End of an era at Renault-Nissan

PARIS — The ouster of Renault CEO Thierry Bollore last week sweeps away another remnant of the Carlos Ghosn era and perhaps moves the French automaker closer to a stronger bond with Japanese affiliate Nissan Motor Co.

Bollore’s removal on Friday came just days after Nissan named a triumvirate of leaders without deep ties to Ghosn, the former chairman who was arrested in November and has been stripped of his many roles throughout the global alliance he created.

Bollore, Ghosn’s handpicked successor, reportedly never developed a rapport with Chairman Jean-Dominique Senard, the respected Michelin CEO brought in by Renault’s board of directors and the French government to mend relations with Nissan.

Senard dodged questions about any personality clash with Bollore, saying Friday that there was “nothing personal” about the decision, but it was simply that the alliance needs a fresh start, and that required new governance.

He also denied that either the French government or Nissan had put pressure on Renault’s board.

It took just three days to topple Bollore, who only learned of reports that Senard wanted him out when he landed in Paris in the predawn hours on Wednesday after meetings with Nissan in Japan.

At Nissan, former CEO Hiroto Saikawa — another Ghosn appointee — resigned swiftly last month after being linked to improper payments, although the transgressions were much smaller in scope than those that Ghosn is accused of engineering.

In addition to the changes at the top of Renault and Nissan, numerous executives seen as Ghosn allies have moved on or been reassigned.

Senard and Nissan now have a clean sheet to ponder how to revive trust within the alliance and redistribute the balance of power, which has been solidly in Renault’s hands since the French automaker took a controlling stake in a then-ailing Nissan in 1999. Investors seemed to relish the prospect, and perhaps even the revival of the failed merger with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles: Renault shares rose 5 percent for the week.

The first task is to find Bollore’s successor, but Renault’s executive talent pool has been thinned by a number of recent high-profile departures — some to crosstown rival PSA Group — and Ghosn’s reluctance to share power.

Renault will be led on an interim basis by CFO Clotilde Delbos, with assistance from Olivier Murguet, head of global sales, and Jose-Vincente de los Mozos, deputy alliance vice president for manufacturing and supply chain.

Any outside candidate will need to have a thick skin to handle the fickle French government — which holds a 15 percent stake and wields outsize influence over strategy, especially in any areas that could touch employment — as well as the physical and mental stamina to endure long flights to and from Tokyo.

Perhaps most important, that person must have Nissan’s approval, much as Senard is said to have given his blessing to the Japanese automaker’s new governing tribunal of CEO Makoto Uchida, COO Ashwani Gupta and Deputy COO Jun Seki. On Friday, Senard described Nissan’s new management team as “extraordinarily pro-alliance.”

Senard said Renault would take its time seeking a permanent CEO, but he said that person would “need to have the ability to comprehend the alliance’s imperatives in an international context.”

Whether Renault picks a caretaker CEO or someone with a long-term future, that person will inherit an automaker with relatively solid fundamentals, although profits and sales have slumped this year.

Renault is not alone in feeling the effects of a slowdown in European and global auto sales. It has suffered in the past 18 months from an aging lineup, but replacements for Renault’s two global bestsellers, the small Clio hatchback and Captur SUV, are going on the market this autumn.

Thanks to Ghosn’s aggressive — and costly — push for electrification early in this decade, Renault is expected to meet Europe’s increasingly stringent emissions targets without paying penalties, and it has been amortizing EV development costs for years.

Renault is also globally diversified, with operations in more than 150 countries, another Ghosn hallmark, allowing it a hedge against currency and economic fluctuations, although it has been hit hard this year by Argentina’s financial collapse.

It is not heavily invested in the slumping Chinese market, where it has a relatively small joint venture with Dongfeng Motor that produces SUVs, and it controls a domestic maker of minibuses and minivans, Jinbei-Brilliance.

Nonetheless, Renault needs a strong alliance with Nissan to help share development costs, drive hard bargains in purchasing (another Ghosn obsession) and finance expensive future technologies such as autonomous vehicles. As examples, Renault’s new models rely on Nissan’s ProPilot Level 2 advanced driver assistance system, and the alliance is close to rolling out a common EV platform, which critics have said is long overdue.

But Senard was adamant on Friday that those waiting for swift, radical change in the Renault-Nissan relationship shouldn’t hold their breath. Nissan and Renault first needed to get used to new management teams, he said. And after being in crisis mode for 11 months, he added, “there’s a need to take the time to relax and reflect.”