It's seven minutes to Showtime, and Carlos Ghosn is backstage and ready to roll. A translucent angel-hair microphone descends along his right cheek from beneath his carefully coiffed hair. His makeup is perfect, having been applied moments before by his personal makeup artist. ("Do you like strawberry?" she asks, as she applies lip gloss). He's outfitted in a chocolate pin-striped suit designed especially for him by Louis Vuitton. Standing in the wings, he peers out at the audience. "That's a good crowd," he says, "but it's nothing like Tokyo." Suddenly, the music swells and the lights come up. "This is the fun part," Ghosn says before striding onstage to unveil a new fat-backed Nissan sports car at the L.A. Auto Show.
Until lately, things haven't been much fun for the man once hailed as the auto industry's rock-star CEO. Back when he turned around a nearly bankrupt Nissan in 2000, Ghosn was so revered that he became the subject of a superhero comic book in Japan. Bill Ford tried to hire him, and last year General Motors' largest shareholder sought to engineer a marriage with Nissan and Renault (Ghosn is chief of both companies, which hold equity stakes in one another). But after GM chairman Rick Wagoner rebuffed Ghosn, things took a turn for the worse. With few new models in the showroom, Nissan's U.S. sales slid 5.3 percent last year and Ghosn (rhymes with phone) missed his profit goals for the first time, earning $3.9 billion instead of his promised $4.4 billion in 2006. Suddenly, the auto industry's renaissance man—born in Brazil, reared in Lebanon, schooled in Paris—appeared human. So earlier this year he hunkered down and declared a "performance crisis" at his company. He lit a fire under his designers to accelerate new models. He unsheathed the cost-cutting knife that won him a reputation as "Le Cost Killer." Still, with Nissan's stock falling 13 percent this year, analysts who once were Ghosn groupies turned on him. "The glory days," one wrote, "are long gone."
Now the rock star is attempting a comeback. With new hit models like the Versa subcompact, Nissan's U.S. sales are climbing again, up 6.1 percent last month, and profits are up 5.3 percent so far this year. The CEO's swagger has also returned. "Nissan is the biggest turnaround in the history of the car industry," he says of his revival in 2000. "Nothing and nobody is going to take it away from me."
Nonetheless, Ghosn is hitting the road to rehabilitate his—and his company's—image. And NEWSWEEK went along for the ride last month. His day is scheduled in 10-minute increments and it begins early in the back of an Infiniti SUV, fielding calls from Paris while racing to the L.A. Convention Center for an 8 a.m. press-conference rehearsal. "He doesn't miss a move," says his stage manager Chris Murphy. "He just goes out there, hits his marks and then goes onto the next meeting."
Which in this case is in a cold conference room, full of skeptical analysts. Ghosn stresses Nissan's recent success with small cars, and hints he may kill the slow-selling Titan pickup (though Nissan officials say there are no such plans yet). "The name of the game is going to be more fuel-efficient cars," he says. "And when you make your product plans for the future, you can't say, 'I've always had a pickup truck, so I'll just keep improving it.' If you can't make it profitably, you have to get out." Afterward, analyst Steve Usher of Japaninvest switches his neutral rating on Nissan to a buy. "He's back," says Usher. "But it's not the return of the conquering hero. He's got to deliver again."
What he's delivering next is an eclectic mix of green cars and hot rods. He promises to put an electric car on the road by 2011, but in his garage you'll find Nissan's new $69,850 GT-R sports car, which he introduced to wild adulation at the L.A. and Tokyo motor shows. Even as he restocks his automotive arsenal, he still insists he'll eventually lure a Detroit carmaker into his auto alliance: "At some point, one of them will come to the conclusion that it's better to be with somebody than to be alone."
The next morning, Ghosn has a bracing breakfast with dealers that shows not all the cylinders are firing at Nissan. In a windowless hotel conference room the Nissan dealers complain that they need more big sellers. Ghosn pushes back: "We have a bigger offering than Honda. The problem is we sell less. Why?" Later, one of the chastened dealers says of Ghosn's tough love: "It was like I was talking to my dad."
At the end of a long day, though, the tough guy admits the past year took a toll. "When your performance declines," he says, "the first thing you do is question yourself."
The next day, Ghosn is back where he is happiest—onstage. This time it's a packed auditorium of students at Stanford University. He brings down the house explaining his inability to woo reluctant GM. "Can you buy your wife?" he asks to howls of laughter. "You can't say, 'You have to live with me because I bought you.' Each person wants to feel enriched by their marriage." Ghosn gets a hero's ovation, but M.B.A. student Lydia Jett wonders about his staying power. "To be a star like Jack Welch," she says, "he has to deliver over the long term." That's why Ghosn is on the road again, trying to prove he's more than a one-hit wonder.