2018: not a great year to be a car boss

Published: 20 November 2018

► A tumultuous week for car industry
► Ghosn arrest latest in torrid year 
► Tim Pollard blogs on annus horribilis

Carlos Ghosn’s fall from grace is the latest in a string of catastrophes to befall the car world’s captains of industry. The chairman of Nissan has been arrested in Japan for allegedly under-representing his pay systematically for as long as five years and misusing company resources.

Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawahas has already called for Ghosn’s removal and his future at Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi – the alliances he founded over a remarkable two-decade rein – looks bleak.

The full story on Carlos Ghosn’s arrest

Ghosn’s fall from grace is the latest in a series of calamities to beset the CEOs and chairmen of the world’s biggest car makers in 2018. Two have been arrested, one died suddenly and another is teetering on the brink of revolution.

It’s enough to make you wonder: who’d be a car company boss in this topsy-turvy industry, besieged on all sides by political, economic, societal and technological change?

Audi’s former CEO Rupert Stadler: just out of jail

Back in June 2018, the world was stunned when the golden boy of the Volkswagen Group, Audi chief Rupert Stadler (below), was arrested for his alleged involvement in the Dieselgate emissions scandal that swept through one of the world’s biggest car making groups.

Rupert Stadler was the golden boy of the VW Group. He awaits trial

Prosecutors in Germany held Stadler for several months, as they feared he would tamper with evidence or witnesses when this complex case eventually comes to court. He was released in the past few weeks and last month Audi axed his contract, severing all ties with its CEO, who had been with the company since 1990.

It’s a brutal world and it’s hard to run one of the biggest premium brands from Cellblock A3.

Fiat Chrysler chief Sergio Marchionne’s death

Another shock for the car world was the loss of the charismatic boss of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) back in July 2018. A smoker who was fond of the finer things in life, Sergio Marchionne died suddenly in a Swiss hospital from complications after surgery.

Along with Ghosn, Marchionne can rightly lay claim to be one of the big beasts of the car industry world, a deal maker who boldly spotted opportunity where others steered clear. He was a great interviewee, happy to make outrageous statements on the record and his laconic style was epitomised by his trademark sweater where other executives favoured suits (see below).

Former Fiat Chrysler chief Sergio Marchionne, who died in summer 2018

It’s telling that the new Nissan CEO told reporters this week that he was still making his mind up whether Ghosn was ‘a charismatic figure or a tyrant.’ We suspect the passing of these old-school captains of industry may be the end of the road for the colourful, all-powerful CEO and chairman for whom rules were there to be broken.

Trouble at Tesla too

Although nobody has been arrested or dropped dead, electric start-up Tesla has suffered high-profile wobbles in 2018 with its own maverick co-founder and boss, Elon Musk.

The pioneering electric car chief has been teetering on the brink between inspirational thought leadership and leftfield lunacy in 2018 – after getting caught in a public spat with a British diving expert whom he called a paedophile in the high-profile Thai cave rescue, seemingly smoking marijuana during an interview and telling his 23 million Twitter followers that he had the backing to take Tesla private. 

America’s financial watchdog had a thing or two to say about that and Musk this month relinquished his role as chairman, after the Securities and Exchange Commision (SEC) stepped in. There is no suggestion that Musk has done anything illegal but he always seems a tweet away from controversy.

Musk’s travails reflect how the role of car industry boss has changed. Publicity traps, political pitfalls and industrial woes lie in wait at every turn in the modern car industry – and your every step is monitored 24/7 by ever-tighter compliance instruments and the always-on and largely rule-free watchdog of social media. 

Just look at how vulnerable these titans of industry can be. They are only human, after all.

More opinion pieces by CAR magazine writers

By Tim Pollard

Group digital editorial director, motoring news magnet