December 13, 2018 / 8:29 PM / 9 months ago

Exclusive: France plans Renault CEO hunt as board frays over Ghosn - sources

PARIS (Reuters) - The French government is seeking candidates to replace Renault’s (RENA.PA) embattled boss Carlos Ghosn, as some board members began to voice doubts about keeping him in office after his indictment in Japan for suspected misconduct, several sources told Reuters.

In a statement on Friday, interim chairman Philippe Lagayette said Renault’s board did not consider replacing Ghosn at a meeting the previous day and denied reports of boardroom divisions.

At Thursday’s meeting, Renault directors were briefed on an investigation by alliance partner Nissan (7201.T) that led to Ghosn’s arrest last month. He was charged this week over the company’s failure to declare $43 million in deferred income he had arranged to receive.

Nissan fired Ghosn as chairman three days after his detention, but Renault has resisted pressure to dismiss him, as the scandal strains their carmaking alliance.

The Renault board stuck by its earlier decision to keep him on, with its lead director standing in as interim chairman and deputy CEO Thierry Bollore heading operations.

In an initial statement issued by Renault after the meeting, the board “noted that, at this stage, it does not have information concerning Carlos Ghosn’s defence.”

But during the five-hour session, several directors led by Cherie Blair, wife of the British former prime minister Tony Blair, began to express impatience with the situation, two people with knowledge of the matter said.

“What she said, in effect, was that we can’t remain in this situation forever,” one source said of Blair. “At some point you need to move forward and move on.”

Lagayette “refutes the press rumours reporting differences of opinion” among board members at the meeting, Renault said in its statement on Friday.

In a separate statement to Reuters, Blair said she was “saddened that the confidentially of board meetings has been breached in particular in respect of your entirely inaccurate description of my contribution.”

She added: “I can confirm that I, along with other members of the board, asked a number of questions of Renault’s lawyers concerning their knowledge of the Japanese legal system, their estimation as to how long Mr Ghosn will be held custody, and their best estimation of when Mr Ghosn would be available to resume his duties.”

SHORTLIST

French officials have already begun listing possible candidates to replace Ghosn as CEO, the two sources and a third person close to the company said. Senior Toyota executive Didier Leroy will be considered, one of the sources said.

“There’s nothing official yet but the government is working on a lineup,” the source said. “They’re ready to turn the page.”

A finance ministry official declined to comment. The government, Renault’s biggest shareholder with a 15 percent stake and two board seats, typically plays a major role in succession planning.

“I have no comment on speculation, and I am 100 percent concentrated on my job at Toyota,” Leroy told Reuters.

The boardroom crisis has shaken the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, with Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa calling for changes to weaken the French parent’s control.

Renault owns 43.4 percent of Nissan, whose reciprocal 15 percent stake in its French parent carries no voting rights. Nissan in turn controls Mitsubishi via a 34 percent holding.

Blair’s board intervention was echoed during the meeting by two other independent directors as well as Renault staff representatives, two of the sources said - with some also voicing misgivings over management’s handling of the crisis.

BOARD COUNSEL

At the risk of worsening tensions, Bollore instructed Nissan to refrain from contacting Renault directors ahead of the meeting, Reuters reported on Tuesday, as the Japanese carmaker sought to share its findings.

Directors had also clashed with Renault managers over their right to hire independent board counsel with access to Nissan’s findings, two other people said.

Company attorneys answering to Mouna Sepehri - who doubles as board secretary and head of Ghosn’s CEO office - have so far declined to share the report with directors or their lawyers, citing the secrecy of the investigation.

Interim chairman Lagayette played down talk of tensions.

“The board of directors, contrary to certain press allegations, has congratulated the company’s managers” for their handling of the situation, Lagayette said. The meeting had “not considered the potential succession of Mr Ghosn”, he added.

Under French government pressure, Ghosn had been exploring a deeper tie-up or even a full merger between the alliance partners, despite strong reservations at Nissan.

Whether or not they broke the law, Ghosn’s undisclosed compensation plans - doubling his total Nissan package for the five years to March 2015 - are politically sensitive in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has been battling protests.

Defence arguments advanced by Ghosn’s lawyers and supporters have not contested the plans’ existence. His Japanese lawyer Motonari Otsuru said in a media statement that the pay agreements had not been properly ratified.

FILE PHOTO: Carlos Ghosn attends the Paris Auto Show, in Paris, France, October 1, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/File Photo

Nissan has said its whistleblower investigation also uncovered personal use of company funds and other misconduct, detailed in the report shared with Renault lawyers this week.

Renault, which launched an audit into its own payments to Ghosn after his arrest, said on Thursday its “preliminary conclusion” was that his compensation had been “in compliance with applicable law” and governance guidelines.

Ghosn and an alleged accomplice, Nissan director Greg Kelly, remain in custody and have had limited opportunity to respond to the allegations or defend themselves, particularly in public.

Additional reporting by Gilles Guillaume; Editing by Alexandra Hudson/Keith Weir and Nick Tattersall

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