TOKYO -- For 14 years, Nissan Motor Co. CEO Carlos Ghosn has been the Japanese carmaker's foreign face. Now, after sidelining his Japanese No. 2 and reshuffling the company's top management, he says he wants a Japanese national to succeed him at the helm when the time comes.
Ghosn said Nissan's diverse management is a strength unrivaled by any other carmaker. But he added it is important to reinstate a Japanese leader at the top when he eventually steps down.
"I would like when the time for a successor would come for a Japanese to head Nissan," Ghosn told Automotive News in an interview today. "It's symbolic, and we have plenty of Japanese talent. I want Nissan to be continued to be seen as a Japanese company."
About half of Nissan's top 100 managers are foreigners, representing 17 nationalities, he pointed out. Of the eight executive vice presidents, one is American and three are British. Ghosn, who has run Nissan since 1999, is a Brazilian-born Frenchman of Lebanese descent.
The fortunes of foreigners at Nissan have steadily risen over his reign. In 2001, only five of the 27 officers at or above the level of senior vice president were foreigners. Now, seven of 21 are.
They got a bump again Nov. 1 when Ghosn eliminated the COO position held by Toshiyuki Shiga and moved the ranking Japanese to chairman, a largely ceremonial role.
Elevated to fill the COO duties were Hiroto Saikawa, who is Japanese, and Andy Palmer and Trevor Mann, both Britons. Meanwhile, the powerful CFO is an American -- former General Motors executive Joseph Peter.
Ghosn, 59, said at the time that the management shake-up was partly aimed at injecting younger blood into the executive suite to help usher a seamless hand-over of control someday.
And when that happens, Ghosn now says his preference would be tapping native talent.
"We have to make sure it is still a Japanese company. You shouldn't forget your roots," Ghosn said. "From time to time, you can have a foreigner. But you cannot have a foreigner all the time. You need, from time to time, to remind everybody that this is a Japanese company."
Fitting the bill
So who among Nissan's executive vice presidents fits that bill?
Saikawa, the veteran purchasing chief, might seem like a natural. He was appointed chief competitive officer this month and leads worldwide purchasing, manufacturing, supply chain management, r&d and customer satisfaction. But he's also 60 years old, one year Ghosn's elder.
Mitsuhiko Yamashita, the r&d guru, is also a year older than Ghosn.
Hidetoshi Imazu, also responsible for manufacturing and supply chain, has plenty of experience. But probably too much. At a ripe age of 64, he's the grandfather of the group.
That leaves two up-and-comers in the spotlight.
The first, Takao Katagiri, was promoted to executive vice president in 2011. This month he was handed responsibility for Nissan's key Southeast Asia operations in addition to his Japan oversight. Crucially, Katagiri -- who holds an M.B.A. from Northwestern University's Kellogg business school -- is a relatively youthful 53.
Finally, consider Kimiyasu Nakamura, 58. This dark-horse candidate cut his teeth as head of Dongfeng Motor Corp., Nissan's Chinese joint venture partner. Under the recent reorganization, Ghosn will bring him back to headquarters and promote him to executive vice president overseeing total customer satisfaction. That is a key position as Ghosn seeks to enhance Nissan's brand value.