Renault’s new CEO will benefit from Carlos Ghosn’s wild optimism

January 30, 2020, 10:34 AM UTC

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Good morning.

Carlos Ghosn may be gone from the automobile business, but he is not forgotten. He was, after all, the first true electric car enthusiast in the industry. Wired magazine once said he was “either a brilliant visionary, or crazy as a loon.” His forecasts a decade ago were wildly optimistic—see my 2012 interview with him here, where he predicted 10% of new cars would be electric by 2020. (The actual number will be closer to 2%.) But he was directionally correct. And the new CEO of Renault, Luca de Meo, will benefit from his wild optimism in the years to come. Perhaps both adjectives—brilliant and crazy—apply. (He’s not the only auto executive for whom that’s true.)

Who is Luca de Meo? While not widely known, he is a consummate car executive, as Christiaan Hetzner details in his fascinating Fortune profile here. Indeed, those in the industry wonder why he hasn’t gotten a top job before now. He is credited with resurrecting the Fiat 500 back in 2007, more recently he turned around Spanish carmaker Seat, and he was once considered a candidate to replace Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne, who died in 2018. It’s a fascinating resume for a man only 52 years old.

The Italian beat out Clotilde Delbos, Renault’s finance chief and interim boss since the board booted Thierry Bollore last fall. I interviewed her at the Fortune Global Forum in November, and without talking about Ghosn, she made it quite clear what the Ghosn legacy means for Renault: “On electric [cars], it is not PowerPoint for us. It is real life. And contrary to others, we are not bleeding, we are very close to profitability.”

Asked about Tesla, she answered: “We are not competing with Tesla. We welcome Tesla. They helped prove an electric car can be a premium car. We are more a mass-market producer. The Renault DNA is to be able to do the exact car people want, affordable.” If the electric car future ever comes, Carlos Ghosn will have to be given a giant helping of the credit for getting us there.

Meanwhile, Nissan is not doing so well in the post-Ghosn era. Reuters reports it is planning a big round of cuts, eliminating 4,300 white-collar jobs and shutting two manufacturing sites. “The situation is dire. It’s do or die,” a person “close to Nissan’s senior management and the company’s board” told Reuters.

As for Ghosn, he is as outspoken as ever. In an interview with CNBC from Beirut, Lebanon, where he is hiding from Japanese authorities, he said: “If you’re a foreigner working in Japan, you have to be very careful, because unless the system changes, you’re playing with your life.”

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Alan Murray


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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.

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