November 1, 2019 / 7:46 AM / 18 days ago

Nissan picks American as finance chief as new generation takes helm

TOKYO (Reuters) - Nissan Motor Co on Friday named American Stephen Ma as its next finance chief and said some veteran executives were stepping down, putting a new generation in charge of a company battling to recover from plunging profits and management scandal.

Stephen Ma, who was named the next finance chief of Nissan Motor Co, poses in this undated handout picture obtained by Reuters on November 1, 2019. Nissan Motor via REUTERS

The announcement by Japan’s second-largest automaker comes just weeks after it named the head of its China business, Makoto Uchida, as its next chief executive.

Following the dramatic ouster of former Chairman Carlos Ghosn almost a year ago, Nissan has been battered by sliding profits, uncertainty over its future leadership and tensions with top shareholder Renault SA (RENA.PA).

The company is revamping its top ranks with younger executives, picking Ma, its global controller who turns 49 this month, as its next chief financial officer (CFO) to replace Hiroshi Karube, whose departure was also announced.

Ma, who joined Nissan’s U.S. operations in 1996 and has served as CFO of Nissan’s joint venture with Chinese partner Dongfeng Motor, will join Ashwani Gupta, the 49-year-old who was appointed chief operating officer last month, in becoming the highest ranking non-Japanese at the company.

“We are trying to achieve a generational change in Nissan management,” said a source at the company, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

They, along with Uchida, 53, and other top executives, will take on their new positions on Dec. 1.

Among those leaving is Yasuhiro Yamauchi, who was acting CEO and passed over for the top job that went to Uchida.

Nissan, whose shares have slumped about a fifth in value so far this year, also announced the departure of Hitoshi Kawaguchi, confirming an earlier Reuters report. Kawaguchi, who has been in charge of external affairs, had been seen as backing Yamauchi for the CEO position.

Both Kawaguchi and Yamauchi, septuagenarians who between them have served more than 80 years at Nissan, will leave the company at the end of the month.

They are the latest Nissan veterans to go, after former CEO Hiroto Saikawa was forced to resign in September as directors sought a clean break with the Ghosn era.

NEW TOP TEAM

Nissan’s new executive team will face the task of lifting profits, which have hit their lowest in more than decade.

Earnings have been undercut, particularly in the United States, a key market, by years of heavy discounts and low-margin sales to rental firms as part of a strategy to raise market share, which has cheapened Nissan’s brand image.

They also need to repair Nissan’s relationship with Renault, which has soured since Ghosn’s arrest on charges of financial misconduct, which he denies.

One official raised concerns about a lack of experience among the new executives in managing the alliance with its French partner.

“We expect we’re going to face some difficulty in dealing with Renault,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

“We need to make solid preparations for that.”

Since Ghosn’s ouster as chairman of both companies, Nissan and Renault have squabbled over the selection of Nissan’s board members and executives, as well a proposed tie-up between Renault and Fiat Chrysler (FCA) (FCHA.MI) earlier this year, which ultimately failed.

The French automaker, which holds a 43.4% stake in Nissan after it saved the Japanese automaker from financial ruin two decades ago, for years has been pursuing closer ties with its bigger partner, only to be rebuffed by Nissan.

The latest strains have sparked investor concern about the future of the Franco-Japanese alliance at a time when car companies desperately need scale to keep up with sweeping technological changes like electric vehicles and ride-hailing.

FCA announced earlier this week it was in talks to merge with Renault rival PSA (PEUP.PA) to create the world’s fourth-largest automaking group, closing in on the Renault-Nissan alliance, which ranks among the top three.

Reporting by Norihiko Shirouzu and Naomi Tajitsu; Writing by David Dolan and Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Susan Fenton and Mark Potter

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