China’s thriving SUV-only automaker looks to global growth

ASSOCIATED PRESS  / Feb 22, 2017, 03:06 AM

By JOE McDONALD AP Business Writer

In this photo, taken, Feb. 19, 2017, a worker assembles a Haval SUV H3 model at the Great Wall Motors assembly plant in Baoding in north China’s Hebei province. Great Wall Motors became China’s most profitable automaker by making almost nothing but low-priced SUVs. Now it wants to expand into global markets. (Photo by ANDY WONG/AP)

BAODING, China (AP) — Wei Jianjun is the chief matchmaker in China’s love affair with the SUV.

A decade ago, the chairman of Great Wall Motors Ltd. saw opportunity as the bulky vehicles began shedding their image in China as a farm tool. Wei cut back on making sedans and poured resources into its fledgling line of Havals.

That gamble paid off as SUVs caught on with drivers who saw them as the safest ride on bumpy, chaotic streets. By 2013, with demand surging, Great Wall had become China’s most profitable automaker and Wei was a billionaire.

Now, Wei wants to make the Haval a global brand. It’s an ambitious goal that requires advances in safety and features for a company known until now mainly for low prices. Great Wall sells Havals in Australia, Italy and Russia, but exports were less than 5 percent of last year’s output of just under 1.1 million units.

“By 2020, we hope Haval can become the world’s biggest specialty SUV brand,” Wei said at a reception at Great Wall headquarters in this city southwest of Beijing to celebrate sales passing the 1 million mark.

That “globalization strategy” includes working toward meeting American safety standards, Wei said. But he gave no indication when Haval might export to the United States or major European markets such as Germany.

Great Wall is part of a cadre of small but ambitious independent Chinese automakers that grew in the shadow of state-owned giants such as Shanghai Automotive Industries Corp., which assembles vehicles for General Motors Co. and Volkswagen AG.

Without foreign joint-venture partners, the independents created their own brands and started exporting to Africa and Latin America.

Geely Holding Ltd., which owns Sweden’s Volvo Cars, plans to start U.S. and European sales of its new Lynk & Co. brand in 2019. BYD Auto, the world’s biggest-selling electric car maker, supplies battery-powered buses and taxis in the United States and Europe. Great Wall opened a European assembly plant in Bulgaria in 2012. It has similar facilities with local partners in Russia, Indonesia, Iran, Egypt and Ecuador.

SUVs have an outsized role in China, where their popularity has helped offset sagging demand for sedans and other vehicles.

Sales of domestic brand SUVs soared 58 percent last year to 5.3 million units out of total sales of 24.4 million in the world’s biggest auto market. They are growing fastest in the lowest price ranges, dominated by Haval and Chinese rivals. That has helped Chinese brands to claw back market share they were losing to global competitors.

The top seller was Haval’s flagship H6, starting at 89,000 yuan ($12,900), which has become China’s most popular vehicle to date. H6 sales surged 55 percent last year to 580,000 units while the overall market grew 15 percent.

“They are definitely one of the most successful car companies in China,” said Yale Zhang, managing director of Automotive Foresight, a research firm.

“This company has some very special strengths,” Zhang said. “Of course, it also has weaknesses, because their products are focused on one model. But they are correcting that. They have tried very hard to cultivate another star product.”

Great Wall’s 2016 profit rose 31 percent to 10.5 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) on revenue of 98.6 billion yuan ($14.4 billion). Wei, 52, ranked No. 36 on the year’s Hurun List of China’s richest entrepreneurs, with a fortune estimated at $5.9 billion.

Begun in the 1980s as a collective that repaired and modified vehicles, Great Wall was bleeding cash when Wei, then 26, left his father’s business making industrial machinery and signed a deal in 1990 to take it over and share profits with the collective’s members.

The company launched a sedan in 1993. Its popular Deer brand pickup trucks were its first hit, in the late ’90s.

Its CEO, Wang Fengying, is a former saleswoman who worked her way up the ranks, becoming the first woman to lead an automaker a decade before GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra.

Wei has a reputation for military-style discipline.

“He wants a quick decision and a thorough execution,” Zhang said. “This style is very different from large automotive companies, which can be a huge bureaucracy. This company definitely doesn’t have that weakness.”

Most of Great Wall’s 60,000 employees work at its Baoding factory complex, a 13-square-kilometer (5-square-mile) mini-city of assembly lines and workshops in long, pale yellow two- and three-story buildings.

A test track that wraps around the complex is banked to allow drivers to push vehicles to over 200 kph (125 mph).

“It’s an orderly, organized, very disciplined operation,” said Bill Russo, managing director of research firm Gao Feng Advisory. “You think, this isn’t China; this is what I would expect to see in Switzerland or Germany.”

Wei has emphasized product quality, in one case hiring Korean auto industry veterans to show Great Wall how to make better body panels, according to Russo, a former Chrysler executive. That has paid off by raising Haval’s image from entry-level to a mass-market brand that can charge higher prices.

“They have cracked that glass ceiling,” said Russo. “Their quality level is better than the basic Chinese car companies.”

Still, Great Wall’s market is increasingly crowded as Chinese rivals roll out dozens of new SUVs. Global brands including VW and GM are preparing to invade Haval’s segment with their own low-cost models.

Competitive pressures have reached a “deep red level,” Wei said.

The company is responding by trying to move up-market.

Haval opened a Shanghai design studio in 2013 and a Technology Center in Baoding, housed in a sleek glass tower with reflecting pools and a 23-story lobby. It includes engineering workshops, a wind tunnel and a low-pressure chamber that can mimic operating conditions up to 5,000 meters (16,500 feet) in altitude.

In November, Great Wall unveiled a premium brand, Wey, an alternate spelling of Wei’s name. It has yet to say how it will attract buyers to models expected to be priced above 200,000 yuan ($29,000).

Haval has struggled to lure drivers to its higher-priced models, such as its top-of-the-line H9, a seven-seater starting at 210,000 yuan ($30,600), that sold just 11,500 units last year. The H8, another full-size model, sold only 7,500 units.

In November, the company rolled out an updated H6, designed by a 50-member team led by Pierre Leclercq, a Belgian-born BMW veteran.

“The H6 is an extremely important product for us,” said Leclercq, the company’s senior vice president for design.

The company’s next rising star is the H2, a four-seat compact SUV that sold 197,000 units last year. But it starts at 87,000 yuan ($12,700), a step down in price instead of toward a higher market segment.

Great Wall also faces pressure from Chinese government rules that require improved fuel efficiency by 2020. That will hurt brands such as Haval that lack smaller models to improve the average of their product lineup.

In response, Great Wall has developed an electric car, the C30 EV, a compact sedan it says can go 200 kilometers (120 miles) on one charge. The company has yet to say when it might go on sale.

China Seen Laying Down $15 Billion Bet on Electric Vehicles

Bloomberg News, December 16, 2015

China to be `epicenter of electrification,’ analyst says

BYD, Zotye among biggest sellers of electric cars in China

China has found electric cars a tough sell even after lavishing consumers with subsidies and privileges. After almost certainly failing to meet a target to have half a million of such vehicles on its roads by year end, its next act is to achieve a 10-fold increase by the end of the decade.

The electric vehicles in service will fall about 26 percent short of its year-end target, according to estimates from the science ministry and state-backed auto association. To meet its 2020 goal of five million EVs, the government will speed up the construction of charging stations, reducing a major inconvenience for urban residents who don’t have personal garages to charge their cars.

“China will be the epicenter for electrification of the auto industry globally,” said Bill Russo, Shanghai-based managing director at Gao Feng Advisory Co., who estimates that China would have invested 100 billion yuan ($15.5 billion) by 2020 on new-energy vehicles.

President Xi Jinping has designated electric vehicles as a strategic initiative in a bid to upgrade the auto industry and create challengers to Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Co. The government is increasing spending after signs that the combination of research grants, consumer subsidies and infrastructure investments is starting to yield results. New-energy vehicle production surged fourfold to 279,200 units in the first 11 months, even as oil traded near levels last seen during the global financial crisis.

Local Winners

That has benefited automakers like BYD Co., Zoyte Auto and BAIC Motor Corp., which have led sales of electric cars. BYD, backed by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., would have turned a loss in 2014 and this year if not for EV subsidies from the central government, according to Barclays Plc. Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd. said last month that it would target new-energy vehicles to make up 90 percent of sales by 2020.

The government incentives have lured consumers like Zhang Peng, 30, who decided to buy BAIC’s EV200 electric car after trying without success for two years to win a license plate in the bimonthly lottery held by the Beijing government. EVs are exempt from the ballot, which has worse odds than roulette.

Zhang also received 90,000 yuan in matching grants from the central and local governments, or almost half of the 208,922 yuan sticker price for BAIC’s EV200 electric car. The model costs about 7.5 yuan to run every 100 kilometers (62 miles), compared with an estimated 39 yuan for an equivalent gasoline-powered 1.6-liter Toyota Corolla, according to calculations based on the published fuel-economy rating and Beijing pump prices.

Battery Suppliers

The burgeoning demand has also helped battery suppliers such as South Korea’s Samsung SDI Co. and LG Chem Ltd., which supplies SAIC Motor Corp. and Chongqing Changan Automobile Co. Panasonic Corp. said it is considering building a car-battery factory in China to supply lithium-ion batteries.

Among local component makers, Wanxiang Qianchao Co. and Hunan Corun New Energy Co. have more than doubled in Shanghai trading this year as investors bet the surge in electric vehicle demand will boost demand. BYD has climbed 34 percent this year and Geely Automobile has surged 79 percent in Hong Kong trading, compared with the 8.4 percent decline in the benchmark Hang Seng Index.

Global automakers are beginning to get into the act. Volkswagen AG, the largest foreign carmaker by sales, has said it will introduce 15 locally produced new-energy vehicles in the next three to five years in the country. Ford Motor Co. said this month it’s investing $4.5 billion globally in electrified vehicles.

‘Foreigners Coming’

“In the initial stage it was mainly local automakers competing with each other in the electric-car segment, but now the foreign players are coming,” said Ouyang Minggao, director of the Tsinghua New Energy Vehicle Center. “All kinds of electric cars will be here soon, including plug-in hybrids, which will lead to very big challenges to local automakers.”

The Chinese government is not alone in setting aggressive targets for alternative-energy transportation. President Barack Obama in 2011 called for one million electrified vehicles in the U.S. by 2015, a target that the administration scaled back in March after low gasoline prices reduced the cost advantage of plug-in and hybrid vehicles.

China, though, has stood out in terms of the scale of the state’s financial support. The country has invested about 37 billion yuan into the new-energy vehicle segment over the past five years, according to Gao Feng’s Russo, who estimates the government will devote another 63 billion yuan by 2020.

Funding Plan

The central government released a plan on Wednesday detailing funding for local governments to construct charging facilities, tied to the number of new-energy vehicles they sell.

Automakers will have to play by China’s rules if they want a piece of the market, even if they don’t believe in electric cars. The government has mandated the lowering of average fuel consumption to 5 liters by 2020, from 6.9 liters per 100 km this year.

“There is really no choice for the automakers, if they are required to meet the more stringent emission standards by 2020,” said Steve Man, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. “Other technologies with the stringent emission standards won’t get you all the way to target.”

Chinese Electric-Car Maker BYD’s Shares Plunge

The Wall Street Journal
BN-GB765_byd121_J_20141218033737
A BYD Co. electronic vehicle is charged at an EV charging station at the company’s campus in the Pingshan district of Shenzhen, China, Aug. 5, 2014. Bloomberg News
By Colum Murphy

SHANGHAI—An executive at Warren Buffett -backed BYD Co. defended its business prospects after shares in the Chinese electric-car maker fell as much as 47% on Thursday.

In a conference call late Thursday, company secretary Qian Li said BYD’s operations were normal despite the share plunge and sought to dispel what he called rumors about the company. BYD’s Hong Kong-traded shares regained some ground later Thursday and finished at 25.05 Hong Kong dollars (US$3.23), down 29%.

Mr. Li described rumors circulating in the market about BYD—including suggestions that its founder and chairman had been arrested—as “ridiculous” and urged investors to ignore them.

He also dismissed talk of BYD having large exposure to the troubled Russia market, describing the company’s investment in that country as “very small.”

BYD also produces mobile-phone components and solar panels.

Asked whether the price movement could be related to a selloff in shares by Mr. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment vehicle, Mr. Li said BYD had been in recent contact with Mr. Buffett but there was no sign that Mr. Buffett was considering a sale. He added BYD didn’t reach Mr. Buffett on Thursday due to the time difference between China and the U.S.

Berkshire Hathaway owns a roughly 9% stake in BYD, according to previous company filings, including about one-quarter of its Hong Kong-traded shares. In the Chinese city of Shenzhen, BYD’s shares fell about 10% on Thursday, the daily limit.

In October, BYD reported a third-quarter profit drop of 26% and said it expects this year’s profit to fall by up to 22%. Auto-sales growth in China has slowed in recent months amid a broader drop in China’s economic momentum.

Overall in the first 11 months of 2014, BYD has sold 384,977 vehicles, down from 458,042 vehicles sold in the same period the year before—a 16% drop, according to data from research firm IHS Automotive.

While the company frequently touts its line of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids—vehicles that can run on both gasoline and electricity—it relies heavily on sales of traditional gasoline engine cars for the lion’s share of its automotive revenue.

Bill Russo, managing director of consulting firm Gao Feng Advisory, said BYD, like many other Chinese car brands, need to create a brand that appeals to Chinese consumers. “It has to go beyond just being a cheap car,” he said.

Mr. Li said BYD faces “hot competition” and decreasing margins in the traditional car market in China but said it was transforming into a manufacturer of new-energy vehicles.

China has a long-stated goal of reducing its dependency on imported oil by promoting new-energy vehicles, including passenger cars and buses. China wants half a million such vehicles on the road by next year and 10 times that by the end of the decade.

But in the first nine months of this year, fewer than 40,000 electric vehicles were sold in China, according to data from the government-backed China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. Around three quarters of these were passenger cars. By comparison, around 14.2 million conventional passenger cars were sold in the period.

IHS Automotive researcher Namrita Chow said the high cost of replacing batteries, lack of adequate charging infrastructure and range anxiety—where buyers worry about how far they can travel on a single charge—are all obstacles in the path to high sales growth rates.

She said that BYD had doubled sales of its pure electric e6 car to 2,203 vehicles in the first 10 months of this year compared with the same period last year. Sales for the hybrid Qin had so far reached just over 11,000 vehicles in its first year on sale.

Mr. Li dismissed talk that the Chinese government could be reducing its support of new-energy vehicles, including buses, saying BYD continued to see good order flow for them. “We’re confident on the future of electric buses,” Mr. Li said.

A nearly 50% drop in oil prices over the past six months has pressured green stocks in a number of areas.

“With the oil price down, the global outlook for electric vehicles looks very different from just a couple of months ago,” said Jochen Siebert, a Shanghai-based managing director at JSC Automotive Consulting. “BYD’s electric and hybrid car business will likely be impacted,” he added.

Write to Colum Murphy at colum.murphy@wsj.com