TOKYO -- Carlos Ghosn will step down as Nissan Motor's president and CEO, effective April 1, the automaker said on Thursday. Co-CEO Hiroto Saikawa will take his place, becoming the company's first new top leader in 17 years.
Ghosn will stay on as chairman with representation rights, and continue to oversee a group that also includes French automaker Renault and Japan's Mitsubishi Motors, in which Nissan acquired a 34% stake last year.
"I have to dedicate some time to Mitsubishi," Ghosn told The Nikkei in an interview Thursday morning. The move will allow Ghosn to take a broader view of management challenges facing the three manufacturers, serving, as he put it, as "a guardian of the alliance."
Ghosn joined Nissan as chief operating officer in 1999, after Renault acquired a stake. He became president in 2000 and was named CEO the following year.
"I'm stepping down as the CEO because it's the right moment and I have the right team," Ghosn said in the interview. "I think after 16 years as CEO and 18 years taking care of Nissan, I can say today that what I can bring to Nissan [I have] already brought."
From recovery to expansion
Early on, Ghosn put together a revival plan for the once-troubled automaker, and led its recovery by closing and streamlining factories as well as procuring parts from unaffiliated companies.
Ghosn's ambitious takeover strategy has expanded the group. On his watch, the Nissan-Renault alliance jointly purchased Russia's largest automaker, AvtoVAZ. In 2016, Ghosn swooped in to acquire the interest in Mitsubishi Motors, which was struggling in the wake of a fuel economy scandal.
Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi Motors racked up 9.96 million in global vehicle sales last year -- just behind Volkswagen's 10.31 million, Toyota Motor's 10.17 million and General Motors' 10 million.
"Nissan is profitable, financially healthy, with a clear strategy," Ghosn said. "Now is the right moment to make the change with continuity."
He chose to step down now, he added, to leave a window of time before shareholders review Nissan's board at the annual meeting in June. "It is important to give visibility to shareholders as much in advance [as possible], before they vote."
Saikawa will take Ghosn's seat just as Nissan shifts to a new midterm business plan, starting from the upcoming fiscal 2017. The Renault-Nissan alliance is lagging behind its rivals in Southeast Asia and other emerging markets. Overlapping operations in countries such as Thailand and Russia are an issue as well.
Saikawa has led the purchasing and other divisions. He also represented Nissan in negotiations with the French government over Renault voting rights in 2015, and spearheaded the investment in Mitsubishi Motors last year.
The new chief doubles as chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association.
Nissan shares ended Thursday's trading down 0.58% at 1,112.00 yen, while Mitsubishi Motors was up 1.11% at 728.00 yen.