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BOOK REVIEW

The CEO who drove Nissan into the fast lane

If you want to grasp how Nissan rediscovered itself, "Shift" is the ticket. But if you expect a read as zippy as the styling of Nissan's latest automotive fleet, you'll be disappointed.

Even though Carlos Ghosn, its multitalented, multilingual, and determinedly internationalist head, seems formidably intelligent and persuasive, flat writing keeps his story from gaining maximum traction. Perhaps the flair was lost in translation.

As chief executive, the Brazil-born, French-educated Ghosn (rhymes with tone) transformed Nissan from a stodgy clutch of fiefdoms into a unified juggernaut whose designs have captured the public's eye and, as he suggests, pocketbook.

A complicated man of Lebanese descent, Ghosn intersperses the account of his life with explanations of how he took Nissan from the verge of bankruptcy to the most profitable large automotive manufacturer in the world in fiscal 2003. Ghosn joined Nissan as chief operating officer in 1999, helping forge the Renault-Nissan Alliance. His charge: build bridges, cut costs, and create an identity for a company that had long lagged Toyota and Honda.

That Ghosn loves cars is obvious. He also loves challenges, earning him acclaim as "Le Cost Killer" for his work at Michelin and for the "20 Billion Plan" he imposed to cut costs and lift Renault out of debt.

It explains his move from chief operating officer of Michelin in Brazil to chief operating officer of and, eventually, chief executive of Nissan. His rise has been fast and his reach never seems to exceed his grasp: This spring, he's scheduled to become chief executive of Nissan's parent company, Renault, while continuing as chief executive of Nissan.

For Ghosn, cars have it all: "Automobile manufacturers are architects more than anything else," he writes. "They work with people across a vast range of trades and professions . . . Because the automobile is a part of daily life, the automotive industry interacts with the outside world in a way that many other great manufacturing companies do not."

Trained as an engineer at Paris's Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole des Mines, Ghosn sees the automotive industry holistically. Fixing Nissan, which had 24 manufacturing platforms in seven factories in 1999, was difficult.

But by 2004, Ghosn had reshaped the company into four vehicle assembly plants with 12 car platforms. To do that, he also had to reshape the culture. Not only did Nissan retool its processes, Ghosn also attacked the "gerontocracy" that guaranteed lifetime employment. He inculcated a culture that rewarded achievement rather than status quo, and keyed in on engineering and styling.

For Ghosn, the automotive future is hybrids -- he doesn't like them but has entered into an agreement with Toyota to use its hybrid technology -- and China, "our new frontier." Nissan recently invested about $1.05 billion for a 50-percent share of a new joint venture, Dongfeng Motor Co., a truck manufacturing company.

"Innovation in management is my daily cup of tea," he writes. His book attests to fearlessness and a sense that he is a "catalyst" for change. The kind of company Ghosn likes to run is well presented here. What Ghosn is like as a person isn't nearly as clear.

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