The decades-old alliance of Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co. descended into open enmity as the two sides sparred over governance changes at the Japanese auto maker, an apparent tit-for-tat following Nissan’s refusal to endorse a deal with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.
Nissan Hiroto Saikawa said it was “most regrettable" that Renault planned to stymie board reforms, after receiving a letter from the French company’s chairman, Jean-Dominique Senard. Renault’s salvo contrasts with more reassuring remarks from French finance minister Bruno Le Maire.
The hostilities imperil what has proven one of the most successful automaking alliances, a partnership the firms estimate lopped as much as €5.7 billion ($6.4 billion) from their manufacturing, purchasing and engineering costs in the 2017 fiscal year. The tensions mark a new low in a relationship already strained by the arrest in Tokyo last November of Carlos Ghosn, the industry titan who oversaw the carmakers and the alliance.
The implosion of Renault’s merger plans with Fiat brought the conflict into the open, with Nissan’s reluctance to endorse the deal said to be partially responsible for its failure. In the aftermath, Senard sent the letter threatening to block Nissan’s plans to overhaul its governance structure, changes hashed out in the wake of the Ghosn scandal. Renault holds a 43% stake in the Yokohama-based company.
In an unusual public statement, Nissan confirmed it received the letter, and upbraided Renault for its position. The corporate-governance reform “was discussed thoroughly by Nissan’s board and approved by all board members, including Renault’s own nominees," Saikawa said in a statement. “Such a stance runs counter to the company’s efforts to improve its corporate governance."
Nissan also seized on comments made by the finance minister of France, Renault’s biggest shareholder, that his government is willing to reduce its stake to strengthen the alliance. Nissan, which has long chafed against French influence, would prefer a full exit by the government, people familiar with Nissan’s thinking said, asking not to be identified as the information isn’t public. “Overall it is a mess, and just makes a tricky situation worse," said Janet Lewis, an analyst at Macquarie Capital in Tokyo. “Senard’s threat to abstain on the corporate governance reform is very negative for the alliance. He is fast losing any trust Nissan management may have had for a collaborative relationship. Playing hardball doesn’t typically work in Japan, so he will find it very hard to achieve anything going forward."
Senard, who was brought in by the French government to smooth the relationship with Nissan, has instead pressed Nissan for a merger it didn’t want, then pursued the mega-deal with Fiat Chrysler. In the letter to Nissan, Senard said the French auto maker is seeking better representation within Nissan’s plan to set up three committees on nominations, remuneration and auditing, said a person familiar with the matter, who cautioned that Renault hasn’t made a final decision on its vote.
While Renault understands Nissan’s desire to improve its governance, the so-called three board level committees system “should not serve as a tool directed or used against Nissan’s largest shareholder," the letter said. Nissan shareholders meet on 25 June to vote on the structure. The latest crisis erupted a week ago, when Renault’s talks with Fiat fell apart. Nissan’s two representatives to Renault’s board had planned to abstain on the plan, prompting the French state to pause talks—causing Fiat to pull out.