Carlos Ghosn Image Credit: Bloomberg News

TOKYO: Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn said on Thursday he will quit the post to focus on overhauling scandal-hit Mitsubishi Motors, but will stay on as chairman at the Japanese automaker he was credited with saving.

Ghosn, 62, who also heads up French automaker Renault, will hand over the reins to Nissan veteran Hiroto Saikawa in April.

Among a handful of foreign-born CEOs at Japanese firms, Ghosn earned the nickname ‘Le Cost Killer’ for his aggressive restructuring at Renault and later the nearly-bankrupt Nissan in the late nineties.

He appointed Saikawa as his co-CEO last year in order to focus on Mitsubishi’s turnaround.

Ghosn took charge at troubled Mitsubishi after Nissan threw it a lifeline in May, buying a one-third stake for about $2.2 billion (Dh8.07billion) as it wrestled with a mileage-cheating scandal that hammered sales.

Two of the affected vehicle models were being made for Nissan, which was the first to uncover problems with the fuel economy data.

Questions about Ghosn’s succession have swirled around the company for years and they were reignited by string of defections by top Nissan executives in 2014.

Ghosn will remain CEO of Renault — which holds a more than 40 per cent stake in Nissan under a long-standing alliance — and chairman of all the three automakers, including Mitsubishi.

“Having recently taken on new responsibilities at Mitsubishi Motors ... I have decided that the time is right for Hiroto Saikawa to succeed me as Nissan’s CEO,” Ghosn said in a statement Thursday.

Pass the baton

He later suggested his plate was getting too full running a trio of major automakers.

“There’s a point in time where you have to be realistic about how much things you do and you can do well,” Ghosn told Bloomberg News.

“This is the trigger. There’s a moment when you have to pass the baton to someone else.

“I’ve always said I would love to have a Japanese to be my successor and Saikawa-san is somebody I have been grooming for many years.”

Renault came to the rescue of a struggling Nissan in 1999 and parachuted in the Brazil-born Ghosn, who set about slashing costs and jobs in a huge corporate overhaul.

The companies’ fortunes have since shifted with the Japanese firm now accounting for the bulk of profits at the Renault-Nissan alliance, a group that is effectively the fourth biggest automaker in the world behind Volkswagen, Toyota and General Motors.

Ghosn has a high profile in Japan and is known as a major advocate of the country’s auto sector.

Toyota’s boss heaped praise on his rival Thursday, calling Ghosn “the man who rehabilitated Nissan”.

“We’d like to continue to take advantage of his abilities for the sake of the automotive industry going forward,” Akio Toyoda told reporters, according to Jiji Press news agency.

Cosmic issues

Independent auto analyst Maryann Keller said that while Ghosn has held the alliance together the time is right for him to now take a different role.

“It’s appropriate for Ghosn to step away from running the business day-to-day, and to devote all his time to thinking about the cosmic issues confronting the business,” Bloomberg quoted Keller as saying.

“It’s a different game today. You can’t play it the same you played it in 1995.”

And while investors sold Nissan stock on the news — the company’s Tokyo-listed shares slipped 0.58 per cent to close at 1,112 yen ($10) — analysts remained upbeat.

“He (Ghosn) is a busy man,” said Toshihiko Matsuno, chief strategist at SMBC Friend Securities.

“He may stay a bit further away from Nissan, but as long as he has the right to represent the company the effect will be limited.”