January 22, 2017 2:30 am JST
My Personal History

Carlos Ghosn (21) Disaster strikes: Japan's March 11 earthquake

Nissan plants hit harder than most, but employees pull off "miraculous" recovery

Carlos Ghosn, fourth from left, shouts words of encouragement to employees at Nissan's quake-hit Iwaki plant, in Fukushima Prefecture.

Like anyone who lives in Japan, or has a close connection with the country, March 11, 2011, is imprinted in my memory. I was in Paris to attend a Renault management conference. I received an email early in the morning with two foreboding sentences: "Big earthquake occurred. We are now investigating the damages."

I replied immediately. "I want you to put all your efforts into the recovery, whatever the situation."

From that moment, information flowed into Paris in a continuous stream. We learned that the damage to the Tohoku region, in Japan's northeast, and to our factories and supply chains was significant. Of all the Japanese automakers, Nissan Motor was the hardest hit. Major damage forced us to stop production at two important facilities. Nissan immediately established a disaster countermeasures office to respond.

I prepared to return to Japan immediately, but I was confronted by two obstacles: One was the closure of Japanese airports. Because of the extensive damage caused by the earthquake, the subsequent tsunami and the nuclear power plant meltdown, activities at major airports in Japan were suspended. The pilot of our corporate jet couldn't take flight -- even when departures from Japan were allowed, arrivals from overseas were not permitted for an extended period. The other problem concerned a pressing management issue at Renault that required my attention in Paris.

Because of these complications, it wasn't until March 21 that I finally made it to Japan. On the 29th, I traveled north to our Iwaki factory in Fukushima Prefecture, where the most damage had occurred. I wanted to go as soon as possible to inform our employees that I planned to rebuild the factory immediately. I had heard that, since the day of the earthquake, everyone had become worried about the future of the factory, but I had no intention of closing it.

I also needed our suppliers to come to the disaster area. It was a difficult situation, as the damage to the nuclear plant was happening at the same time, but it was imperative that we assist each other in the rebuilding. The best course of action for me was to go to the factory and deliver the message personally. The management team told me they were committed to bringing the factory back to life.

When I returned on May 17, 2011, barely two months after the disaster, I saw the miraculous result of their efforts. The plant had returned to nearly full operations. During that visit, employees shared with me their experiences during the crisis, and the aftershocks and subsequent earthquake that hit a few weeks later. Their commitment to restoring operations despite these odds made a significant contribution to the recovery of Nissan, and in a symbolic way, to all Japan.

Nissan's quick recovery was, in large part, due to the mindset we developed during our near-death experience in 1999, when Nissan was on the brink of bankruptcy. Overcoming that crisis and putting Nissan on the road to growth and sustainable profitability taught us many lessons that were reinforced by the Fukushima disaster and by the negative impact last year's earthquake had on operations in Japan's Kyushu region.

The Chinese character chosen in Japan to symbolize the year 2011 was "kizuna," which can be translated as ties that can bind a family, a nation, or even a company together. The response to the disasters powerfully underscored the strength of those bonds, and taught us important lessons about how to be a stronger company in the face of crisis.

Carlos Ghosn is chairman and CEO of Nissan Motor Co., Ltd.

Read more installments of My Personal History: Carlos Ghosn

See recent articles on the auto industry at Auto Industry Upheaval

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