A corporate culture clash hobbled DaimlerChrysler. Renault's wise man avoided that trap when he acquired Nissan.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1999
Role: Chairman, Renault SA
Key influence: His vision of an alliance between Renault and Nissan allowed each to retain its corporate and cultural identity. That spared Nissan the corporate tensions and rivalries that soured the DaimlerChrysler marriage.
It was a huge gamble. Schweitzer later admitted that he “bet the farm” that Nissan could be saved. The deeply troubled Nissan had lost money in eight of the previous nine years. Most observers assumed that Renault would have to take total control of its new affiliate and whip it into shape.
Schweitzer had a different vision. “If you have a common culture, you get the same cars,” he said. That was unacceptable.
Renault would deeply resent being ordered to give up its French roots, he reasoned, and Nissan likewise would resent and resist being cut off from its Japanese culture. Therefore, each company had to be allowed to maintain its distinct identity. This would be an alliance, not a takeover or a merging of cultures into a single entity.
“Renault-Nissan must act and behave like a group, with a common strategy, but with two bases, in France and Japan, and two cultures,” Schweitzer said. The envisioned group, he said, was “opposite to unity.”
His approach was a far cry from that taken by Juergen Schrempp. The micromanaging CEO of Daimler-Benz made it quite clear who was in charge from day one of his takeover of Chrysler Corp.
Schrempp might call it a “merger of equals” in public — at least at first. But in the run-up to the so-called merger, he had absolutely refused to consider calling the new entity “ChryslerDaimler.” That Daimler would be first in the new venture was never in doubt.
What followed was a gutting of Chrysler, as senior American managers were pushed aside or out when they realized that their new German masters held all authority.
Schweitzer made sure that didn't happen at Nissan. He dispatched Carlos Ghosn to lead Nissan's revival but allowed Ghosn to take only about 20 executives with him. That ensured that Ghosn would have to rely overwhelmingly on Japanese senior managers in his turnaround efforts.
The erudite former French civil servant knew what he wanted, but Schweitzer did not allow his ego to become an issue. Perhaps it was in his genes — he is related to Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer.
Or maybe it was just his personality. Early in his tenure at Renault, Schweitzer was sent to a dealership in Paris to sell cars as part of his training.
“I was not very good at it,” Schweitzer, now 65, recalls. “I am not pushy enough to be a salesman.”
Nissan today is a different company because Schweitzer was not more pushy.
You can reach James B. Treece at email@example.com.