Wires

Renault chairman auditions narrowed field of Nissan CEO candidates

Norihiko Shirouzu

* Nissan acting CEO, ex-China head lead candidates - sources

* Indian-born Ashwani Gupta also in the running - sources

* Renault-Nissan alliance meeting scheduled for Wednesday

Oct 2 (Reuters) - The Nissan Motor Co CEO race has narrowed to a contest between three Renault-Nissan veterans, with Renault's chairman conducting interviews ahead of a Renault-Nissan alliance meeting scheduled for Wednesday, people familiar with the matter said.

Renault chairman Jean-Dominique Senard spoke on Tuesday with the candidates in person in Paris or via TV conference ahead of Wednesday's meeting, the people said.

Senard sits on the Nissan board's nominating committee, a post he received in June after a battle with Nissan executives.

Two of the candidates are Japanese company veterans - Nissans acting CEO Yasuhiro Yamauchi and former Nissan China chief Jun Seki. They are seen as the frontrunners, the sources said. But Nissans board and Renault have kept up dialogue with Indian-born Ashwani Gupta, and a possible external candidate.

Gupta, 49, joined Renault in 2006 in India as a purchasing manager, and was sent this year to Nissans alliance partner Mitsubishi Motors Corp as chief operating officer.

Gupta was interviewed by Senard on Tuesday via TV conference, the sources said.

The support of Renault, which has a 43.4% stake in Nissan, will be critical in winning the race, as will support from Japans trade ministry, which has intervened in Nissans affairs, sensitive to Renault's upper hand in the alliance.

A Renault spokesman declined to comment.

One issue Senard raised, according to the sources, was Nissans ability and willingness to defend its dividend payout, which was cut for the fiscal year ended March 31 following a 45% decline in Nissans operating profit. That dividend cut wiped 130 million euros ($146 million) off Renaults 2019 earnings.

Nissan is forecasting earnings to continue to slip this fiscal year.

Yamauchi came out of his meeting in Paris with Senard smiling, according to one of the sources. Seki, meanwhile, also met Senard in Paris and told his colleagues he "had a blast" with the Frenchman, according to a message viewed by Reuters.

TOUGH CHOICES

Relations between Renault and Nissan have been strained since the 2018 arrest in Japan of the alliance's architect, Carlos Ghosn, on charges of financial misconduct, which he denies. Nissan executives have pushed for a restructuring of the alliance and more independence from Renault.

The tensions contributed earlier this year to the collapse of a proposed merger between Renault and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

We want (Nissans) board to pick a leader that can restore Nissans business and free us from all the politics weve been forced to cope with, one of the sources told Reuters.

The selection process highlights an internal debate over Nissan's strategy. Ghosn sought to combine tight cost control with ambitious expansion goals. But Nissan's profits have plunged to a ten-year low, undercut by low-margin sales to rental fleets aimed at propping up market share.

Nissan's next CEO faces a restructuring task, and tough choices about where to focus investment as China and Europe demand more electric vehicles.

Nissans board of directors has narrowed a list of candidates in part by using a business school style-CEO aptitude test to measure candidates leadership quality, sources said.

Yamauchi, the acting CEO, was groomed as a cost manager and climbed the ranks under Ghosn. He is favored by older top managers, people familiar with internal discussions said.

Seki is backed by younger leaders and is especially popular among rank and file employees who see him as more likely to chart a new course for Nissan.

Seki has been leading the companys recovery team which is looking at a deeper restructuring of the business that would shutter plants in some markets and exit certain global markets and vehicle segments. (Reporting By Norihiko Shirouzu and Gilles Guillaume; Editing by Joseph White and Mark Potter)