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Nissan CEO to Lead N. American Division

Move by Carlos Ghosn, credited with the firm's turnaround, comes as a surprise to many in U.S.

March 24, 2004|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Nissan Motor Co.'s charismatic chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, will take charge of the Japanese automaker's North American operations next month as the company steps up a campaign to expand sales in the U.S., the firm said Tuesday.

The news caught many at Nissan North America Inc.'s headquarters in Gardena by surprise, but Ghosn's plans were known by a handful of top executives for some time, insiders said.

Ghosn "wants to make sure he is fully versed in our market and our operations ... and this will give him a deeper understanding" of the U.S. market, said Jed Connelly, senior vice president for sales and marketing at the North American division.

Brazilian-born Ghosn is credited with transforming Nissan from an insolvent wreck into an auto industry powerhouse over the last five years. He will leave Tokyo next year to become chief executive of French automaker Renault, which owns 44% of Nissan. He also will continue as Nissan's chief executive.

Ghosn is intent on solidifying his influence on Nissan before moving to Paris.

As part of the transition he has picked Norio Matsumura, who heads Nissan North America, to become head of Nissan's Japanese operations in Tokyo. Analysts say that move puts Matsumura in line to become Nissan's chief operating officer next year.

North America is Nissan's single most important market and accounts for about 75% of the company's operating profit. Renault, which pulled out of the U.S. in 1988, is widely thought to be considering reentering the U.S. market.

"The more he knows about North America, the better," said Michael Flynn, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

Ghosn's new duties don't mean there is trouble brewing in the North American operation. Indeed, Ghosn has repeatedly praised the unit's performance. Nissan North America has been profitable even when Nissan has been losing money globally.

Ghosn also picked Nissan North America marketing chief Steven Wilhite to become head of global marketing for Nissan.

In the 1990s, Nissan was piling up loses and came close to filing for bankruptcy when Ghosn was named head of the company. He oversaw a quick redesign of Nissan's vehicles and an overhaul of its management and manufacturing systems. As sales took off he became something of a folk hero in Japan.

Before he moves to Paris, Ghosn will remain in Tokyo but will make periodic visits to the U.S. He will chair -- sometimes by videoconference -- a monthly U.S. management council meeting and a meeting of top North American operations managers.

He is taking over the North American operation as Nissan steps up its marketing offensive to hit the 1-million-vehicle mark in U.S. sales by 2006.

The company has been rolling out new models tailored to U.S. consumers' tastes, including the new 350Z sports car and the full-size Titan pickup truck it builds at a new plant in Mississippi. Nissan sold 794,481 cars and trucks in the U.S. last year. In the first two months this year, Nissan and Infinity sales have surged 38%, to 147,000 vehicles.

Nissan shares Tuesday rose 10 cents to $21.30 on Nasdaq.

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