The very public arrest of Carlos Ghosn moments after his private jet landed at Tokyo’s Haneda airport in November 2018 sent shockwaves through the corporate world.
It was a steep fall from grace for the titan of the global car industry, the man who revived the fortunes of Japan’s Nissan and Renault of France, forging an alliance with Mitsubishi that created the world’s second-largest car manufacturer. He chaired all three companies simultaneously and was also chief executive of Renault.
In Japan, where foreign company bosses are rare, Ghosn achieved superstar status for revitalising Nissan – his hero status was such that his life was serialised in a manga comic book. His face has graced Japanese bento lunch boxes as well as Lebanese stamps.
Born in Brazil to Lebanese immigrant parents, 65 year-old Ghosn (pronounced to rhyme with “phone”) also holds French and Lebanese passports. After spending time in Beirut as a child, he studied at the prestigious École Polytechnique in Paris before joining Michelin. He spent the first 18 years of his career at the French tyre manufacturer. Ghosn was poached by Renault in 1996, where he was nicknamed “Le Cost Killer” for his brutal restructuring programme.
He repeated that at Nissan after Renault took a 43.4% stake in the company in 1999, cementing his status as one of the world’s most successful business leaders. Former DaimlerChrysler chair Jürgen Schrempp gave Ghosn another moniker, the “icebreaker”, for his ability to cut through inflexible Japanese business practices and return Nissan to profitability within a year.
Ghosn bound together Renault and Nissan in an alliance, later joined by Mitsubishi, another Japanese corporate touchstone, that allowed the companies to share costs and components. An unusual criss-cross of shareholdings tied the companies together without merging them, but Ghosn claimed that fears he was pushing for a full merger with Nissan as a junior partner were behind his eventual ousting.
The alliance installed Ghosn as head of the world’s second largest carmaker, giving him political power across the world, in Japan, France and wherever its factories were located.
That included the UK, where Nissan’s Sunderland factory took centre stage in the Brexit debate after Ghosn warned that future investment remained dependent on the trade deal with the EU. Ghosn met then the prime minister, Theresa May, to discuss the plant, eventually securing £61m in secret state aid.
Ghosn faces four charges of financial misconduct if he ever returns to Japan, including understating his pay and misusing company assets. While awaiting trial, he spent more than 120 days in detention before being released on bail for a second time in late April. His treatment drew international criticism.
The outstanding charges mean Ghosn will have to carefully judge the legal risks of leaving Lebanon. However, Japan only has extradition treaties with the US and South Korea.
In the meantime, Ghosn will be able to enjoy relative freedom in the home country of his parents and his wife, Carole. While he will almost certainly forgo $9m (£6.8m) in bail paid in Japan, Ghosn – who faced repeated criticism for pay packets perceived as excessive – will be able to fall back on an estimated net worth of $120m – including an expensive Beirut mansion and a stake in a Lebanese vineyard a few miles from the Mediterranean Sea.