The rise, fall and flight of Carlos Ghosn

Byron Hurd



Former Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance boss Carlos Ghosn is expected to address the media Wednesday following his escape from house arrest in Japan. Ghosn, who was once among the most powerful and well-respected executives in the automotive industry, fled to Lebanon in what he and his legal team have described as an effort to get out from under a draconian Japanese justice system that has denied him due process. 

Ghosn has yet to make a detailed public statement about his plight, but he has said that the accusations against him amount to little more than a "boardroom coup," and that the real reason he was charged and removed from his post was to prevent further intertwining of Japanese automaker Nissan with Western corporations.

Ghosn was a major proponent of formalizing Renault and Nissan's alliance into a permanent merger of the two companies — a prospect which some in the industry believe was a non-starter for Nissan's board. 

The man

Ghosn, 65, was born in Brazil to French-Lebanese parents. He lived in Brazil until he was 6, when his mother and aunt took him to Beirut, Lebanon, to live with family. He was educated in Lebanon and France, and upon graduation from the École des Mines de Paris, he went to work for Michelin

He has since served at the executive level of multiple international powerhouses, rising to the posts of COO and CEO of Michelin North America, vice president and CEO of Renault, chairman and CEO of Nissan, and chairman and CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance. He also briefly served as chairman of Mitsubishi after the struggling automaker was brought under Renault and Nissan's global umbrella. During this time, he remained chairman of Nissan's board of directors.

Ghosn's career earned him a reputation as a man who could rebuild businesses in even the most dire financial straits. He worked his magic at both Renault and Nissan, dramatically cutting costs and transforming the near-bankrupt corporations into profitable juggernauts. His admirers and critics saddled him with nicknames such as "Le Cost Cutter" and "Mr. Fix It."

The myth

Ghosn's role in Nissan's turnaround earned him a heroic reputation in Japan, where he was featured in a manga comic in which he was depicted as having quasi-super powers that allowed him to identify the make and model of a car just from a faint, passing sound. 

He remained CEO of Nissan from his appointment in June 2001 until April 2017, when he stepped down to make way for Hiroto Saikawa. 

The fall

Ghosn remained on the board of Mitsubishi until shortly after his arrest in November 2018, on charges of financial misconduct. According to Japanese authorities, Ghosn conspired with Nissan North America board member Greg Kelly to under-represent his annual compensation by as much as half over the course of five years, allegedly stashing away nearly $90 million in unreported income. 

He was also accused of misappropriating millions more from company coffers in order to purchase and renovate homes around the globe, which were then used as off-the-books retreats for Ghosn and other executives. 

Following the initial arrest, Ghosn was released and subsequently re-arrested in December 2018, released again and then re-arrested in January 2019 (along with Kelly) after he announced that he was going to address the media in an effort to clear his name. Japanese law allows suspects to be detained for up to three weeks without formal charges, granting authorities leeway to effectively detain suspects indefinitely so long as they are released and re-arrested after the window expires. 

After his January arrest, he was removed from the board of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance and stripped of his CEO title. 

The wait

Japanese authorities granted Ghosn bail in March 2019, allowing him to live under house arrest while prosecutors ostensibly put a case together for trial. The conditions of the $9 million bail deal included 24-hour surveillance and a blanket ban on internet access. Ghosn again said he intended to clear his name publicly, which was followed immediately by a fourth arrest on yet more charges of financial misconduct. 

Following this arrest, Nissan shareholders voted to remove Ghosn from the company's board. Ghosn was once again released in late April provided he complied with the conditions of his house arrest, which he did for another six months. A particularly stringent condition was that he could not have any contact with his wife.

November 2019 marked one year since Ghosn's initial detention. Japanese prosecutors had still not finalized a date for his trial; Ghosn's legal team says it had been informed that Japanese officials sought yet another delay of potentially a year

During his detention and house arrest, Ghosn and his legal team have accused both Nissan and Japanese legal authorities of manipulating, destroying and denying the disgraced executive access to evidence that he claims would exonerate him.

The escape

Many details of Ghosn's flight from Japan to Lebanon remain unclear, but we know he left his home in Tokyo in the afternoon of Dec. 29, took a bullet train to Osaka, and snuck on board a private jet at Kansai International Airport in a large electronics case, which was not subjected to serious scrutiny. 

He was flown from Tokyo to Beirut by way of Istanbul. 

Turkish airline operator MNG claims that its planes were used illegally, and that at least one employee committed fraud by falsifying documents associated with Ghosn's escape from Japan. The executive was not named in any of the operator's travel documents, obscuring his presence from authorities in Japan, Turkey and his final destination of Lebanon.

Lebanon does not routinely extradite fugitives. Recall that Ghosn spent part of his childhood there, and he is regarded as a national hero. Ghosn is said to have met with the Lebanese president upon his arrival.

The aftermath

Late on Jan. 6, 2020, Japanese authorities issued an arrest warrant for Ghosn's wife, Carole, in what the family's lawyers have called an attempt to silence Ghosn ahead of his next attempt to clear his name. 

Ghosn insists his family did not participate in or have knowledge of his escape plan.

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