For most of his tenure running two auto companies — France’s Renault and Japan’s Nissan — in an alliance he forged, Carlos Ghosn bristled at the money he made. According to Nick Kostov and Sean McLain, the authors of “Boundless: The Rise, Fall, and Escape of Carlos Ghosn,” the celebrated executive earned $17 million or $18 million for much of the aughts and had unparalleled perks. By French or Japanese standards, that was an enormous sum — far more than other corporate bosses. But in America, Alan Mulally at Ford made $26 million in 2010. David Zaslav at Discovery Communications made $42 million. Larry Ellison at Oracle made $70 million. That’s the kind of money Ghosn felt he deserved — and as Kostov and McLain persuasively show, his envy of U.S.-style paychecks is what brought him down.
Inside the business world, Ghosn was long known as one of the stars of the auto industry — the man who revived first Renault and then Nissan, and created an alliance that linked them together. (Mitsubishi became the third member of the alliance in 2016.) The nonbusiness world, on the other hand, started paying attention to Ghosn in November 2018, when Japanese prosecutors arrested him as he stepped off his private jet in Tokyo. Thirteen months later, they really became aware of him when he escaped from Japan while awaiting trial.
That daring escape, which included stuffing Ghosn in a large box that was hauled onto a private jet and flown out of Japan, is one reason for cracking open “Boundless.” Kostov and McLain, both Wall Street Journal reporters, have unearthed lots of new details, and they tell that part of the story with all the verve and tension of a good spy novel.
Earlier in the book, in recounting Ghosn’s career, the authors explain why he was so highly regarded as an executive. In France, he was known as “Le Cost Killer” — and he did lay off employees without blinking — but you can’t revive a company just by laying people off. Ghosn knew how to find savings without layoffs, how to energize a downtrodden company, how to break into new markets and much more. His reputation was such that in 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis, the Obama administration tried to get him to run General Motors.
It’s what happened between his rise to the top of the auto industry in 2000 and his arrest in 2018 that turns out to be the most interesting part of the story. Always full of himself, Ghosn seemed to lose sight of what made him a great executive as the years went on. He threw outrageously extravagant parties (including at Versailles). Madly in love with his second wife, whom he married in 2016, he seemed less and less interested in devoting himself to business. And his constant preening for the press alienated executives at both companies who had previously been loyal to him. When the worm turned on him, he had few friends.
It turned on him because he simply could not abide making so much less money than other high-profile CEOs. According to Kostov and McLain, a key moment came in 2010 when Japan, for the first time, forced corporate directors who made more than $1 million a year to disclose their pay. Knowing the furor that would result if his $17 million paycheck was made public, Ghosn agreed to have his pay cut to $9.6 million. (It still created a furor when it was disclosed.) “The prospect of having to return nearly half his pay stung,” write Kostov and McLain, so Ghosn turned to a trusted aide, Greg Kelly. “Was there any way — any legal way, he emphasized — that he might be paid back? Without disclosing it?” write the authors.
Even before the pay cut, Ghosn was involved in a series of deals that reeked of conflicts of interest, sending Nissan’s money to two wealthy Omani business executives who had bailed him out of a financial jam. In the years after the pay cut, Kelly spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find ways to get more money to Ghosn — legally — without having to disclose it. When Ghosn — and Kelly — were arrested, they had come up with a plan to get $150 million to Ghosn once he retired from Nissan.
The question that has always hung over L’Affaire Ghosn is whether his financial shenanigans amounted to crimes. Nissan executives, after all, had no problem with them until they began to fear (correctly) that Ghosn wanted to merge Renault and Nissan, at which point they searched for dirt they could hand over to prosecutors and force Ghosn out. Ghosn has always maintained his innocence, claiming that he had to escape Japan because he was being railroaded by its “hostage justice” system.
Kostov and McLain don’t offer a definitive answer, but in unraveling Ghosn’s financial dealings, they illustrate just how sleazy many of them were and how desperate Ghosn was to keep them quiet. One does not come away from “Boundless” convinced of Ghosn’s innocence.
The authors also don’t opine on how Ghosn feels now about his escape. He left behind a lot of collateral damage. Michael and Peter Taylor, the American father-and-son team who masterminded the getaway, were extradited to Japan and are in prison. Kelly is back in the United States, but he had to endure the trial Ghosn fled; he was found guilty on one count of helping Ghosn hide his pay but acquitted on others.
As for Ghosn, the former globe-trotting executive is in Lebanon, which he cannot leave without fear of being arrested. In their final interview with him, the authors asked if he had any regrets. He had one, he replied — “not taking the General Motors job.”
Joe Nocera is a longtime business columnist.
The Rise, Fall, and Escape of Carlos Ghosn
By Nick Kostov and Sean McLain
Harper Business. 320 pp. $29.99.