Global tycoons are rarely strangers to risk, but no chief executive has made a bet as epic as the one Carlos Ghosn made last December.
The former boss of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance did something that he knew would mean he would either live the rest of his life as a free man or die in prison. Despite being under house arrest on financial misconduct charges involving nearly £80 million, he fled Japan as a stowaway on a midnight private jet. “It was a huge risk,” he says with surprising dispassion.
It’s 9.30am in central Beirut and the world’s most famous fugitive is talking to me as he crosses Abdel Wahab el-Inglizi Street and walks into the Hotel Albergo with his wife, Carole. It’s one of the few hotels in the city that’s still open after the vast explosion in the port in August. Ghosn’s nearby home was damaged in the blast but, to him, the battered city is paradise. “I can be with my wife, my kids, who I thought I might never see again,” he says, smiling.
Ghosn, who transformed Nissan from a struggling rival of Toyota and Honda to a worldbeater that built the UK’s largest car plant in Sunderland, was arrested in November 2018 and charged with under-reporting tens of millions of pounds in earnings. He denies the charges. He was held in solitary confinement in a freezing cell in Tokyo for 130 days and then under house arrest. But last December, the 66-year-old escaped on a private jet to Istanbul and then another to Beirut. It was both the business story and the crime story of the decade.
Safely back home (Lebanon doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Japan), he’s ready to tell his side of the story. “I’m fighting for my reputation,” he says, his eyes suddenly as bright as his cornflower-blue shirt. He has written a book, Time for the Truth, in which he accuses Nissan of fabricating the charges against him. He claims that the company wanted to oust him to prevent him from giving Renault greater power in the alliance, a move that would have been too great a blow to Japanese corporate and national pride, he says. What we now know for sure, though, is how he pulled off an escape act that makes Houdini look like an amateur.
Ghosn reveals that, contrary to reports, he himself didn’t spend months planning his midnight run. He knew that associates were plotting to spirit him away, but he didn’t know the details. He decided to risk it all only last December, after judges refused his requests to see Carole and ruled that his trial would be split into two parts, which meant it would last at least five years. Facing up to 15 years in prison if convicted, “I had to make a choice: live a miserable life of injustice – or take a chance?”