Nissan's share price has outperformed Renault's lately - a small reminder that the balance of power between the two partners easily could shift.
Mergers and alliances constantly change shape. Today one side may seem smarter and more nimble than the other; tomorrow the roles could be reversed.
Remember the first Chrysler-Mitsubishi pairing more than 20 years ago? Chrysler Corp. began as the senior partner, then Mitsubishi became dominant. Later, Chrysler came on strong again. Then the two companies split.
CHANGING CONVENTIONAL WISDOM
Daimler-Benz bought Chrysler, but if Mercedes falters and the Americans start delivering profits again, we will be calling it ChryslerDaimler. A popular Nissan model or two combined with a Renault flop would change the conventional wisdom. What if Nissan created innovative cars that customers like, while Renault built bland cars that customers do not buy?
A stronger Nissan may have to pull Renault out of a future European downturn. With more self-confidence, the Japanese managers would demand greater independence. But a little self-doubt is a healthy thing in a partnership, and it is one reason the Renault and Nissan alliance seems to work so well.
Soon after Day One at DaimlerChrysler, the German and American sides began to belittle each other privately. They questioned each other's work habits and organizational abilities and dress codes and after-hours behavior - as if their counterparts were kindergarteners, not men and women who ran two of the most successful automotive businesses in the world.
Both sides are guilty.
We called it culture clash, but it really was a clash of a lower order. It had more to do with personalities and professional jealousies and turf wars.
In the two years since Renault bought 36.8 percent of Nissan, there hardly has been a hint of discord. Renault bosses never proclaimed an 'alliance of equals,' yet they treat it like one. That is why Renault-Nissan seems to run so effortlessly compared with DaimlerChrysler.
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
As the lead partner, Renault is supposed to have all of the answers. But the French executives are refreshingly self-critical. They know Nissan has been dormant, not dead. For example, Jean-Baptiste Duzan, head of the new combined Renault-Nissan purchasing operations, contrasts Nissan's approach to quality with the typical European method.
'In Europe, we have a tendency to solve the problem,' he says. 'Nissan goes further. Once they have solved the problem, they have a very systematic way of working to ensure that it could not happen again. We tend to skip that part sometimes.'
Renault and Nissan, DaimlerChrysler, and Fiat Auto and Adam Opel are combining their purchasing operations. Daimler and Chrysler seemed a natural match in this area. Daimler is obsessed with quality and pushes hard for innovations through its tandem technology sharing program. Chrysler invented - even copyrighted - the phrase 'supply chain management.' The former Chrysler got on great with vendors. Today, DaimlerChrysler and its supply chain are not getting on at all.
If Opel and Fiat are seeking models of cooperation, they might study Renault and Nissan a lot more closely than the alternative.
Richard Johnson is editor of Automotive News Europe. He is based in London. E-mail him at [email protected]