If Davos Were a Person, It Would Be Carlos Ghosn
How’s the postnational, transborder, free-trading auto industry CEO faring in the age of Trump? Hop aboard his helicopter.
The helicopter has traced an imprecise line above the Chao Phraya River, buzzing over Bangkok’s ancient temples and clotted highways before zeroing in on the Peninsula Bangkok hotel, where the bright green helipad seems to swim in the wavy heat. He hops out and is led down to the Paribatra Lounge, a 37th-floor oasis reserved exclusively for aerial check-ins. The décor is retro aeronautique, and the welcome drinks are cold, but to linger here would be to stray from the itinerary, so Ghosn (rhymes with “bone”) moves on. He’s whisked down to his room, where he’ll grab a quick lunch and slip on a fresh suit and tie. Then he’ll wend his way to a ground-floor conference room and the first item on the afternoon’s agenda: a Q&A session with several hundred Thai business school graduates.
The itinerary that shapes his day is densely plotted and color-coded, and if Ghosn seems a little too beholden to its demands, consider the alternative: cascading disorder. If he were to run a few minutes late on any of the agenda items mapped out on this afternoon’s sheet, the entire scaffolding of the day might collapse, causing the week to buckle, ultimately threatening the month. As chairman and chief executive officer of a global alliance of auto companies—including Groupe Renault, Nissan Motor Co., and Mitsubishi Motors Corp., all three of which he also leads as chairman or chairman/CEO—his travel schedule begins to fill up six months to a year in advance. A typical month for him consists of a week in France, a week in Japan, and the remaining two weeks split among the U.S., Morocco, Russia, India, or any of the other countries where his companies have factories or executive offices. It’s tempting to imagine a future in which Ghosn’s itinerary is considered a valuable artifact: a window into what globalization was really like in 2017, when it was spreading further than ever and, at the same time, getting slammed by waves of populist discontent.
Ghosn, 63, was born in Brazil, raised in Lebanon, and educated in France. He proudly calls himself a citizen of the world. But in the era of Brexit and Donald Trump, it can seem a stubborn pride, willfully anachronistic. “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, said last year. It was one of countless political uppercuts thrown at “Davos Man,” the not-so-endearing label for those transborder, postnational elites who annually migrate to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Ghosn represents the species in its purest form. In the Wikipedia entry for the summit, his photo appears near the top, right beneath a photo of the conference founder. He insists he doesn’t take any of the backlash personally, but it’s hard to believe that some of it isn’t meant that way.
If the politics of the past year have left any sort of mark on him, it’s imperceptible as he strides onto the stage for the Q&A. These are his people—students of business, not politics—and most of the questions they lob his way are as familiar as old friends: What drives you to take over struggling companies, and how do you always seem to turn them around? How were you able to become the first foreigner to run a major Japanese company? What’s your secret for winning the trust and loyalty of employees throughout so many diverse cultures?
“I keep my eyes on the scorecard,” Ghosn tells them. Production, profit, growth—the bottom line. Diversions constantly arise, but he’s learned to manage the distractions, which he says assume different forms in different parts of the world. “In Japan,” he says, “people have a tendency to preserve other people. But if you start to look at people, and not your scorecard, you’re going to be in trouble. If you start to say, ‘He’s not very good, but, hey, he’s such a good person, and he’s nice, and he’s a stand-up guy,’ then you’re compromising.”
It doesn’t take long for an indirect challenge to rise from the crowd: Can’t a modern executive do more than protect his bottom line? A Thai business consultant asks him to consider the example of driverless cars and the potential they have to ease congestion. Nissan is a leader in the field; it’s already selling its Serena model, with driver assistance, in Japan. But maybe, the man suggests, companies such as Ghosn’s should first introduce them to Bangkok and other underdeveloped cities, where rapid globalization has brought increased mobility but also haphazard urbanization and murderous traffic. Conventional business wisdom says companies should first test them in places with advanced infrastructures, but why shouldn’t Ghosn focus on the places where they’d do the most good? “Change the entire society,” the man urges Ghosn. “Disrupt!”
The unstated implications—that the globalized world needs a radical disruption and that a car executive is in a position to do it—are notions that Ghosn rejects outright. Instead of apologizing, his instinct is to rise up and defend globalization, as well as his role in it.
“At the end of the day, we are a carmaker,” he tells the man. “We should not forget that. We can contribute to a better society, but if you want to make a better society, you should not be a carmaker. You should be something else: a politician.”
Politics. That’s something to work through, he says, and to transcend. A man in his position, Ghosn says, changes the world by creating opportunities through globalization, which he describes as an ultimately benevolent law of nature, and fighting it makes about as much sense as declaring a war on gravity. But as the income gap between executives and workers has widened, and import competition has chipped away at manufacturing jobs in developed countries, globalization’s downsides have become increasingly apparent. Ghosn doesn’t dismiss those effects as make-believe, and he says the backlash might eventually result in corrections that bring about a more human brand of globalization. That said, he’s convinced that none of the criticisms can negate a larger truth: No force in history has done more economic or societal good than the world-encircling flow of goods, money, and culture. Brexit, the election of Trump, and the rise of antitrade populism are all very small bumps on a very long road.
Davos Man plans to outlast them all.