PARIS -- Renault's Mouna Sepehri, the top-ranking woman in Europe's auto industry, sees transactions such as partner Nissan Motor's purchase of a $2.3 billion stake in Mitsubishi Motors as adding much-needed bulk.
"Size matters because of economies of scale," Sepehri said during a recent interview at Renault's headquarters near Paris.
Along with General Motors CEO Mary Barra and Annette Winkler, the head of Daimler’s Smart brand, Sepehri is among only a handful of women to have made it to the top echelons of a largely male-dominated industry.
As executive vice president at Renault, Sepehri has been a key adviser to Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn since 2005.
For the 53-year-old lawyer specialized in mergers and acquisitions, the consolidation trend will only accelerate as carmakers seek to share the high costs of developing electric or energy-efficient vehicles and incorporate intelligent technologies including driver-less vehicles.
"In five to 10 years, we will have giants, but that's not just for the automotive industry, it's a global phenomenon," she said. "Smaller companies will end up combining with bigger ones, except for those which have a niche market."
Sepehri knows what she's talking about. She helped Renault to buy Dacia in 1999 and Samsung Motors in 2000. She also contributed to the shaping of Renault's partnership with Nissan. In 2010, she managed the negotiations of the alliance with Daimler over a production partnership. Sepehri was named one of Automotive News Europe's leading women executives in 2016.
Top 3 spot
Although she had little to do with the deal that this month made Nissan the biggest shareholder in Mitsubishi, the alliance "may help propel Nissan-Renault a step closer to competing for a spot among the world's top three automakers," according to Bloomberg Intelligence industry analyst Nikkie Lu.
Ghosn has promised that the Renault-Nissan alliance will break into the top three in global vehicle sales by as early as 2018. In 2015, Renault-Nissan sold about 8.5 million vehicles, ranking fourth in the world behind Volkswagen Group and Toyota and General Motors, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Nissan's Mitsubishi deal will give the group a serious boost as Mitsubishi and Nissan have agreed to share plug-in hybrid and autonomous-driving technology.
"The automotive industry is a long-haul one," Sepehri said. "Only a few regions in the world have been able to retain their automotive industry."
The never-ending march of globalization in the industry has kept the auto sector interesting for Sepehri, who joined Renault in 1996 seeking experience in an industrial field that she thought would be useful before going back to the bench as an associate.
"What interested me was an industrial job, to roll up my sleeves," she said, laughing at what is a fond memory.
What she feared most was boredom. "But that has never been the case over the 20 years I just spent at Renault," she said. "Exciting projects came up one after another. You are immediately enraptured. One must get in on the entire line, from conception to manufacturing. Even today, it remains one of the most complex industries and I like that complexity."
In addition to advising Ghosn, Sepehri helps with communications, relations with governments, legal affairs, general services, corporate social responsibility and the Renault Foundation.
Sepehri was key to the smoothing of relations following an eight-month dispute over increased French state influence on the Renault-Nissan alliance last year, earning her words of praise from then-Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron.
The Iran-born executive who moved to France with her parents at the age of 12, says her dual-cultural upbringing has helped her during delicate negotiations, especially with the Japanese on relations between Renault and Nissan. Trust had to be built and nurtured, she said. For all that, the alliance is far from a model of corporate harmony, with an imbalanced cross shareholding prompting rumblings of dissatisfaction from the Japanese.
Nissan, which provides a bulk of the partnership's profit, has no voting rights in its counterpart. Adding Mitsubishi to the mix might complicate things further.
Helping manage Renault's links with its alliance partners may present Sepehri with the kind of challenge she relishes. The mother of two boys brushes aside her rarity value as one of the few women in the industry, saying her rise in the sector has less to do with her gender and more to do with calm professionalism. "It's a line of conduct that always served me well: doing my job, doing it well, proving my added value, never losing my temper," she said. "It works everywhere."