February 14, 2019 / 1:05 AM / in 2 days

Nissan and Renault reaffirm alliance, but avoid talk of Nissan chairmanship

TOKYO (Reuters) - Top executives from Nissan and Renault on Thursday reaffirmed the importance of an alliance that has been pressured by the ousting of former Chairman Carlos Ghosn, but avoided discussing the potentially contentious issue of Nissan’s next chairman.

The newly appointed chairman of France’s Renault SA, Jean-Dominique Senard, arrived in Japan on Thursday for two days of meetings with Nissan. Speculation has swirled about the future of the alliance, and whether Senard himself would assume the chairmanship of the Japanese automaker.

Some in Japan see the alliance as unequal. But analysts say the three-way tie-up, which also includes smaller automaker Mitsubishi Motors, is necessary to compete better with rivals such as Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Corp.

Senard’s visit is the first by Renault’s top brass since Ghosn was arrested in Tokyo in November over allegations of financial misconduct. The downfall of one of the world’s best-known executives has stunned the global auto industry and heightened tension between Renault and Nissan Motor Co.

Senard met Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa and Mitsubishi’s Osamu Masuko for talks that lasted nearly two hours, Masuko told reporters outside his home late on Thursday. The three reaffirmed the importance of the alliance, Masuko said.

Separately, Saikawa told reporters that they did not talk about the issues related to the chairmanship of Nissan, or a full merger between Nissan and Renault, indicating that the discussions were more mundane.

“There were some operational issues we needed to discuss, so that was the focus of our conversation,” Saikawa said.

Some Nissan executives have long been unhappy with what they see as Renault’s outsized influence over larger Nissan. Renault holds 43 percent in Nissan while the Japanese automaker, in turn, holds a 15 percent, non-voting stake in the French firm.

Upon his arrival in Japan, Senard appeared to try to avoid putting strain on the alliance, telling reporters that it was not the time to discuss whether he would also take over as chairman of Nissan, Japan’s Jiji news agency reported.

Renault SA Chairman Jean-Dominique Senard arrives at Haneda airport in Tokyo, Japan in this photo taken by Kyodo February 14, 2019. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

Senard was appointed chairman of the French automaker three weeks ago, and is also expected to be named to Nissan’s board, given Renault’s stake. He is also expected to meet board members and management teams.

The visit is aimed as a friendly, introductory call, according to sources familiar with the matter. But tension has been building between the two sides, with Renault initially backing Ghosn until he was forced to resign as chairman and CEO last month.

DRIVING FORCE

The issue of the chairmanship of Nissan is now particularly important because the Japanese firm has said one of the reasons Ghosn was able to carry out his alleged fiscal misconduct was a concentration of power in one executive.

Ghosn denies wrongdoing.

Ghosn himself was the driving force in the alliance, which was sealed in 1999 when Nissan was rescued from near-bankruptcy and enlarged in 2016 to include Mitsubishi Motors Corp. Ghosn had been pushing for a deeper tie-up between Nissan and Renault, including possibly a full merger, despite reservations at Nissan.

Senard’s appointment in late January helped quell a leadership debate which erupted after Nissan dismissed Ghosn immediately after his arrest while Renault had initially stuck by the executive, and has opened a path for Renault and Nissan re-examine the operations and structure of their alliance.

Joining Renault from tyre maker Michelin, Senard is generally seen by Nissan as a welcome outsider who could provide more balance to the alliance, over which Nissan has said Ghosn held excessive control given his roles as chairman of Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors, along with being Renault CEO.

Senard’s meeting with Saikawa would be the second since they first met face-to-face late last month.

Jean-Dominique Senard, Michelin tyre maker Chief Executive Officer, delivers a speech at the start of the Michelin Guide 2019 award ceremony in Paris, France, January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

Meanwhile, Ghosn, in custody at a detention centre in Tokyo for nearly three months, on Wednesday replaced his chief attorney with a legal team headed by one of Japan’s most fiery lawyers in a move seen as taking on a more aggressive strategy in fighting his charges, which he denies.

Renault announced on Thursday that revenue and profit fell in 2018, hit by collapsing diesel sales, exchange-rate setbacks and a withdrawal from the Iranian market. Nissan earlier in the week said its annual profit will plumb six-year lows due to waning global sales and an ongoing slump in its U.S. operations.

Reporting by Naomi Tajitsu; Writing by Ritsuko Ando and David Dolan; Editing by Christopher Cushing/Keith Weir

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