Governance in Japan: Going, going, Ghosn

Written by Jake Plenderleith on Wednesday November 21, 2018

Carlos Ghosn has his own comic book, The True Story of Carlos Ghosn. It ran as a strip in the manga Big Comic Superior in Japan in 2001, before being published as a book the following year.

In a country obsessed with comic books, Ghosn having his own should give you an idea of the reverence in which he is held for reviving the ailing carmaker Nissan after his arrival in 1999.

Or rather, the reverence in which he was formerly held.

His surprising arrest for false accounting has had a quite remarkable impact. The carmakers stock has plummeted following Nissan’s announcement, after the company released a statement on Monday announcing the revelations before hosting an eye opening press conference in which Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa spoke candidly with reporters.

Some choice quotes include the fact that what Saikawa ‘felt indignation and personally, I keenly felt despair’ over Goshn’s alleged conduct. This was on top of some of the other comments Saikawa made during the conference (which lasted for an hour and a half):

I have to say that this is the dark side of the Ghosn era which lasted for a long time.

Beyond being sorry I feel great disappointment, frustration, despair, indignation and resentment.

But perhaps the most revealing remark was the one that touched on governance at Nissan. Saikawa said:

Too much authority was given to one person in terms of governance.

There are aspects of Ghosn’s arrest that should capture the interest of those working in financial crime prevention. First, that Ghosn’s alleged underreporting was revealed by a whistle-blower. The whistle-blower revealed that Ghosn allegedly underreported £35 million over a five-year period beginning in 2011.

This was allegedly done with the help of Nissan Representative Director Greg Kelly, who has also been arrested. According to Saikawa, Kelly was close to Ghosn and able to exert significant influence within the company. 

Nissan’s unusual tripartite link to Mitsubishi and Renault make financial misconduct even more fraught with danger than usual, with the French government in possession of a 15% stake in the French carmaker, and 7,000 people employed at Renault’s plant in Sunderland (about which Ghosn sought reassurances from Theresa May that business would not be adversely affected following the 2016 EU Referendum).

With Japan, we’ve been in this situation before, haven’t we?

Michael Woodford’s tenure as CEO of Olympus lasted two weeks in which time he challenged fees of over $1 billion paid by the board to small-time companies. Woodford revealed the misconduct taking place, setting in motion a huge scandal that cost the company 75-80% of its stock market valuation and many arrests. Three years after he resigned, in an interview with Japan Today, Woodford said that he felt that the culture had not changed in Japan, despite the scandal.

Which brings us back to 2018. Though Ghosn is yet to be charged with any crime, his arrest and removal from Nissan’s board demonstrates the incredible effect that such misconduct can have (and similarly, underlines just how crucial whistle-blowers are in exposing financial crime).

 Still, how many real-life CEOs have appeared in comic book form?


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