on as chairman and CEO, with government backing.
That may now change.
Even were he cleared, French officials now concede, Mr. Ghosn would be an unlikely figure to rebuild the cross-cultural trust of which he once appeared to be the sole guarantor.
“It really seemed there was a common vision between Mr. Ghosn and Nissan,” the Elysée official said. “But now we realize there was in fact a yawning gap.”