Ghosn under pressure to quit after Renault spy case unravels

Ghosn under pressure to quit after Renault spy case unravels

Automotive News | March 15, 2011 – 9:31 am EST

PARIS (Reuters) – Renault SA CEO Carlos Ghosn came under pressure to resign after a dramatic climbdown and public apology following the collapse of an investigation into industrial espionage at the French carmaker.
France’s Socialist Party boss Martine Aubry told France Info radio today she thought Ghosn should take responsibility for the case, which has gripped France since news of executive sackings broke in January.
“When an employee makes a mistake in a company, he does not have to apologize — he is out,” she said.
Government spokesman Francois Baroin also criticized how the matter had been handled by Renault, which is 15 percent state-owned. “We must take all the consequences … from the incredible amateurism, and the indignity, and the attack against these men,” Baroin told LCI television.
Renault bosses pledged on Monday to forgo their bonuses after the Paris prosecutor said the espionage case was unfounded. Renault apologized to the three falsely accused executives and offered to reinstate and compensate them.
Ghosn told prime-time TF1 television news on Monday he had refused to accept the resignation of his right-hand man Patrick Pelata over the “sorry episode” as he “did not want to add one crisis to another.”
Organized fraud allegation
Bertrand Rochette, one of the three men wrongly fired, said in a statement he had not yet been contacted by Ghosn, either directly or through his lawyers.
Renault, whose alliance partner is Japan’s Nissan Motor Co., fired the three men in January on suspicion of industrial espionage. The three men denied wrongdoing from the start and began legal action against the carmaker.
A Renault security manager was on Sunday placed under investigation for suspected fraud concerning the spying allegations.
“Renault is pressing charges and has filed for a civil action, in the case of organized fraud,” Renault said on Monday.
Renault also pledged to overhaul its governance, including a move to have its security division report directly to the executive committee, after an internal audit of what went wrong.

Ghosn returns bonus, keeps Pelata as Renault spy case fizzles

Automotive News | March 15, 2011 – 3:49 am EST

PARIS (Bloomberg) — Renault SA CEO Carlos Ghosn gave up his bonus and turned down second-in-command Patrick Pelata’s resignation after the carmaker admitted wrongfully accusing senior managers of spying in a case that has become a personal embarrassment for the top two managers.
Ghosn said in January he was directly involved in the internal probe and that the carmaker had an abundance of evidence. Pelata said earlier this month that he would take responsibility if it turned out the executives were innocent.
Renault’s mishandling of the espionage affair has weakened the CEO in a tussle with the French state, its largest shareholder, over the carmaker’s future, four people familiar with the matter said. Ghosn’s decision to keep Pelata, who has worked closely with the CEO since 1999, also highlights Renault’s lack of succession planning, analysts said.
“It’s a mess,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at IHS Automotive in Lexington, Massachusetts. “It’s obviously a huge amount of embarrassment for the company and for Ghosn.”
The French carmaker yesterday also announced disciplinary action against three of its security officers and pledged to compensate and reinstate three executives fired on suspicion of selling company secrets.
Pelata’s resignation was rejected “in the interests of Renault,” the CEO said on TF1 television. “I didn’t want to add crisis to crisis.”
Ghosn, Pelata and other executives involved in the case will return 2010 bonuses and receive no stock options this year, the company said after an emergency board meeting late yesterday.
Pelata’s role
Pelata, 55, graduated from France’s elite Ecole Polytechnique in the same 1974 class as Ghosn, before joining Renault as head of bodywork assembly at the carmaker’s plant in Flins, west of Paris.
In 1999, when Ghosn was sent by then CEO Louis Schweitzer to rescue Japanese affiliate Nissan Motor Co. from near-bankruptcy, he took Pelata with him and the two have worked closely together ever since. Pelata took over day-to-day control of Renault from Ghosn in 2008.
The departure of Ghosn’s No. 2 would have left Renault “without an operating manager” and no obvious successor, Philippe Houchois, a London-based analyst with UBS, said before the announcement. The carmaker “hasn’t done a very good job of managing succession, and Pelata is one of the few people who can hold his own against Ghosn when necessary,” he said.
Claims retracted
The carmaker retracted its espionage claims yesterday after Paris Chief Prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin said they had been discredited by police. Pelata had pledged earlier this month that managers would be held accountable “all the way up to me” if the three were cleared.
Upstream development chief Michel Balthazard, his subordinate, Bertrand Rochette, and deputy electric-car program chief Matthieu Tenenbaum were fired in January after a company investigation concluded they had received payments from Chinese companies via foreign accounts.
Renault’s u-turn came three weeks after Ghosn presented a medium-term plan to narrow the profitability gap with Volkswagen AG, telling investors that Renault-Nissan’s capital structure “can change over time and probably will.”
“Times for selling cars are tough enough, and Renault needs the best people they have,” said London-based Credit Suisse analyst Arndt Ellinghorst, who has a “neutral” recommendation on the stock. “As unfortunate as this situation is, the company should return to running the business.”
Reducing stake
Fallout from the spying affair will make it harder to win government support for changes to an alliance with Nissan Motor Co., said the people. Renault wants to reduce its Nissan stake and allow the Japanese carmaker to vote as a Renault shareholder, they said, declining to be named because the matter is confidential.
“Renault currently has no plans to reduce its stake in Nissan,” alliance spokeswoman Rachel Konrad said, declining to comment further.
The case against the three men was based on verbal information obtained by security manager Dominique Gevrey from an undisclosed source, for which Renault had paid more than 300,000 euros, the prosecutor said. Gevrey has been jailed, facing charges of “organized fraud.” His attorney did not return calls or messages left at his office outside regular office hours.
Under pressure
Renault did not name the security officials facing disciplinary action or specify which other executives would return their bonuses. Those involved in the investigation included Odile Desforges, director of engineering and quality, Laurence Dors, the company’s general secretary, human resources manager Jean-Yves Coudriou and Legal Director Christian Husson.
Ghosn has also come under pressure over the mishandled investigation after an earlier TF1 appearance in January, when he insisted there were “multiple” findings to support the espionage claims.
The CEO yesterday issued a personal apology to the fired executives and promised reparations to “restore their honor in the eyes of the world, taking account of the serious prejudice they and their families have suffered.”
“The situation at the company is such that they feel they can’t take out their major players but they had to make some kind of face-saving gesture,” said Alan Baum, an analyst at industry consultant Baum & Associates in West Bloomfield, Mich.
Seeking damages
Balthazard, a former management committee member, may seek damages exceeding Ghosn’s 9.2 million-euro combined salary from Renault and Japanese affiliate Nissan Motor Co.
“Nobody would be shocked if he left with eight, nine or 10 million euros,” Balthazard’s lawyer Xavier Thouvenin said in an interview.
Tenenbaum will also be seeking “substantial material compensation,” his attorney Thibault de Montbrial said in an interview broadcast on i-Tele.
The unfolding fraud case acquired a fourth potential victim yesterday as the prosecution was joined by Philippe Clogenson, a former Renault marketing manager dismissed in 2009 over accusations that he received bribes. Clogenson’s formal filing, announced by his lawyer Eric Moutet in an interview today, opens the way for a possible damages award in the event of a conviction.

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