PARIS - At Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s headquarters in the Ginza district of Tokyo, they have never seen anyone quite like Carlos Ghosn.
Renault's high-energy operations chief will become Nissan's No. 2 in a few weeks. He will direct day-to-day operations after Renault's acquisition of a 36.8 percent stake in the Japanese company. Here in Paris they wonder how Renault will get by without him.
The architect of Renault's dramatic recovery in the past 36 months has given himself about the same amount of time to revive Nissan.
'I'll dive into Nissan,' he pro-mised.
But colleagues in France don't think that Ghosn (pronounced goan) will upset Nissan's conservative culture. They say he learned the art of consensus-building at Renault.
Brazilian-born and French-reared, Ghosn, 45, already has led turnarounds on three continents.
He was just 31 when he became Michelin Brazil's COO in 1985. Four years later he was named CEO of Michelin North America.
In Brazil, he encountered hyperinflation and had to raise wages every week. In the United States, he successfully merged Uniroyal-Goodrich with Michelin.
But when Ghosn becomes Nissan's new COO in June - second in-command to CEO Yoshikazu Hanawa - he will face the challenge of his career. Nissan is reeling under $19.9 billion in debt and expects losses of $250 million this year. If Ghosn succeeds, he is considered a sure bet to follow Louis Schweitzer as Renault's chairman.
Inside Renault, he already is considered the front-runner. Co-workers praise his knack for getting straight to the heart of tough problems and for an ability to motivate others by setting ambitious but realistic targets.
Though he studied at France's prestigious Ecole Polytechnique, the plain-speaking Ghosn stands out from the country's normally reserved business elite.
He is affable, yet full of nervous energy. While talking he leans forward and lifts his heels as if preparing to run a sprint race.
'He is obsessed by the necessity of being quick,' said one Renault executive.
Hiring Ghosn from Michelin and putting him in charge of engineering, manufacturing and purchasing in October 1996 was one of Schweitzer's first key moves after Renault's privatization in July of that year.
Ghosn convinced Schweitzer in March 1997 to make the politically explosive decision to close Renault's plant in Vilvoorde, Belgium. That put him at odds with Renault's unions, but the company returned to profitability in 1997 and boosted its earnings last year from 5.4 billion French francs, or about $888.4 million, to about $1.4 billion.
JOB WAS A CONDITION
At Nissan, Ghosn will lead the restructuring. He says he did not apply for the job.
'The issue came up in the talks with Nissan in December,' Ghosn said. 'I did not ask for the job, but I understood that it was a condition of the deal. It goes along with the $5.4 billion we are investing in Nissan.'
The decision to go was not an easy one. Ghosn, his wife and four children just settled into a new house near Paris last December.
At Renault, he had just reorganized the engineering division and his platform reduction strategy is in its early stages. But he is committed to Nissan now.
'On April 15, I cut off from Renault, and I'll dive into Nissan,' he said.
He will move to Tokyo in late June. In between he plans to visit as many Nissan plants, subsidiaries and dealerships as he can in Japan, the United States, Europe and Taiwan.
'You have to go out in the field to see what's going on,' he said.
GOING WITH GHOSN
Ghosn will not go alone to Japan. Patrick Pelata, Renault's vehicle engineering chief, takes over as Nissan's executive vice president for product planning and strategy. Pelata, 43, is a student of Japanese engineering and manufacturing methods who was installed in his current job by Ghosn six months ago.
Thierry Moulonguet, 48, from Renault's finance department, will be Nissan's deputy CFO.
About 40 Renault managers will go along with the three key executives. 'To make deep changes inside a company you don't need loads of people, but rather the right catalysts at the right places,' Ghosn said.
He is realistic about the task ahead. 'Will I be able to change Nissan? I think so. Quickly? I will see. Anyway, we must get results within three years.'
In July, after his tour of Nissan, he will unveil a restructuring plan to the boards of both companies.
'Ghosn will have no problem integrating himself into Nissan's organization,' said a colleague who has worked closely with him. 'And he will have no problem practicing consensus management because he did it at Renault. He does not go to Nissan as a conqueror, but to help the company save itself.'