Behind Nissan's executive shuffle

November 7, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Carlos Ghosn has shuffled the executive deck chairs at Nissan and criticized "operational softness" at the company.

By Doron Levin

Carlos Ghosn

Carlos Ghosn

FORTUNE -- Carlos Ghosn, a corporate chieftain not renowned for complacency or patience, has shuffled the top management of Japanese automaker Nissan Motor, promoting a former nuclear engineer from Spain to run its North American operations.

José Muñoz, 48, an aggressive sales executive who had been running operations in the western hemisphere, takes over from Colin Dodge, who will pursue "special projects." Ghosn also serves as chief executive of Renault SA, the French automaker and Nissan ally.

On Tuesday, Ghosn followed Muñoz's appointment by naming a new head of Avtovaz, the Russian automaker controlled by the Nissan-Renault alliance. Equity analysts have raised questions whether Ghosn's projections for growing sales in emerging markets like Russia are realistic.

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At a press conference to announce Nissan's third-quarter financial results, Ghosn criticized "operational softness" across the company. While the automaker's net income rose 2% on a 16% increase in revenue, operating profit fell 28% in North America and shifted to a loss from a profit in Europe.

Muñoz's three goals, Ghosn said, will be to increase market share, earnings, and customer satisfaction. The Spaniard, who holds a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering as well as an MBA, and previously worked for Toyota (TM) in Europe, was promoted to senior vice president in charge of sales only seven months ago. Previously, he was in charge of Nissan's operations in Mexico, where it leads with 25% of the market.

Meanwhile, Ghosn appointed one-time General Motors (GM) purchasing chief Bo Andersson, a Swede, to the presidency of Russian automaker Avtovaz, the first non-Russian to run the company. Andersson's goal will be to capture a combined 40% of the Russian market for Avtovaz, Renault, and Nissan.

Ghosn said -- perhaps hopefully -- "investments in Russia and specifically in Avtovaz will be a significant contributor to the overall global growth of the alliance." He was referring to Nissan-Renault's growing circle of partners, which now includes German automaker Daimler and Japanese automaker Mitsubishi.

Muñoz has credited his success in Mexico to increased contact and communication with dealers, a pattern he was in the process of repeating in the U.S. Nissan and Infiniti dealers have reported that he's been quite active and involved in their marketing. He has been increasing pressure on U.S. dealers to raise the share of their respective markets and thus help Nissan reach 10% of the U.S. market from its current 8%. Every point of share in the current U.S. market represents between 150,000 and 200,000 vehicles.

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Nissan faces profit-eroding product recalls in North America and elsewhere. In September, the company recalled over 900,000 vehicles worldwide to fix a faulty accelerator sensor. And last month, the automaker recalled more than 188,000 SUVs in the U.S. due to an antilock brake problem. Nissan's continuously variable transmissions made by Jatco, a Japanese supplier, have been vulnerable to recall, Ghosn said.

The latest personnel moves -- and the diverse range of national backgrounds of the executives themselves -- show the significant breadth of the Japanese-French alliance's ambitions. These Swedes, Japanese, French, and Brazilians will have to step up if the alliance is to fulfill its goals.

If they do, fine. If not, Ghosn isn't the type to hesitate before reaching into his executive personnel files once more.

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