For Mouna Sepehri, big is beautiful.
The top-ranking women in Europe’s auto industry, Sepehri, who is an executive vice president in the office of the CEO at France’s Renault SA (IW 1000/66), sees transactions like partner Nissan Motor Co.’s purchase this month of a $2.3 billion stake in Mitsubishi Motors Corp. as adding much-needed bulk.
“Size matters because of economies of scale,” the executive said during a recent interview at the group’s headquarters in Boulogne-Billancourt, west of Paris.
Sepehri, who with General Motors Co. Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra and Annette Winkler, the head of Daimler AG’s Smart brand, is among only a handful of women to have made it to the top echelons of a largely male-dominated industry, has been a key adviser to Renault-Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn since 2005. For the 53-year-old lawyer specialized in mergers and acquisitions, the consolidation trend will only accelerate as carmakers seek to share the high costs of developing electric or energy-efficient vehicles and incorporate intelligent technologies including driver-less vehicles.
“In five to 10 years, we will have giants, but that’s not just for the automotive industry, it’s a global phenomenon,” she said. “Smaller companies will end up combining with bigger ones, except for those which have a niche market.”
Dacia, Samsung, Daimler
Sepehri knows what she’s talking about. She helped Renault buy Romania’s Dacia in 1999 and South Korea’s Samsung Motors in 2000. She also contributed to the shaping of Renault’s partnership with Japan’s Nissan Motor. In 2010, she managed the negotiations of the alliance with Germany’s Daimler AG over a production partnership.
And although she had little to do with the deal that this month made Nissan the biggest shareholder in Mitsubishi Motors, the alliance “may help propel Nissan-Renault a step closer to competing for a spot among the world’s top three automakers,” according to Bloomberg Intelligence industry analyst Nikkie Lu. On the sidelines of the Paris Auto Show in late September, Ghosn concurred, saying the alliance could catapult the group to the top of the global car market as soon as in 2017.
In 2015, the Renault-Nissan alliance sold about 8.5 million vehicles, ranking fourth in the world behind General Motors, Germany’s Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Corp., according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Nissan’s Mitsubishi deal will provide the group a leg up. Mitsubishi Motors and Nissan agreed to share plug-in hybrid and autonomous-driving technology.
It’s a line of conduct that always served me well: doing my job, doing it well, proving my added value, never losing my temper."
“The automotive industry is a long-haul one,” Sepehri said. “Only a few regions in the world have been able to retain their automotive industry.”
The never-ending march of globalization in the industry has kept the auto sector interesting for Sepehri, who joined Renault in 1996 seeking experience in an industrial field that she thought would be useful before going back to the bench as an associate.
“What interested me was an industrial job, to roll up my sleeves,” she said, laughing at what is a fond memory.
What she feared most was boredom.
“But that has never been the case over the 20 years I just spent at Renault,” she said. “Exciting projects came up one after another. You are immediately enraptured. One must get in on the entire line, from conception to manufacturing. Even today, it remains one of the most complex industries and I like that complexity.”
In addition to advising Ghosn, Sepehri helps with communications, relations with governments, legal affairs, general services, corporate social responsibility and the Renault Foundation. Sepehri was key to the smoothing of relations last year between Renault and its biggest shareholder, the French state, earning her words of praise from then-Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron.
The Iran-born executive who moved to France with her parents at the age of 12, says her dual-cultural upbringing has helped her during delicate negotiations, especially with the Japanese on relations between Renault and Nissan. Trust had to be built and nurtured, she said.
For all that, the alliance is far from a model of corporate harmony, with an imbalanced cross shareholding prompting rumblings of dissatisfaction from the Japanese. Nissan, which provides a bulk of the partnership’s profit, has no voting rights in its counterpart. Adding Mitsubishi to the mix might complicate things further.
Helping manage Renault’s links with its alliance partners may present Sepehri with the kind of challenge she relishes. The mother of two boys brushes aside her rarity value as one of the few women in the industry, saying her rise in the sector has less to do with her gender and more to do with calm professionalism.
“It’s a line of conduct that always served me well: doing my job, doing it well, proving my added value, never losing my temper,” she said. “It works everywhere.”
By Geraldine Amiel