Ashwani Gupta guides Nissan through recovery

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Mitsubishi Chairman Osamu Masuko saw a silver lining in letting Gupta go to Nissan, which owns a controlling 34 percent stake in Mitsubishi, the junior partner of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance. “The Nissan turnaround means a Mitsubishi turnaround as a consequence,” Gupta recalled him later saying.

Now in his role as Nissan COO, Gupta not only spearheads the carmaker’s make-or-break midterm revival plan, he takes direct oversight of the critical North America business. In order to right the alliance’s ship, Gupta knows he has to straighten out Nissan’s U.S. market. Much of the friction in North America over the past decade has been sparked by dealer discontent over Nissan’s aggressive stair-step sales incentives. Last week, the company officially ended that program.

It’s a critical turning point for the company and the alliance.

“My biggest challenge is around ‘change’ — change the business, change the product and change the culture,” Gupta said in an interview from his glassy corner office atop Nissan’s global headquarters overlooking Tokyo Bay from downtown Yokohama.

“What is most important is the mindset change — from ‘volume to value.’ ”

India-born Gupta’s rocket ride up the ladder at the alliance stopped along the way at each of the three companies before he became Nissan’s second in command. It made him one of the Franco-Japanese auto group’s MVPs — in Gupta’s case, a “Most Versatile Player.”

He is a rare breed at the beleaguered alliance. He is neither French nor Japanese, yet he is one of the few top executives with significant executive-level experience at all three companies and in a range of key fields. Emerging markets? Check. Engineering? Check. Purchasing? Check. Trucks? Check. Operational management? Check. North America? Roger that, too.

Because he is only 50, Gupta has many career years ahead to shape, if not lead, the entire alliance. In other words, industry observers may be watching this space.

“He could be a promising CEO someday,” said one former high-ranking Nissan executive who worked with him for years. “He’s very talented and international. He’s a real alliance guy.”

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Saurabh Shukla

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