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Nissan's Ghosn crisis

Frustrated shareholders press Nissan for post-Ghosn vision

Investors question board and alliance after $2.6bn plunge in market cap

TOKYO -- Nissan Motor shareholders demanded Monday a road map for a future without fired Chairman Carlos Ghosn, pulling no punches over the current leadership's failure to prevent scandal and get the automaker back on track.

The company has struggled to regain focus in the months since Ghosn's alleged misconduct came to light, suffering a 290 billion yen ($2.6 billion) hit to market capitalization even as rivals like Toyota Motor and Daimler have enjoyed increases. Investors are starting to question whether Nissan has what it takes in a fast-changing industry.

President and CEO Hiroto Saikawa offered "deep, deep apologies" for the Ghosn scandal at an extraordinary shareholders meeting Monday that drew 4,119 people -- the second-highest count in the company's history. But his words seemed only to fan the flames of discontent.

"If the current management was responsible, shouldn't the whole team resign?" a shareholder asked.

"Nissan used outside pressures [such as prosecutors] to get rid of the demon," said another shareholder, who asked whether management knew of Ghosn's alleged misconduct but "simply lacked the courage to stop it."

Saikawa offered assurances that management "takes its responsibility very seriously" and was shocked to learn of Ghosn's actions from the company's statutory auditors last October. He stressed that his priority is to "get Nissan back on a trajectory for growth as quickly as possible," hinting that he will stay on as CEO at the regular shareholders meeting in June.

Not all welcome the prospect of Saikawa, long considered a Ghosn protege, continuing to lead the carmaker. "Having Saikawa stay will be like a continuation of the Ghosn 'regime,'" an institutional investor told Nikkei. "We can't support his reappointment unless there are conditions, like him stepping down once there is a path for reform."

The same day, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan scheduled a news conference with Ghosn's lawyers for Tuesday at 3 p.m. The defense team is to release a video statement the embattled former executive recorded before his recent rearrest.

Meanwhile, Nissan is working to strengthen corporate governance in hopes of preventing another Ghosn. It is considering having its board meetings chaired by Sadayuki Sakakibara, former chairman of the Japan Business Federation, or Keidanren. Plans are to nominate figures including Sakakibara at a board meeting in late May and for him to officially take the post after the June shareholders meeting.

Shareholders are anxious for Nissan to turn a fresh page and refocus its energies on new industry trends. The automaker has fallen behind in connected, autonomous, shared and electric vehicles, which are expected to shape the future. Toyota is partnering with SoftBank Corp. to provide mobility services, while General Motors is pouring more resources into developing ride-hailing services using autonomous vehicles.

Nissan is increasingly expected to downgrade its revenue goal -- growth of 30% or so over a six-year period -- under its medium-term plan ending March 2023. It may miss the plan's operating margin target of 8%.

Nissan's two-decade-old alliance with France's Renault faces a turning point as well. The automakers, along with third partner Mitsubishi Motors, announced in March plans to create an alliance operating board that brings the trio together as equals to "achieve a truly win-win-win structure," in the words of Saikawa.

The nature of the partnership is expected to change. The alliance has succeeded in bringing down costs through platform sharing and joint procurement, but such low-hanging fruit has already been picked and will be harder to deliver, said Bernard Jullien, an associate professor in economics at the University of Bordeaux.

"Given the great uncertainties in the global automobile industry, it is probably wise to have more diverse options open within the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, rather than simply pursuing a merger," Jullien said.

"I will constantly suggest the best possible evolutions in the framework of the alliance," said Renault Chairman Jean-Dominique Senard, who was voted onto Nissan's board Monday to replace Ghosn.

But concern was raised about the alliance's decision-making process. "A consensus-based approach sounds nice, but in other words the board will require more time to make decisions," a shareholder said.

Saikawa acknowledged that the changing auto industry requires moving quickly amid rapid technological innovation. "It is true we lost speed in the last couple of months since Ghosn's arrest," he said, "but today must be the turning point for us."

Saikawa also said Nissan is considering suing Ghosn. When a stockholder asked about the risk of shareholder lawsuits against the company, he answered that the only role management can play is to soften the impact of the misconduct on Nissan's business.

Nissan executives did not go into much detail about plans to restructure its capital partnership with Renault. The French government, Renault's top shareholder, is pushing for a full-fledged merger with the French company. But the Japanese automaker is loath to give up independence.

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