Carlos Ghosn is a stand-up guy

Despite a run of misfortune, the Renault Nissan CEO remains in the public spotlight. Fortune's Alex Taylor III explores the ways of an auto industry survivor.

By Alex Taylor III, Fortune senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Carlos Ghosn, president and CEO of Nissan Renault, will touch down in Detroit on Thursday, November 16, to give a speech at the Economic Club.

This would not ordinarily be big news. The Economic Club is a fairly stuffy group of executives and wannabees whose views reflect Detroit's insular outlook on the rest of world.

Although it has been meeting monthly for years, there is no Churchillian Iron Curtain moment in the club's history. Some speeches might produce news for a day or so, but then are quickly forgotten.

But for Ghosn (rhymes with phone) to come to Detroit this week is like sending Dick Cheney to speak at a Democratic caucus. After his failed attempt to form an alliance with General Motors (Charts), and the rebuff of his overtures to Ford Motor (Charts), Ghosn is considered a publicity-seeking flash in the pan.

"He has an ego the size of California," one former associate is quoted as saying. Overextended and overscheduled, he's riding on a reputation as a turnaround artist but, in Detroit's view, he hasn't been able to translate that into consistent operational performance.

Nor are the assembled car guys likely to be in the best of moods. The Big Three CEOs had their long-awaited, twice-cancelled sit-down with President Bush yesterday and came away with some pleasantries but no promises. If they are hoping for major relief from health care burdens, they may have to cozy up to the United Auto Workers and try to get help from the Democrats.

Ghosn is little concerned with such mundane problems, though he has some of his own. He conducted a widely-praised and little-anticipated revival of Nissan (Charts) early in the decade. In 2005, he took a second CEO job as head of France's Renault half a world away - a move widely seen as overreaching.

That view got some traction this year when Nissan's results headed south during a product drought and Renault continued producing mediocre returns.

Even in Japan, where Ghosn is something of a national hero, critics have been piling on. "Ghosn can make mistakes, too," Tokyo analyst Koji Endo of Credit Suisse First Boston, was quoted as saying. "He's struggling to take Nissan to the next stage."

With things not going so well, other executives might be tempted to lower their profile, plead an overtaxed schedule and lower their public profile to invisible. Not Ghosn. Despite having the perfect excuse of being the world's busiest executive, he still makes time for press interviews and public speaking.

Nor does he shrink from a good public spat. Although his alliance model with Renault and Nissan is frequently dismissed as a fluke, Ghosn has titled his Detroit speech "Inside the alliance: The win-win nature of a unique business model." Talk about persistence.

Ghosn appears unfazed by the shift in public opinion. For him, performance is all that matters. He expects Nissan to accelerate its profits over the next six months and Renault to start revving up in 2007. If not, he's perfectly willing to suffer the consequences.

This is the man, after all, who posted his financial targets for Nissan that nobody thought he could meet, and then offered to resign if he didn't reach them. "I'm the CEO, nominated by the shareholders," he's reported to have said. "If they're not happy, I have to take the consequences."

Meanwhile, Ghosn is continuing to demonstrate the value of having two auto companies cooperate with each other. Last Friday, Renault announced plans to build an assembly line and engine factory in India as part of a joint venture with a local company that will produce half a million vehicles by 2012. Almost simultaneously, Nissan said it was ending talks with Suzuki to build a plant in India.

Is it too farfetched to believe that Ghosn oversaw both India deals and got the two outside partners to bid against each other to the ultimate benefit of Renault Nissan? Perhaps Ghosn will reveal more secrets of his alliance when he heads into enemy territory on Thursday. And perhaps those in the audience will be paying attention.  Top of page