YOKOHAMA, Japan — One summer morning last year, when Carlos Ghosn was still the respected and feared guiding light of Nissan Motor Co., he was joined by executives and personnel at Nissan’s global headquarters for the unveiling of a new piece of corporate artwork.
A year later, that festive commemoration provides a telling glimpse into the brewing management crisis that is now threatening Nissan and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance.
Chairman Ghosn basked in the moment. But CEO Hiroto Saikawa, the man who served for years under Ghosn’s high hand and followed him as chosen successor, was none too pleased.
Making its debut was a towering metal sculpture of intersecting circles titled “Wheels of Motion.” The work — by an artist from Ghosn’s ancestral homeland of Lebanon — celebrated Nissan’s transformation from near-bankrupt national embarrassment in 1999 into a driving force behind the international alliance the executive built into the world’s biggest automotive empire.
In short, the sculpture was actually a thinly veiled monument to Ghosn himself.
Saikawa had learned of the event only shortly before, when asked, as the company’s new CEO, to review a draft announcement. The Nissan career man was perturbed he hadn’t been informed, according to a source familiar with the matter. He was also unhappy the project was commissioned outside Nissan’s internal design department and that Nissan paid $1 million for it.
Some Nissan insiders aware of Saikawa’s reaction found it petty and micromanaging. But others saw the morning’s unveiling itself as a poorly timed ego trip by Ghosn, a lavish salute to himself.
“It raised eyebrows,” recalled one person in attendance that day. “People were wondering who paid for it, who commissioned it and why. And why not use a Japanese artist?”
If bad blood was already brewing that day between Nissan’s CEO and its chairman, it finally boiled over last week. Japanese authorities indicted Ghosn last week over allegations of financial improprieties uncovered through an internal Nissan investigation.
Ghosn, 64, a man once hailed as a hero in Japan for restoring Nissan to health, is now entering his fifth week in a Tokyo jail along with American human resources executive Greg Kelly. Ghosn would face 10 years in prison if found guilty of misstating his compensation in the carmaker’s annual securities reports.
Yet behind the legal battle rages yet another struggle — over legacy.