YOKOHAMA, Japan -- Nissan’s chairman of the board said CEO Hiroto Saikawa, engulfed in fresh misconduct allegations, will step down Sept. 16 and that Nissan COO Yasuhiro Yamauchi will serve as acting chief executive while the company seeks a full-time boss.
The chairman, Yasushi Kimura, said Saikawa will step down effective Sept. 16 and that the company hopes to make a decision on his successor by the end of October.
Kimura’s comments came as the company’s board outlined the findings of an internal investigation into the misconduct that led to the arrest of former Chairman Carlos Ghosn and left Japan’s second-largest automaker beset in turmoil. The investigation’s scope has gradually expanded over time to include a probe of Saikawa’s use of an executive incentive program.
Saikawa had recently indicated a willingness to resign, and the board unanimously felt it was better to act on the matter immediately, Kimura said at a hastily called late-night press conference at Nissan’s global headquarters here south of Tokyo.
“We felt immediate action would be appropriate,” said Kimura, who was appointed chairman of the board in June. “We are in a serious stage of searching for successors."
The decision to remove Saikawa offers a complete break with the Ghosn era and paves the way for a fresh start under leadership not so closely associated with the tainted former chairman.
Saikawa was a loyal Ghosn lieutenant during much of Ghosn’s 19-year tenure and served as co-CEO with Ghosn during a one-year transition before becoming solo CEO in 2017.
Saikawa, who appeared at the end of the news conference, said the confusion of the investigation and the outcry over his inappropriate use of a stock-linked compensation scheme added urgency to his intention to step down. He had said in June that he wanted to accelerate the succession process so he could pass the baton to new leadership.
But Saikawa also bemoaned a long list of unfinished business, including the rekindling of profits, a shoring up of sliding sales and a restoration of frayed relations with Renault.
“We are seeing a lot of repercussions from what we did in the past,” he said. “I couldn’t finish everything, and I express my apologies for stepping down while things are yet to be done.”
Nissan has a short list of 10 possible successors, including at least one woman, a non-Japanese and one person with experience at French auto partner Renault, said Masakazu Toyoda, chair of Nissan’s recently created nomination committee.
“It’s a very diverse list,” Toyoda said.
The candidates were narrowed down from about 100 contenders since the summer. The process began in July, Toyoda said, noting the goal of deciding by the end of next month.
“There isn’t much time,” he said. “But we believe this will translate to improved governance.”
Those on the list include Jun Seki, tasked with Nissan's performance recovery; Yamauchi, the COO; and Makoto Uchida, chairman of Nissan's management committee in China, an alliance source has told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A key question will be how Saikawa's successor approaches the alliance with Renault.
Seki has been seen as a frontrunner to become CEO. Prior to his latest promotion in June, the 58-year-old oversaw Nissan's expansion in China, now the automaker's top market. He joined the company in 1986.
Yamauchi is widely seen as a bridge between the alliance partners, and is known to be well regarded at Renault.
A near four-decade Nissan veteran, he rose up the ranks to become head of global purchasing in 2009. In that role he was credited with efforts to bring the two automakers closer together for joint purchasing of more vehicle parts and materials, leveraging combined scale to lower costs.
Saikawa, 65, had come under increasing pressure to step down amid fresh revelations he exercised a stock-linked compensation scheme to boost his payout by nearly half-a-million dollars. The internal audit concluded that Saikawa’s actions weren’t illegal, partly because investigators were convinced he had no intention of deliberately gaming the system.
Saikawa said he would return the excess proceeds to Nissan.
Nissan’s board decided at its Monday meeting to abolish the practice of offering these so-called share appreciation rights as an incentive to select executives.
In June, Nissan shareholders approved Saikawa's reappointment to the board, despite growing controversy about his oversight during the time of Ghosn's alleged misdeeds.
Since taking the helm in 2017, Saikawa's tenure has only been besieged by scandal.
Saikawa served as co-CEO with Ghosn, 65, during a one-year transition before taking control as solo CEO in 2017. But since then, Saikawa's tenure has only been besieged by scandal.
The first crisis erupted in late 2017, when Nissan disclosed it had been conducting faulty final inspections of vehicles at assembly plants throughout Japan.
That triggered the recall more than 1.2 million vehicles in Japan, a callback of virtually every passenger car the company produced for sale in Japan over the previous three years.
More inspection misconduct was uncovered in 2018, and then came Ghosn's arrest.