Nissan CEO Makoto Uchida, April 16 2019. File picture: KYODO/VIA REUTERS.
Nissan CEO Makoto Uchida, April 16 2019. File picture: KYODO/VIA REUTERS.

Tokyo — Nissan has named the head of its China joint venture as CEO, as the struggling Japanese carmaker seeks to heal deep divisions caused by the arrest of its former chair and repair fraught relations with partner Renault.

Makoto Uchida will work alongside Ashwani Gupta from affiliate Mitsubishi Motors, who was named COO, and Jun Seki, the former head of Nissan in China, who will become deputy COO, according to a statement Tuesday.

“The board believes that this arrangement, of a CEO and two COOs, is the best way forward for Nissan right now,” director Masakazu Toyoda said at a media conference. “They can lift each others’ game, support one another, be transparent and make fair decisions.”

Uchida, who will be Nissan’s third boss in as many years, will need to address deteriorating profits as well as executing a huge restructuring.

In addition, the company’s relationship with partner Renault in a global alliance with Mitsubishi was rocked by the arrest nearly a year ago of former leader Carlos Ghosn for financial crimes, which he has denied. Relations were further tested when Nissan scuttled Renault’s plan to merge with Fiat Chrysler. Nissan’s new top management could face pressure from the French company, which owns 43% of its Japanese partner, to decide whether talks should be rekindled, possibly for a three-way combination.

Uchida ran Nissan’s joint venture in China. Like many major carmakers, Nissan counts the country as its single-biggest market, contributing almost a third of its operating income in recent years. He joined Nissan from Nissho Iwai in 2003, and has curried the favour of Renault because of his collaboration with the French carmaker on joint procurement, said people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because the information isn’t public.

Known for his overseas experience, Uchida has also worked for Renault Samsung in South Korea. He studied theology at Doshisha University, an unusual background for someone in the vehicle industry.

The Nissan board had been under pressure to select a new leader at a critical time for the company, which reported decade-low profits and announced 12,500 job cuts as it seeks to turn itself around. Car sales are slowing across the globe and new technologies from self-driving cars to electrification are disrupting the industry.

“There is restructuring to be done at home and abroad, new vehicle development needs to speed up, while management co-ordination with Renault and efforts to improve profitability are in disarray,’ Koji Endo, an analyst at SBI Securities, said before the news of the appointments. “There are so many things to do.”

Gupta was one of the contenders for the top job favoured by Renault chair Jean-Dominique Senard, given that he’s been seen as a supporter of the three-carmaker alliance. He was born in Dehradun, India, and graduated from Jawaharlal Nehru Engineering College, India, and obtained a diploma from INSEAD, the French business school.

Nada’s fate

Although the Nissan board discussed the fate of Hari Nada on Tuesday, it didn’t make any announcement about the whistle-blower who was instrumental in the downfall of Ghosn.

“Today we are making an announcement about the top leadership, so I will refrain from making comment on that matter,” Toyoda said at the media conference.

The board was set to discuss disciplinary measures against Nada, who was recently implicated in a scandal at Nissan involving excess compensation through stock appreciation rights.

Nada is co-operating with Japanese prosecutors under a plea-bargaining agreement in their case against Ghosn for financial crimes, people with knowledge of the matter have said. A lawyer by training who studied in the UK and Japan, Nada is a senior vice-president at Nissan and worked in the CEO’s office under Ghosn and his successor, Hiroto Saikawa. Nada is expected to be a key witness in Ghosn’s trial in 2020.

With Reed Stevenson.