When Jean-Dominique Senard took the helm of Renault five months ago, his main job was to rebuild trust with Nissan Motor Co. following the arrest of Carlos Ghosn, the industry luminary who held together the carmakers’ two-decade alliance.
Instead, Senard pressed Nissan for a merger it didn’t want, then pursued a mega-deal with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles without telling the Japanese company. Those talks have now collapsed in acrimony between Fiat and France, Renault’s most powerful shareholder, after Nissan declined to explicitly support the deal.
The turbulence of his brief tenure seems to belie Senard’s profile as the methodical consensus-builder who can steady Renault and its shaky automaking alliance. And, as investors prepare to approve his mandate as chairman at the June 12 annual meeting, some are asking how long the former Michelin CEO will lead the automotive giant.
“Senard is having a hard time fulfilling his mission with Nissan, and now France ran roughshod over him and the Fiat deal,” said Jean-Louis Sempe, an analyst as Invest Securities. “He’s not threatened, but he may decide to throw in the towel as this project is falling apart and relationships with Nissan are difficult.”
Before the Fiat deal collapsed, Senard had assured the government he had Nissan’s support for the combination, said a French official who asked not to be identified. Still, the two Nissan representatives on Renault’s board abstained during an informal vote on the transaction — as had been predicted in media reports — prompting France to ask for more time and provoking Fiat’s withdrawal.
After Fiat pulled its offer, speculation spread Thursday that the 66-year-old Senard would depart. Instead, President Emmanuel Macron called him to reiterate his support -- and make sure he would stay, said a person familiar with the matter. On Thursday evening, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire also expressed his backing for Senard in an interview with daily newspaper Le Figaro.
A person close to Senard who asked not to be identified dismissed the possibility of a resignation, which would put Le Maire in a difficult situation and increase the turmoil at Renault. A Renault official declined to comment.
Senard stepped into a minefield when he joined France’s biggest carmaker. Renault had been blindsided by Nissan’s allegations of financial misconduct by Ghosn — which he denies — and mistrust was high. Senard was parachuted in by the government in January, flanked by Ghosn’s former No. 2, Thierry Bollore, as CEO.
Yet tensions between the companies pre-date Ghosn’s downfall. At the heart of the problem is a lopsided shareholding arrangement: Renault owns 43 per cent of the Japanese carmaker with voting rights, while Nissan has a 15 per cent stake in Renault, stripped of votes. A fear of losing more power led the Japanese carmaker to rebuff a merger approach from Renault in April.
Until last month, Senard was still the head of Michelin, which Macron has called a “model company,” praising it for its dialogue with unions.
Before the Fiat debacle, Senard had made some progress in smoothing out relations with Nissan. He put Bollore on track to join the Japanese company’s board, and created a new governance arrangement with Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors, the smallest member of the alliance.
Le Maire, in Japan for G-20 meetings this weekend, on Saturday told Agence France-Press that France is willing to consider lowering its 15 per cent stake in Renault to help shore up the alliance with Nissan. While France said this before, it's a gesture that could be seen as fence-mending in light of Renault's failed dalliance with Fiat.
Le Maire may discuss the Renault-Nissan alliance with Japanese Economy Minister Hiroshige Seko during the visit, according to French officials.