Scandal of absent Ghosn hangs over Nissan at Tokyo auto show

The Tokyo Motor Show opens this week with plenty of futuristic technologies but absent one of the auto industry’s hugest influencers: Nissan’s former Chairman Carlos Ghosn.

Since Ghosn’s arrest for alleged financial misconduct in November 2018, Nissan has sunk into deep losses and its global vehicle sales have tumbled.

At a presentation to reporters Wednesday, two senior Nissan executives talked up electric vehicles featured at Nissan Motor Co.’s booth. Ghosn was palpably absent, but his legacy was evident in the many initiatives he spearheaded while running the company for nearly two decades.

The Tokyo show gives automakers a chance to showcase some of the industry’s upcoming mobility technology, including ecological fuel cells and personal transport devices that look like scooters.

The company’s newly named CEO, Makoto Uchida, and his predecessor Hiroto Saikawa, who resigned last month over his own financial scandals, did not make appearances at the media presentation.

Nissan officials said Uchida had yet to officially take up his post and was still in charge of Nissan’s China joint venture, and his successor there had not yet been chosen. It’s unclear if all that will be done within this year, they said.

At the auto show, instead, two senior executives, in charge of research and of design, introduced two concept model electric vehicles. One was a sport-utility and the other a tiny car, known as “kei” in Japan, that they said would become commercial products soon.

Nissan pioneered electric vehicles, leading the industry with its Leaf sedan, said Kunio Nakaguro, executive vice president in charge of research and development. Nissan has sold 430,000 Leafs.

Design chief Alfonso Albaisa, who also took stage, stressed how Nissan models boasted futuristic sleek and what he called “charming” forms characteristic of Japanese culture to highlight a bright future.

Running on a loop on huge screens at Nissan’s booth was a video of tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, who has signed to promote Nissan.

“Exactly a year ago, an upset of the century,” it said, referring to Osaka’s Grand Slam win.

On the minds of those watching was the year of upsets at Nissan, which has appeared rudderless at times after Ghosn’s departure.

In contrast, Toyota Motor Corp. Chief Executive Akio Toyoda took center stage, appearing first as an animation character in his likeness named Morizo.

“We put people first,” Toyoda said, standing on a huge stage designed to evoke a futuristic city.

Toyoda said his company will focus on “the power of people,” offering services in addition to new models, such as ecological commuting, mobile charging and the use of robotics and artificial intelligence to connect people in cars.

The Nissan executives also highlighted plans for bringing new technologies, such as “hands off driving” and “automated parking” to market.

“We are not just going big on electrification. We are also thinking big on next generation driver assistance technology,” said Alfonso Albaisa, a senior vice president for global design.

While Nissan struggles to keep its market share, the company has yet to fully emerge from its leadership shakeup.

Ghosn was released on bail after a dramatic months’ long struggle with prosecutors who insisted he should stay in detention. He is awaiting trial, likely not until next year, for allegedly falsifying financial documents to hide future compensation as well as charges of breach of trust in making dubious payments to businessmen for personal gain, according to Tokyo prosecutors.

In statements and comments on videotape, Ghosn has insisted that other Nissan executives plotted against him out of fears the company might lose some of its autonomy in a merger fears among some at Nissan of a fuller merger with its French alliance partner Renault SA.

Even before Ghosn’s arrest, the company was grappling with scandals over quality control that have plagued many automakers in Japan.

Nissan’s reshuffling of its top leadership and measures to strengthen its governance should have come earlier, analysts say.

Such serious problems send negative signals to managers and employees throughout a company, and enable cover-ups that result in poorer quality products, undermining profits in a competitive market, said Cindy Schipani, a professor of business law and governance expert at the University of Michigan.

“The bottom line is that corporate governance requires leadership with integrity. Otherwise, they could send the company into a downward spiral,” Schipani said.

Nissan announced earlier this year that it’s slashing 12,500 jobs, or about 9% of its global workforce, to cut costs and achieve a turnaround amid tumbling profits.

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Follow Yuri Kageyama on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yurikageyama

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