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Nissan is Japan's second largest carmaker (after Toyota, and well ahead of Honda), effectively controlled since 1999 by French group Renault. The company achieved a remarkable turnaround during the 2000s under Renault's trouble-shooting CEO Carlos Ghosn, who was parachuted in to overhaul the business. At the end of the previous decade Nissan had been struggling under the weight of a crippling debt burden. Rescue discussions with several manufacturers, including DaimlerChrysler and Ford, came to nothing. Then France's Renault stepped in, picking up a large stake in the company. After a year of focused and ruthless cost-cutting, as well as a sell-off of unnecessary peripheral businesses, the company delivered its best performance for more than a decade in 2001, and has continued to go from strength to strength, despite a short-lived slowdown in 2006 and 2007. Despite the impact of the 2011 Japanese Earthquake, the company reported record production levels and sales for that year. It has continued to grow steadily, and in 2016 agreed to acquire a controlling stake in domestic rival Mitsubishi Motors.
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Nissan's medium and long-term prospects still look excellent as a result of the dynamic alliance with Renault, and strong sales increases in developing markets such as China and Russia. The alliance makes up for what is otherwise a patchy global presence, strong in some markets, weak in others. In that respect, Renault and Nissan are an excellent fit, with each tending to compensate for the other's geographic weaknesses. Although they remain legally separate, the two businesses maintain a close working relationship, sharing technology, platforms and purchasing, as well as a single overall CEO. Renault is Nissan's biggest shareholder with a 44% stake; Nissan has 15% of Renault.
Combined, the Renault-Nissan Alliance, as it is known, is the world's #4 auto manufacturer. In 2010, the alliance was partly expanded to include German manufacturer Daimler. Under this arrangement, Renault, Nissan and Daimler work together to develop new platforms for small cars and light commercial vehicles, and also cooperate on powertrain technologies. The alliance is secured through modest equity positions. Renault and Nissan each acquired a 1.55% shareholding in Daimler, which in exchange took a 3.1% stake in each of its two new partners. Renault's existing partner AVTOVAZ of Russia was absorbed into the partnership in 2012, along with Nissan's ally Mitsubishi Motors in 2013. Following the latter's latest cover-up scandal - in which it admitted falsifying fuel economy data in Japan - Nissan acquired a controlling stake in the business for $2.2bn.
Despite the effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, which severely damaged production and sales at rivals Toyota and Honda, Nissan reported record levels of both for the second consecutive year. It has continued to build sales steadily, with global units rising in ye March 2017 to a new high of 5.63m cars, up almost 4% year-on-year. This steady growth follows an aggressive launch strategy in the later 2000s. Nissan introduced more than 20 new or redesigned models around the world in 2006 and 2007, including new mini-vehicle cars built under contract by Mitsubishi Motors, with whom Nissan forged a strategic partnership in 2004.
The group reported sales for calendar 2016 of 5,559,902 units across all brands. Focus2Move estimated registrations for the main Nissan marque at 4,954,002, edging ahead of Hyundai to become the global #4 brand.
Globally, its top-selling model is the Qashqai crossover SUV, sold in a slightly different form as the Rogue in North America, to get around pronunciation difficulties. Combined sales of the Qashqai and Rogue were 823k units in 2016, making it the #4 best-selling car globally. Individually, the Qashqai ranked #25 with units of 450k in 2016, up 26% year-on-year (Focus2move figures). The remodelled X-Trail fullsize SUV was Nissan's #2 model at 415k, followed by the Sylphy compact sedan, sold mainly in China and other Asian territories (376k units); the Rogue (373k) and the Altima sedan (333k), both sold mainly in the US; Sentra (317k) and Versa (263k).
The group launched the world's first mass-produced all-electric car in late 2010, the Nissan Leaf, offering around 100 miles of travel from a fully charged battery. Initial sales of all-electric cars were very modest, with many buyers still put off by the high ticket price (even after government subsidy) and limited range. However, the Leaf is firmly established as the top-selling vehicle overall in the zero-emissions segment, with total units sold to-date of 280,000 by Nov 2017, when the group introduced its latest version of the car. Battery range has already increased to 150 miles per single charge, and Nissan has promised 300 miles per charge by 2018. However, the car has been overtaken in annual sales by Tesla-made vehicles. Nissan is also developing autonomous driving capabilities that will allow vehicles to be partially self-driving. This ProPilot technology is planned for real-world use in 2020, although some limited features were introduced in selected markets during 2017.
Nissan in general tends to specialise in passenger cars and pick-ups, but is boosting its presence in the light commercial segment with several new launches. It has vowed to become the world's leading light commercial manufacturer by 2016. Its first all-electric commercial vehicle, the e-NV200 van, launched in Japan in 2014. Nissan also markets enhanced performance versions of its mainstream cars under the Nismo banner.
The group also markets the Infiniti brand in the US and selected other markets as a competitor in the luxury segment to Toyota's Lexus and Honda's Acura. Infiniti models are generally badged elsewhere as Nissan (sometimes as the Nissan Skyline), but more recently the company has begun introducing the brand in other markets to widen the competition with Toyota's Lexus, as well as with the German luxury marques. Already available in the Middle East and Taiwan, Infiniti launched in Korea and Russia in 2005, in China in 2006 and in Western Europe in 2008. However global sales are still quite low. The brand was relaunched in 2014 with a sales target of 500,000 units annually by 2017, with much of that growth expected to come from China. So far, though, sales have fallen well behind original hopes, although they reached a high of 230k for 2016. The Infiniti brand also launched in Japan for the first time with an updated version of the Skyline model. At the other end of the scale, the group has reintroduced its previous name of Datsun as the badge for a line of cheap small cars in emerging markets such as India, Indonesia, Russia and South Africa. Sales for 2016 were around 80,000 units.
Although it remains the #2 Japanese manufacturer worldwide, Nissan's focus has steadily moved away from the domestic market. One of the group's single biggest territories is now China. It was actually Nissan's single biggest market globally between 2010 and 2013, ahead of the US. Nissan operates a joint venture with the country's third largest manufacturer DongFeng Motor, and it was for a while the top selling Japanese brand in that market, above Toyota. However, sales have slipped back since 2013. The figure for 2016 was 1,015,689 (behind Honda and Toyota). Key models include the Sylphy, the Teana and Tiida. The partners launched a completely new local car brand in 2012 under the name Venucia. Elsewhere in Asia, Nissan's profile is low, although the brand is beginning to establish a presence in India through Renault's local partner there, Mahindra, as well as with LCV manufacturer Ashok-Leyland. It has its sights set on five other developing markets in the region including Indonesia and Thailand.
The US regained its lead as Nissan's biggest market in 2014, pushing China back into second place. The company's US sales broke the 1m mark for the first time in 2005, and hovered around the 1.1m level for the following two years, before slipping back below 1m in the difficult market conditions of 2008 and 2009. There has been consistent recovery since 2010, with sales reaching a new high in 2016 of 1,426,130 vehicles. Nissan has a strong portfolio of small trucks, including the new Rogue compact crossover SUV, a cousin to the Qashqai and X-Trail SUVs, which launched in the US for the first time in 2014. It is now the company's top-seller in the US with 330k units in 2016, ahead of the Altima and Sentra passenger cars (307k and 215k respectively). The company also offers a selection of pick-up trucks led by the Titan.
Another key market is Mexico, where Nissan is the top-selling car brand by with record sales of 402k vehicles in 2016, equivalent to over 25% market share, and more than 100k units head of second-placed Chevrolet. It is the only auto brand ever to sell more than 300k units in a single year in Mexico. Highlighting the benefits of the Renault-Nissan alliance, the company introduced a version of Renault's low-cost Logan model in Mexico during 2007 as the Nissan Aprio. Those cars are built by Renault in Brazil, where Nissan also has a growing following. However, its profile elsewhere in Latin America is very low.
Nissan's strong performance worldwide has made up for what remains a difficult domestic market. Here, certainly, the effects of the earthquake were felt by Nissan as well as its rivals, with sales slumping by 8% during 2011. Sales in Japan for calendar 2016 were 534,135 vehicles. That ranked Nissan as the domestic #5 behind Toyota, Honda, Suzuki and Daihatsu. Key models are the Note compact and Dayz urban car and Serena minivan. However, Nissan's reputation was tarnished in 2017 when it was revealed that quality control inspections of new vehicles destined for the domestic market had been conducted by uncertified and only partially trained technicians. Mid-year, the group temporarily suspended production of new cars in Japan and recalled 1.2m vehicles for re-inspection.
Nissan's presence in Europe is also patchy, with a strong profile in some countries and none in others. The main Western market is the UK, with sales of 152,525 cars & light commercial vehicles in 2016. Nissan's passenger car sales in the UK actually overtook partner Renault's for the first time in 2011, and it remains one of the country's top seven manufacturers. The Qashqai accounts for more than a third of sales, and is the country's #5 best-selling model. Russia was for a while Nissan's biggest market in Europe, with sales over 180k in 2014. But they have plunged since then, down by more than 20% in 2016 alone to around 70k. Other important markets for Nissan are Canada (122k), Germany (73k), France (69k) and Brazil (61k).
Among other sponsorship activities, Nissan is linked to the hugely successful Red Bull Racing Formula 1 team, becoming title sponsor and technical collaborator in 2012. It became the sponsor of Manchester City football club in 2014, and the following year began a four year deal to support the UEFA Champions League across Europe. The group manages a small roster of celebrity ambassadors, including NBA basketball star Stephan Curry for Infiniti and actress Margot Robbie for Nissan electric vehicles.
Another subsidiary, Nissan Forklift makes a range of electric and diesel forklift trucks. In 2006, the group sold a controlling minority stake in trucks division Nissan Diesel to Volvo. In addition, there remain a host of spin-off companies, mostly in Japan, indirectly related to carmaking. Vantec Corporation, established in 1954, arranges shipping and handling of the group's cars, with subsidiaries worldwide. Nissan Shatei (in which its a 45% stake) manufactures a range of recreational vehicles under the Nissan badge. Calsonic Kansei makes car air conditioners. Autech makes custom-designed vehicles.
Although it publishes unit sales for the calendar year in line with other manufacturers, Nissan and its rival Japanese automobile companies report financial results for a year ending March. Performance has been generally stronger than rival manufacturers through the recent economic crisis and the after-effects of the 2011 earthquake; however the soaring value of the Yen has taken its toll. Revenues peaked in the year ending 2008 at Y10,824bn before plunging back to a low of Y7,517 for the year to 2010. Since then, they have steadily risen once more, finally beating 2007/8's high in 2014/15. For ye Mar 2015, reported revenues (excluding a topline contribution from the China joint venture) rose 9% to Y11,375bn ($103.5bn). Net income jumped 18% to Y457.6bn ($4.16bn).
For ye Mar 2016, reported revenues (excluding a topline contribution from the China joint venture) rose 7% to Y12,190bn ($101.6bn). Net income continued to rise, climbing 15% to Y523.8bn ($4.37bn). Japan accounted for 18% of revenues, the US for 40%, Europe for 14% and other Asian markets for just 9%.
Revenues for the year to Mar 2017 slipped back to Y11,720bn ($108.2bn), mainly as a result of currencies, but net income hit a new high of Y663.5bn ($6.13bn), helped by a one-off gain from the sale of part of its stake in a components subsidiary.
Renault chairman & CEO Carlos Ghosn was until 2018 also chairman of Nissan, and of Mitsubishi Motors, following purchase by the Alliance of a 34% stake in that business. Additionally he was CEO of Nissan for several years, but finally handed over that role in April 2017 to Hiroto Saikawa, formerly vice chairman & chief competitive officer. In a startling development, in Nov 2018 he was accused by Nissan of securities fraud, arrested, and ousted from the company's board. It remains to be seen how this dramatic development will play out. Saikawa too was ousted in Sept 2019 following the discovery of earlier improper pay awards (though he was not himself accused of any wrongdoing). He was eventually replaced by Makoto Uchida, previously president of Nissan China. Ashwani Gupta, formerly chief operating officer of alliance partner Mitsubishi Motors, became chief operating officer.
The core of the business was founded by engineer Hashimoto Masujiro as Kwaishinsha Motor Car Works in 1911, initially to import and repair American-made vehicles. In 1914, the company put its first own-model into production, naming it DAT (the Japanese for 'hare') after the initials of the three principal investors (Den, Aoyama and Takeuchi). When a smaller size DAT car appeared in 1931 it was initially called 'son of Dat'. This quickly evolved into Datsun and the new brand name stuck. The business was formally established as Jidosha Seizo Company in 1933, under the leadership of Yoshisuke Aikawa, and taken over by shareholder Nihon Sangyo Co in 1934. The carmaker's name was changed that year to Nissan, combining the first two syllables of Nihon Sangyo's name. (Despite the parent company's name, the Datsun brand was maintained until the mid-1980s). The company carved out a niche with small, affordable cars which undercut the larger models imported from the US. But inevitably the Second World War brought problems, and Nissan was taken over by the Japanese government to produce military vehicles.
By the end of the war, Nissan had lost considerable ground to family-controlled Toyota which had stolen Nissan's dealerships and much of its market. But a deal with the UK's Austin Motor Company to manufacture and distribute their cars in Japan helped the company through the early part of the 1950s. As the decade progressed Nissan began to look at overseas markets. In 1958, the first Datsun sedan was exported to the US, followed by pick-up trucks a year later. In 1960, Nissan Motor Corporation was established in the US, with a spin-off business established in Mexico the following year. Europe came next, with a test delivery of 700 Datsun Bluebirds to Finland in 1962. In 1966, Nissan established the first Japanese-owned car factory in the US, and set up importers throughout mainland Europe, including Volkswagen in the UK and Germany. Models like the Bluebird and 510 sedan were successful in both the US and Europe, but it was the fuel crisis of the 1970s which really made Nissan's day. As rising petrol prices damaged sales of gas guzzlers, especially in the US, the low consumption Sunny reaped the rewards and Nissan's business boomed. By 1975, Nissan was the biggest car importer in the US.
The 1980s saw the development of a European manufacturing base. The company bought into Spanish maker Motor Iberica in 1980 and started production of the first local model, the Nissan Patrol, in 1983. Factories followed in Belgium and the UK, and by the middle of the decade Nissan was Europe's best-selling Japanese car brand. It was at this point that Nissan's problems began to emerge. Much of the brand's success in the UK was the result of hard work by the local dealership, a business run under license by Romanian refugee Octav Botnar. During the 1970s he had built Nissan's UK market share to more than 4%, but relations between the two companies were becoming increasingly strained, particularly after the establishment of Nissan's UK factory. The Japanese attempted to end the partnership at the end of the 1980s and take back control of their brand, but Botnar refused to give in. Shortly afterwards he was unexpectedly served with a massive £250m lawsuit from the UK's Inland Revenue, who accused him of avoiding income tax by passing fees from the business through several charitable trusts. Botnar claimed that Nissan had tipped off the taxman, and he fled the country. (Criminal charges were eventually dropped a few weeks before he died of cancer in 1998. A year later, the Inland Revenue managed to reclaim around £55m of back tax from Botnar's estate).
The publicity surrounding the Botnar case effectively destroyed the launch of Nissan's new Primera model in the UK, and also deprived the company of an effective UK dealer network. The group reportedly spent around £1.6bn rebuilding its network and upgrading the UK factories over the next few years. Business improved in 1989 with the successful launch of Nissan's spin-off luxury marque Infiniti into the US market. But as the 1990s progressed, financial problems got worse for Nissan worldwide. A disastrous joint venture with telecoms company DDI to provide cellular communications in 1992, was followed by a massive slump in domestic sales, and Nissan went into the red for five years, finally clawing back a profit in 1997, after massive cost-cutting and restructuring. But 1998 brought new pain, particularly in the US. Poor American sales, combined with a disastrous leasing program left the company nursing a $513m loss in North America alone. In its home market, as its market share slumped, Nissan was overtaken as Japan's #2 car company by Honda. Toyota overtook Nissan to become the #1 Japan brand in Europe a year later. Meanwhile the group's debts continued to escalate, rising to as much as $34.5bn, much of it in loans from the Japanese government as it tried to support massive underperformance within its leasing unit and at its diesel engines division.
In 1998 Nissan signed an alliance with DaimlerChrysler to produce commercial vehicles for the Far East. After that the German company spent several months trying to negotiate some form of broader rescue plan, but found no way around the biggest obstacle, the company's awesome debt. Just before a deal could be finalised in 1999, DaimlerChrysler got cold feet and walked away from the table, claiming it had enough on its hands just integrating its own merged business. The ball dropped by Daimler was caught by Renault, which had recently completed a sizeable internal reorganisation of its own. The French company acquired a 36.8% stake in Nissan for $5.4bn, and appointed senior executive Carlos Ghosn, who had already earned a nickname as "Le Cost Killer" for his work at Renault, to take control of Nissan's restructuring.
Among Ghosn's first initiatives was to combine the platform used by Renault's Clio and Nissan's Micra small cars. (The new models began production in 2003). Later in 1999, he announced plans to cut 21,000 jobs, close factories and terminate contracts with suppliers in a drive to save one trillion yen. The biggest cuts were in Japan, where car capacity was cut by 30%, with the closure of three factories and two engine facilities. Offices in New York and Washington were closed, the group set about unpicking the group's complex and largely unprofitable network of "favoured" suppliers, and sold off a string of peripheral businesses. More controversially Ghosn chose to sacrifice market share in order to regain profitability. The scale of the task was revealed a few months later when the group reported record losses for the year to March 2000 of Y684bn ($5.6bn) including restructuring costs.
By the end of 2000, it was becoming clear that Ghosn would succeed in his task of turning the company around. The group reported very strong half year profits, elevating Ghosn to the status of a national hero in Japan. Announcing the company's full-year performance in 2001, Ghosn announced that Nissan had "moved from the emergency room to the recovery room" with record profits of Y331bn ($2.7bn) on sales of Y6.1tn ($49.1bn). Group debt had fallen to $20.4bn. Incredibly, this was Nissan's first profit in four years and only its second since 1991. In October 2001 Renault and Nissan strengthened their alliance when Nissan acquired a 15% holding in the French company, while Renault exercised options to increase its stake in its Japanese partner to 44%. However both companies denied any intentions to merge completely.
In 2002 the company agreed to form a joint venture with China's third-largest motor manufacturer, state-run DongFeng, paying just over $1bn for a 50% stake in new company DongFeng Motor, which acquired all the existing operations of the Chinese business. The deal was the biggest foreign investment in a state-run Chinese company since Beijing joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001. In 2003 the group announced the recall of 2.55m cars worldwide as a result of a mechanical fault, the largest recall by a Japanese carmaker. The fault, which could cause cars to stall, was not dangerous, but was embarrassing given Nissan's reputation for high quality engineering. The cost of the recall, estimated at around Y16bn, was already covered by provisions in Nissan's accounts. In a 2004 Nikkei newspaper survey of senior Japanese executives, Carlos Ghosn was voted the country's single most admired manager, ahead of Toyota's Hiroshi Okuda and Canon's Fujio Mitarai, and the only foreigner in the top 20. In 2005, in an unprecedented move which says much for the increasing integration of Renault and Nissan, he succeeded Louis Schweitzer as CEO of Renault, while also retaining his position at Nissan.
In 2008, Nissan agreed a manufacturing alliance with Chrysler, which was initially seen as a first step to making the American company a third partner in the Renault-Nissan worldwide alliance. The companies were preparing to manufacturing each other's models from 2009. However, Chrysler's bankruptcy and subsequent takeover by Fiat put an end to all such ideas, and the partnership was abandoned.
Last full revision 17th November 2017
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