The year 2018 will be remembered in the auto industry as the end of an era as Ghosn falls

Key Points
  • Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi chairman and CEO Carlos Ghosn stands to be stripped of his roles at the automakers on allegations of making misleading financial statements and misusing company funds.
  • Ghosn is a giant in the automotive industry, who was known for making big brash decisions and turning around troubled companies.
  • Ghosn is sometimes compared with late Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, another workaholic who also had to integrate brands across continents and turn around troubled organizations.
Carlos Ghosn, chief executive officer of Nissan Motor Co., gestures as he speaks during a news conference in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, on Thursday, May 12, 2016.
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Carlos Ghosn's abrupt fall as head of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance leaves a leadership void in the auto industry that's still reeling from the unexpected death of Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.

The sector lost its two most charismatic and effective leaders in the space of a few months, industry analysts say.

"Mr. Ghosn is a giant not only in the automotive industry, but on the global business stage as well," said Autotrader analyst Michelle Krebs. "He was always at Davos and he was kind of a sage when it came to bigger economic and business issues. He was provocative, outspoken."

Ghosn's arrest by Japanese police in Tokyo on Monday shocked the auto world. He's been accused of underreporting his income to Japanese regulators and misusing company funds, Nissan and Mitsubishi both said.

Nissan executives said Monday that they will seek Ghosn's removal from his roles as chairman of Nissan and as chairman and CEO of the alliance. Mitsubishi said it plans to also remove him from its board.

The allegations of misconduct could bring Ghosn's career to an abrupt end, closing a chapter in an industry he played such a significant role in reshaping.

"He was an asset in navigating globalized markets and that has been so hard for the industry to adapt to," said Jeremy Acevedo, manager of data strategy for Edmunds, which provides information on cars and the auto industry. "Then you factor in Nissan's woes here in the U.S., they can definitely use a dose of his bold decision-making and nose for the future. So really this is coming at a terrible time."

Ghosn was known for his larger-than-life personality and for his tireless work schedule shuttling across the world to manage several automotive businesses across different continents. He was also credited with having a global vision and the ability to see possibilities other executives missed.

Many people thought the 1999 strategic alliance between French automaker Renault and Japanese company Nissan, a deal he engineered, was preposterous and doomed to fail.

"I said it would never work" former General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" on Monday "and to my amazement it has worked fabulously well for both companies."

Turning around Nissan made Ghosn something of a hero in Japan: there have been dishes at restaurants named after him and a Japanese comic book about his life.

"If you have not been a villain at a certain point in time, you will never be a hero," he said when asked about the book. "And the day you are a hero, you may become a villain the next day."

He was also known for his bold bet on electric vehicles, exemplified by Nissan's low-cost and well-known electric Leaf sedan. In 2017, he said he thought Nissan was probably the only automaker that was making money off the fledgling powertrain technology.

Ghosn's personality, work ethic and preference for swift-direct action has earned him comparisons to the late Fiat-Chrysler CEO Marchionne. The chain-smoking, espresso swilling and blunt-tongued executive unexpectedly died earlier this year, sending shockwaves through the industry.

While there are some differences between the two executives, they both shared a few common traits.

"You have these firebrands that are at the helm, and their tenures have been marked by really bold decision-making, and it has come bundled with really big personalities," Acevedo said.

Like Ghosn, Marchionne was known for being a tirelessly hard worker who slept on flights from one office to another. He also had to intregrate auto brands that spanned continents and entirely different cultures. As Ghosn is credited with breathing new life into Renault and Nissan, Marchionne was credited with saving Chrysler after the company declared bankruptcy during the financial crisis in 2009.

"There are shades of Marchionne here," Krebs said.

"We have lost the two most provocative, vocal, big personality individuals in the auto industry, apart from Elon Musk, who still has to prove himself," she said. "They don't make them like that anymore."