What Drives Carlos Ghosn Chapter 1
(ASIA – January 22nd, 2017) What’s life like as a global CEO? In this special multi-part series, Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. CEO Carlos Ghosn shares his life story, offering personal insights and professional lessons on what it takes to succeed.
Up In The Air On New Year’s
I’m somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean now, cruising at an altitude of about 14,000 meters. As I fly toward Brazil, my thoughts are in Japan. While it is a tradition for me to spend the New Year holiday with my family in Brazil, a part of me wishes I could also be in Japan, on the most celebrated day of the year. I extend my Happy New Year’s wishes to all.
As the CEO of both Nissan Motor and Renault, and the chairman of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, I split my time each month between Japan, France and other markets where the companies operate, such as the U.S., Brazil, China and the Middle East. People often ask me what I do from day to day. It’s a difficult question to answer: No one day is like another. It depends on the region where I am working and what decisions need to be made. But while every day is different, it is also the same in the sense that I am focused on the performance and success of these businesses.
Regardless of where I am in the world, I am an early riser. In Paris, I’m usually at the office by 7:30 a.m. In Japan, I arrive closer to 8 a.m. because of the additional travel time between my home in Tokyo and Nissan’s offices in Yokohama. By the time I arrive, I have already been working quietly by myself for many hours. I find these are often my best hours.
Most of my day is tightly scheduled. Meetings start at 8 a.m. and don’t stop until the day is finished, often around 8 p.m. or later. It is not uncommon for me to leave Tokyo on a Friday night, attend meetings in another country over the weekend, then fly to Paris for a full week of work. It helps that I can sleep well on an airplane. This kind of lifestyle can take a toll on you, both physically and socially. It is not without a price to pay, and you have to manage that. But it is what is required of many leaders in the age of globalization.
Globalization is changing how business is done and what it means to be competitive. We are also seeing another societal trend shaping global business: the issue of identity and the resurgence of nationalism. These two trends coexist. To understand what I mean, consider Brexit. The U.K. voted to leave the European Union, but they still want to work with the region – and trade with the world.
Both trends are certainly at play at Nissan. Globalization is what makes it possible for us to sell our cars in more than 160 countries and attract diverse talent. But our identity remains deeply embedded in our Japanese DNA.
As I said, I also run Renault, a French automaker. For the last 17 years, Renault and Nissan have engaged in a unique alliance to generate synergies for both companies. These two companies have shared goals, but distinct cultures and identities. The Renault-Nissan Alliance is an example of how, despite differences in language, regions and traditions, two companies can be stronger together. In this way, the alliance also embraces both the opportunities of globalization and the benefits of individualism.
Just as globalization and identity describe Nissan, they also perfectly express my life. My grandfather was a Lebanese man who moved to Brazil, where I was born. But I spent my youth and high school days in Lebanon before attending college in France, where I acquired French citizenship. I also lived in the U.S. for many years, and I have children who live there still.
But I feel Brazilian when I’m in Brazil, so you can imagine my pride when I was able to carry the Olympic torch in my home country at the start of the 2016 Rio Olympics last summer. Some people tell me, “You’re like a different person when you’re going back to Rio.” Maybe that’s because I’m returning to my roots.
My children also grew up with many cultural influences. They were born in Brazil and the U.S., and they received their education in France, Japan and the U.S. Everywhere they have lived, they have picked up pieces of the culture: They have adopted the graciousness and scrupulousness of the Japanese people, while also embodying a uniquely French way of thinking. I believe that one day the world will be filled with people like them, those who retain their identities while embracing globalization.
Where a person is born no longer determines their destiny. Twenty years ago, it was normal for people to work in their home country, but from now on, more people will live and work far away from their birthplace. This opens up new opportunities but also exposes individuals to new risks. For example, globalization requires more people to work in an unfamiliar country for extended periods of time. In addition to adapting to new environments, they will have to deal with things like jet lag, and many may even lose friends along the way. The sacrifices they will make will be great, and they will need plenty of resolve and resources to overcome the challenges. My life has not been without these sacrifices. However, globalization can also expand one’s horizons, allowing people to realize their potential and achieve success.
People around the world, particularly in Japan, are opening up to the idea of a global lifestyle. It is in this context that I share my own story, with the hope that it may provide some inspiration.
The History of My Family, The Story of Me: How Lebanese Roots & Childhood In Brazil Shaped Me From An Early Age
My full name is Carlos Ghosn Bichara, after my grandfather Bichara Ghosn. He was born at the base of Mount Lebanon where there were many Maronite Christians and an abundance of centuries-old Lebanon cedars. The Maronite Church is a part of the Roman Catholic Church that maintains its own original structure and rites. To this day, Maronite churches hold Mass in Syriac, said to have been the language used by Christ.
Religious conflicts, as well as extreme poverty, made life in Lebanon difficult during the early 20th century. To escape these challenges, my grandfather, at the age of 13, boarded a boat with just a single suitcase in his hand. It took three months to get from the Lebanese capital of Beirut to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
After working for a short period of time in Rio, he moved to the basin of the Amazon River to seek greater opportunities. He landed in Sao Miguel do Guapore, before it became part of Brazil, and eventually settled in the then-undeveloped lands of Porto Velho, today the state capital of Rondonia.
Agricultural products, including rubber, were harvested there. The region was quickly becoming a major international hub for rubber production, and there was an intense movement of people and supplies. Capitalizing on this environment, my grandfather headed several companies, one of which provided local assistance to aviation companies expanding their routes into the Amazon. My father, along with his brothers, would eventually inherit this business after my grandfather’s death.
It was common for Lebanese immigrants to travel to their homeland, wed, and then return. The same applied to my grandfather. Through an introduction from a friend, he met his wife-to-be in Beirut. A few years after they were married, my father, Jorge Ghosn, was born in Brazil.
My father also traveled to Lebanon when he came of age. There, he met and married my mother. Her name is Rose, but she goes by Zetta. She was born in Nigeria and later studied in Lebanon. I remember her mother – my grandmother – well. She had a tremendous influence on me. She was always well-organized and approached everything with honesty and in earnest. She was also very strict, so as a child, I didn’t like her very much. I have learned in the years since that these are the kinds of people you remember most, the ones who make a lasting impression. Much of who I am is the result of who my grandmother was.
My mother also had a tremendous influence on my life. Unlike her mother – and perhaps as a consequence – she wasn’t very strict. Rather, she was filled with love and was very approachable. She was also a devout Francophile. She spoke French exquisitely and was even more French than people who had been born there. This would greatly influence my choices when it was time to pursue my studies, and my family and I would live in Paris for many years.
My mother, who is now 86 years old, resides in Brazil, as does most of my family. Two of my sisters live near my mother in Rio de Janeiro. My father has since passed away. I return a couple of times each year. Overall, we’re a close-knit family.
I provide this family history because it has had a profound impact on shaping my life and identity. My part of the story began in 1954, shortly after my parents were married and settled in Porto Velho. My older sister was also born there.
From what my mother tells me, I was full of energy as a baby. But when I turned 2, there was an unfortunate incident. Our home was located in the tropical area around the Amazon, which was infested with mosquitoes. It was common practice for all the children to drink only boiled water to avoid disease, but one day I was accidentally served water that hadn’t been boiled. I came down with a high fever. As it was described to me, I was on death’s doorstep. The doctor told my parents that if they wanted me to survive, I would need to live in a place where the climate was more favorable, and where the water was safe to drink. In other words, we would have to move.
The Unforgettable Father Lagrovole: A Move To Lebanon Leads To Valuable Life Lessons From A Respected Teacher
Following the doctor’s recommendation, we moved to Rio de Janeiro, but my condition didn’t improve much. Concerned about my slow recovery, my mother convinced my father that I should continue treatment in a nicer environment with fresher air.
My father agreed. After a long discussion, my mother, older sister and I moved to Lebanon, while my father remained in Brazil. Despite the move, my bond with Brazil was not broken. We returned to Rio to see my father often.
The Lebanon where I spent my childhood was much different from the Lebanon my grandfather had left a half-century before. It possessed a spirit of gender and cultural equality. People from various religions lived together harmoniously, and it was often called the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” until civil war erupted in 1975.
Although Lebanon had won its independence from France in 1943, it continued to belong to the French cultural sphere. The Lebanese people considered the plurality of cultures to be a positive attribute. Indeed, I grew up in a multicultural environment. The school I attended – the College Notre Dame, a Jesuit school providing continuous education through high school – had a French principal and Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian teachers. In many ways, the Jesuits’ organization could be considered the world’s first “multinational corporation.”
I was a good student, but I was rebellious. Much to my mother’s disappointment, I had a reputation as a “problem child” at school. I liked history, geography and languages, and I would study diligently at home. But at school I would hang out with friends, goof around and cause harmless trouble.
I had so much energy inside of me that I was always looking for ways to disperse it all. Looking back now, I know I did some unwise things, but I don’t necessarily regret them. After all, isn’t that what youth is for?
I was not without positive role models. The person who had the strongest influence on me during this period was a French teacher named Father Lagrovole. He was in charge of French literature. He was stout and hunched over with poor posture, but he performed the most magnificent poetry readings.
My favorite was a reading of the fables of Jean de La Fontaine, often called the Aesop’s Fables of France. “One day, the weasel’s wife seized the palace of the young rabbit,” Father Lagrovole read aloud. He then asked me, “What kind of instrument do you associate with this poetry?”
Before I could answer, he said, “I thought of the trumpet when I heard s’empara,” explaining that the sound of the word for “seize” resembled the sound of that instrument. He warmed to the idea, and sang out brightly: “S’empara, s’empara!” Despite how strict he was with his students, his classes were, without comparison, the most enjoyable. His advanced age meant we looked up to him as a wise figure and a person of truth.
One thing I learned from him was the importance of expressing my ideas concisely. Father Lagrovole often said, “When you make everything complicated, it means that you don’t understand anything.” He was also an example of someone of great virtue, one among the many monastics of the times who left their families to teach subjects like French and literature to the world. Even during my rebellious phase, many of his lessons stayed close to my heart.
My mother remained a powerful influence on my life as well. When I turned 17, I faced an important decision: where to go to further my education. It was perfectly acceptable to get a basic education in Lebanon, but my mother urged me to consider attending a university in France to ensure better personal development. She made a strong case, and so I took and passed the baccalaureat, France’s university entrance qualification test. I had been blessed with many close friends during my 11 years of school life in Lebanon, and those friendships continue to this day. But I felt my destiny was in France. Again, I would leave another home for a new horizon.
Student Life In Paris: A Steep Learning Curve
The university system in France is unique compared with those of other countries. Students first take a qualification exam called the baccalaureat to gain admittance into the university system. However, students who aim for upper-level universities, the grandes ecoles, must also attend a preparatory school offering a two-year course of study for another entrance exam.
My prep school, the lycee Saint-Louis, was located in an exclusive residential area of Paris. I had my sights set on attending France’s leading business school, the Hautes Etudes Commerciales, or the HEC Graduate School of Management. My cousin Ralph, who is eight years older than me, had graduated from HEC. He worked at a bank, had his own apartment in Paris and was the symbol of success in my eyes. So I sent my resume and transcript to Ralph, and asked him to recommend me for the prep program for HEC.
But when the principal of the prep school looked at my records and grade report, he saw I had an outstanding strength in mathematics. He told Ralph that my talent would be buried at HEC and recommended the Ecole Polytechnique, a school focused on engineering. My principal at the lycee Saint-Louis had said a similar thing: mathematics was my strongest suit, and he thought I should pursue it.
I was disappointed at first, but Ralph consoled me by saying that I could change to business if I discovered I disliked science studies. That was enough to convince me to give it a chance.
Before I could get there, however, my first trimester at Saint-Louis was a disaster: I scored just four points out of 20 in mathematics. But my terrible performance opened my eyes to what needed to be done. Students at the school were nicknamed “moles” because they stayed locked inside doing coursework all day, never seeing the sun. I decided that I, too, needed to become a mole.
This lifestyle change paid off: My grades sharply improved after the second trimester, and by the third, I was at the head of my class. One more year of mathematics and I could go on to the Ecole Polytechnique.
I entered the Ecole Polytechnique in 1974. The school, part of the grandes ecoles university system, was established in 1794 amid the French Revolution. It is under the control of the Direction generale de l’armement, part of the French Defense Ministry.
I was able to earn a stipend from the university, which educates high-achieving young students throughout the country. The goal was to provide promising young leaders with the necessary education and sophistication to secure French development and stability. This is why so many senior officials and politicians are graduates of grandes ecoles. Students enrolled not only from France, but also from countries and regions that were once French territories. There are opportunities for anyone to move up the social hierarchy in France, even if he or she was born elsewhere.
Expectations were high. There were demanding lectures, discussions and assignments every day. Of course, there were boring lectures as well.
One of my fondest memories was a trip to the U.S. with 40 fellow students. The program allowed us to visit the University of Colorado and interact with American students. I was struck by their power of self-expression and advanced communications skills. I also felt that the U.S. opened gateways on a much larger scale than France. There were so many students from Europe, South America and Asia, it was easy to imagine that America was attracting the most talented and elite people from all over the world.
I kept my grades up, and I graduated in 1976. After that, I went to another of the grandes ecoles, the Ecole des Mines in Paris, which focuses on applied sciences. While many graduates entered the national civil service, I had no interest in taking that path.
At the time, I was seriously thinking about proceeding to the Ph.D. program in economic science. There were still many things I wanted to study. I also wanted to enjoy student life — and the beautiful city of Paris, which I had come to know by heart. However, a different path was waiting for me.