TOKYO -- Nissan Motor Co.’s embattled board appears to have settled on a leader that won’t be as autocratic as deposed automotive titan Carlos Ghosn nor as divisive as his successor Hiroto Saikawa.
Incoming CEO Makoto Uchida, 53, is well regarded within the Japanese carmaker and his experience working closely with Renault SA could help ease tensions with Nissan’s top shareholder, according to people familiar with him. The board particularly liked Uchida’s track record of producing results, most recently as head of the China business, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified discussing a private matter.
Yet Nissan’s third CEO since 2017 faces huge challenges, including halting a slide in profit, executing 12,500 job cuts and regaining the trust of its French partner when he takes over early next year. Uchida, together with new operating chiefs Ashwani Gupta and Jun Seki, were appointed by Nissan’s board this week, less than a month after former CEO Saikawa was ousted over a pay scandal.
All that while global auto sales are slowing and new technologies from self-driving cars to electrification are disrupting the industry.
“Uchida has experience outside of Nissan, which will help bring a different element to the company,” said Koji Endo, an analyst at SBI Securities. “Nissan needs change.”
A spokeswoman for Nissan declined to comment on this story or make Uchida available for comment.
The son of an airline employee, Uchida lived abroad in various places such as Egypt while growing up, one person said. He studied theology at Japan’s Doshisha University, an unusual background for a car executive. Unlike Ghosn, he’s seen as a quiet, straightforward manager that’s used to delegating power, the people said.
He speaks English at internal and external meetings, as well as during casual chats, which sometimes surprises people. That served him well in China, where many use English as a second language for business.
At the company’s Chinese joint venture, where Uchida became president in April 2018, he helped boost monthly sales to more than 100,000 from 86,000 -- while industry sales as a whole declined. Nissan unveiled the new Sylphy sedan in China in April, and plans to add 20 electric models in the country in five years. Nissan’s Chinese partner Dongfeng Motor Corp. couldn’t immediately comment.
A key task for Uchida will be repairing Nissan’s ties with Renault, which deteriorated to new lows under Saikawa. The new chief has collaborated with the French firm on joint procurement, according to people familiar with the matter. Uchida, who joined Nissan in 2003 from metals and machinery company Nissho Iwai Corp., has also worked for Renault Samsung in South Korea.
While Ghosn had out-sized influence over Nissan and the Renault alliance, the Japanese carmaker is now seeking to make sure that no single person can dominate decision-making. Hence the new collective leadership of Uchida and his two operating chiefs, Chairman Yasushi Kimura told a news conference this week.
Ghosn led both companies for years and held their two-decade partnership together until his arrest last November on allegations of financial misconduct, which he has denied. His downfall exposed governance shortfalls at Nissan and brought long-standing tensions between the automakers to the fore.
Relations were further strained under Saikawa, when Nissan’s failure to back Renault’s plan to merge with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles effectively scuttled the transaction. Nissan would be open to evaluating a Fiat deal after it rebalances its lopsided shareholding relationship with Renault, according to people familiar with the situation.
Once he joins Nissan’s board, Uchida is set to play a key role in any changes to the Nissan-Renault relationship.
“Nissan should be getting ready for challenging times,” said Endo.