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Renault Has Two Boardroom Coups in One Year

Chris Bryant

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- During the past 12 months Renault SA has looked more like a soap opera than a carmaker. The French company served up an ill-tempered denouement on Friday when it sacked Chief Executive Officer Thierry Bollore, who said he was the victim of a “coup.”

Bollore only took the job in January after his predecessor Carlos Ghosn was arrested for alleged impropriety around his pay and resigned. Since then, Renault’s alliance with Japan’s Nissan Motor Co. has been in turmoil and the French company’s cash flow and share price have skidded.

Renault compounded the dramatics earlier this by trying to merge with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, only for the French state to torpedo the union.

These events have created a profound sense of drift at the manufacturer, for which Bollore and his chairman Jean-Dominique Senard are probably equally to blame. It’s Bollore who’s been given the shove, though, and Renault now has (yet another) opportunity to start afresh. Clotilde Delbos, the finance director, has been appointed interim CEO while the company looks for a permanent replacement.

The first priority must be to tone down the histrionics. As at Nissan, which appointed a new CEO this week, Renault needs to focus on operational matters, not creating newspaper headlines. Boardroom bust-ups are never helpful but this one is especially ill-timed. Car markets are weakening and anti-pollution regulations and the shift to electric vehicles require heavy spending.

Unfortunately Renault isn’t starting out from a position of strength. It is reasonably well positioned in electric vehicles (with the Zoe) and in emerging markets such as Brazil and Russia. Its low-cost Dacia business performs well. However, Renault can no longer rely on chunky profit contributions and dividends from Nissan because its Japanese partner is also battling slumping sales. 

Renault’s balance sheet isn’t the strongest: the group had just 1.5 billion euros ($1.65 billion) of industrial net cash at the end of June And its core automotive business eked out a meager 4 percent operating return on sales in the first six months of the year. Its local rival Peugeot SA achieved twice that. Overall, net income will probably fall by about one-quarter this year.  

Looking ahead, Renault targets 70 billion euros in yearly revenue by 2022, about one-fifth higher than last year. Yet with car demand plateauing it’s unlikely to get anywhere near that. Sales will rise only slightly to about 59 billion euros in 2021, according to analysts polled by Bloomberg.

Fresh leadership at Renault and Nissan might at least help the two partners work more harmoniously. Then perhaps Senard and Fiat’s scion John Elkann can start talking again about a merger (Nissan wasn’t happy about the lack of consultation on the idea). But in view of the bad blood and false starts of the past 12 months, neither seems likely in the short term. Renault doesn’t need another distraction.

The company’s shares jumped 4 percent on Friday but Renault shareholders remain pretty downbeat. Subtract the value of Renault’s 43% stake in Nissan, its stake in Germany’s Daimler AG and its net cash, and you’ll see they ascribe only about 2.5 billion euros of value to the core business.

Bollore claims he’s been treated shabbily, but his successor inherits a lousy valuation, a trunk full of strategic problems and a chairman and French state stakeholder second-guessing their every move. His departure feels like an act of mercy.

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Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.

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