This car company ripped off Land Rover. Here’s why it might get away with it.

The Washington Post, July 19, 2016

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(LEFT) The 2017 Range Rover Evoque Convertible is debuted during the
Los Angeles Auto Show in Nov. 2015, in Los Angeles (AP Photo/John Locher).
(RIGHT) Jiangling Motor Co.’s Landwind X7 SUV is displayed at the
16th Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition in April 2015
(Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg).

The cars are basically indistinguishable unless you hone in on the exact stitching of the seats or the fine arrangement of the headlights. Even then, changes are so minuscule, it’s nearly impossible to realize one of these vehicles costs $41,000, and the other just $21,700.

British luxury carmaker Jaguar Land Rover and Chinese carmaker Jiangling will go to court this summer in China to settle their dispute over what exactly is fair game in the auto industry. Can Chinese companies continue to get away with “shanzhai” — a Chinese term for prideful counterfeiting — of car designs?

Range Rover’s Evoque and Jiangling’s Landwind X7 are practically the same car to the untrained eye.

It’s a judicial battle that pits Western car companies against the burgeoning Chinese and East Asian market, and one that has captured the attention of economists, auto industry insiders and intellectual property experts.

The Chinese consumer market has grown exponentially since late 1980s economic reform. Some of the largest growth has come from auto companies, both state-owned and foreign joint-ventures. In 2008, when the market was still in its relative infancy, Chinese buyers purchased 9.4 million cars. By 2015, they bought 24.6 million.

And as the industry rapidly expands, Western carmakers, from the United States’ “big three” to German luxury brands to other imports, have rushed to gobble up market share, in the process flooding China and its comparably fledgling car companies with new vehicle models.

The best way Chinese manufacturers could compete was “shanzhai,” reverse engineering foreign products as a way to enter the market without overwhelming research expenditures.

“In the automotive industry, you can copy the look of the the vehicle, but the skills required for the highly complex integrated systems, if you’re a Chinese company, you don’t have engineers with long career histories with that capability,” said Bill Russo, managing director of Shanghai-based Gao Feng Advisory Company.

“So you shorten the life cycle by purchasing or licensing or reverse engineering. And this is not a Chinese-invented cycle.”

Imitation, as the idiom goes, is the sincerest form of flattery. But it’s also a great way to make money, something merchants have realized for hundreds of years.

The United States in the 1800s, for example, lacked authors who could stack up against British literary giants, so American publishers reprinted British works without paying heed to copyright laws, said Mark Bartholomew, a professor of law at the University at Buffalo.

Benjamin Franklin, the Benjamin Franklin, even published pirated works. William Wordsworth and Charles Dickens came to America to complain about it. The United States only stiffened its intellectual property laws once its industries, both mechanical and intellectual, matured by the end of the century.

“It boils down to economics,” Bartholomew said. “The Chinese economy doesn’t have this same tradition of the manufacturers like Ford or Hyundai or any of the folks who are making these cars. So if you don’t have these copyright laws, why pay if you can get away with it?”

China does have intellectual property laws, though, and it’s a signatory to international intellectual property agreements. But China’s laws are applied inconsistently, and even the international rules aren’t always enforced in China and elsewhere around the world.

Some countries recognize certain kind of intellectual property, but not others. For example, special door handles on a car: Are those a decorative creative works, or do they have some functionality? Creative works get copyrights. Objects with usefulness get patents. And states, not companies, are the arbiters of what objects get what protection.

It leaves multinational companies rushing to strategically secure their rights all over the world. In large established markets like the United States and Europe, car companies apply for protection right away. But in a developing market such as China — its auto market was until recently considered “developing” — those applications only became priorities over the last decade.

Smaller Chinese companies without strong market presence used past administrative delays as windows of opportunity. If intellectual property protection hadn’t been filed domestically, it was convenient to reverse engineer the product. And if the protection was filed sloppily, companies reverse engineered cars largely without the risk of prosecution.

Even when U.S. auto makers file their paperwork in the right way, China car companies enjoy remarkable home field advantage in their courts. More mature courts in Beijing or Shanghai might have judges more willing to hear out foreign companies, but rural courts or those in factory-heavy districts often show interest to local industry, including counterfeiters.

And so the copycats started coming. Honda fought a Chinese carmaker for 12 years for copying the CR-V. The Chery QQ riffed off the Chevrolet Spark in 2005. Shuanghuan’s CEO SUV model copied BMW’s X5 in 2007. Shuanghuan’s Noble copied Mercedes Benz’s Smartcar in 2009. The Lifan 320 copied the Mini Cooper Countryman in 2012.

Hummers and Porsches and Rolls Royces have been copied. Even Ferraris have been copied, and were shipped to Spain where they were seized by police.

“Anything known to mankind can be faked, even a Ferrari,” said said Frederick Mostert, past president of the International Trademark Association and a research fellow at University of Oxford and Peking University. To prove a point, he bought one and traveled with it and shows pictures of it at speaking engagements.

Ferraris, though, aren’t the counterfeits major car companies worry about. Any buyer looking for a luxury car is in the market to spend luxury car kind of money. That’s especially true in China, where consumers are extremely brand conscious, experts say. Nobody who wants a Land Rover is going to be fooled by a Landwind.

“People who buy [the Landwind] can’t afford the Land Rover,” said Russo, the Geo Feng consultant. “And of course if you’re the company that’s out there, you’re going to be pissed off about it, but nobody is getting confused.

“Get in that Landwind and drive it. I’ve driven many, many cars in China. It’s not the same car.”

As much as the counterfeits are inconveniences, it may be the lawsuits to stop the practice that may hurt Western automakers moreauto industry experts say. The Chinese public doesn’t like to see its industries get bullied. Plus, if one copycat company gets shut down, others pop back up. Western companies end up playing legal whack-a-mole with money they could use to make newer, better cars, said Kenneth D. Crews, a Los Angeles-based attorney and adjunct professor of law at Columbia University.

That kind of strategy actually trains customers to look for newer models and not settle on older ones that are more easily counterfeited. More mature Chinese car companies have grown up and away from copying other models. Once they made enough money to invest in research and original design, they did.

“These companies have grown to become more than just copycats,” Russo said. “They’re advanced and they’re innovative.”

Click here to read this article at washingtonpost.com

Qoros chief executive Phil Murtaugh to leave China-based carmaker

The Financial Times, January 6, 2016

Qoros chief executive Phil Murtaugh to leave China-based carmaker - FT.com Mail, Today at 2.57.27 PM

Qoros CEO Phil Murtaugh is stepping down

Struggling Sino-Israeli car start-up Qoros has shaken up its management for the second time in a year as it seeks to jump-start sales and chart a new course in the fast-moving and technology-driven automotive industry.

The Shanghai-based company on Wednesday said Phil Murtaugh, the former China head at General Motors who was installed as Qoros chief executive in February, would leave the group this month “for personal reasons”.

The announcement was accompanied by a sharp change of direction for Qoros, as it unveiled two new business units: one focused on electric cars and another looking at alternative business models to car ownership and self-driving technologies.

Commenting on Mr Murtaugh’s departure, Dan Cohen, Qoros vice-chairman, said: “What was missing and what the shareholders were hoping to see were, one, higher sales and secondly we wanted to see a car company that is not just another [manufacturer] — that is a unique player . . . That was very difficult and slow to develop.”

He added Qoros wanted a top manager who was “more Silicon Valley-like”.

Qoros was set up in 2007 as a joint venture between Chery Auto, a state-owned domestic Chinese carmaker, and Israel Corp, a conglomerate controlled by Idan Ofer, the London-based billionaire.

With a team of European engineers, the company set about building cars that went beyond other domestic Chinese products.

But despite dreams of being the first “GM” to break out of China, Qoros has so far failed to gain significant traction. Sales in 2015, at 14,000 cars, fell far short of the 35,000 target.

By contrast, Tesla Motors, another prominent auto start-up, shipped more than 50,000 cars in 2015.

Under Mr Murtaugh, Qoros had set itself a target of generating an operating profit by 2018.

Bill Russo, managing director of Gao Feng Advisory, a consulting firm, said the Qoros business model was predicated on volumes in the hundreds of thousands.

“[It] is far off the pace of a viable business case for continuation,” he added. “They need to pursue an alternate approach, as they are not succeeding as a conventional carmaker. On-demand electric mobility is a logical choice for a Chinese company, but they will need a partner who can provide a platform to connect to the end users of such services.”

The company said on Wednesday that Mr Murtaugh, who was formerly chief executive of Coda, a failed electric car start-up, would be replaced temporarily by Anning Chen, Qoros chairman. He also chairs Chery’s joint venture with Jaguar Land Rover.

Qoros and its shareholders — including Kenon Holdings, which controls Israel Corp’s investment — are hoping that a new sport utility vehicle, called the Qoros 5, will help sales accelerate when it arrives in dealerships in March. But Robin Zhu, analyst at Bernstein Research, said the brand was “still pretty unknown to most Chinese‎”.

With only around 100 dealerships in China either built or in the works, Qoros lacks the scale of smaller premium brands such as Cadillac and Volvo, which have between 200 and 250 outlets, and mass-market carmakers that typically have more than 500.

China’s Car Factory Binge Risks Hurting Automakers’ Margins

Bloomberg Business, February 13, 2015

Automakers have been successful at adding factories. Maybe too successful

When consultant Bill Russo visited Chery Automobile’s headquarters in China’s eastern Anhui province about three years ago, he listened to the company’s plans to expand its factories to make as many as 1 million vehicles a year. But demand didn’t grow as planned. So Chery today has the capacity to make 900,000 vehicles annually—twice the number of cars it sold last year. Sales have slumped by one-third since their peak in 2010.

“Chery is a classic case” of overcapacity, says Russo, a former Chrysler executive who’s now a Shanghai-based managing director at consultant Gao Feng Advisory. “The pressure is that once they receive the permission [from government authorities] to build, they feel like they have to build.” Chery didn’t respond to requests for comment about its sales falling short of planned capacity.

Domestic and foreign-based carmakers are building more factories in China than anywhere else, a construction binge that risks hurting margins in what remains one of the world’s most profitable vehicle markets. By 2017 there will be 140 car production plants in China, vs. 123 at the end of 2014, estimates JSC Automotive Consulting.

According to IHS Automotive forecasts, factories across the mainland in 2015 will be able to build 10.8 million more vehicles than will be sold in Greater China. In North America, however, IHS expects plants to churn out about 3.2 million more cars this year than the factories were intended to produce when they were built.

Overcapacity is only expected to get worse for Chinese carmakers. China will have about 11.4 million vehicles’ worth of idle capacity by 2017, more than double that of European automakers, according to data from JSC and Deloitte Consulting.

Some carmakers already are regretting plans for Chinese plants that will open in the next few years, says Jochen Siebert, Shanghai-based managing director of JSC, who declines to name the companies. “But that decision has been made,” he says. “It’s done; they cannot backtrack.”

Plans for most of the factory space built in China in the past few years were put in motion during the global recession, when China proved to be a godsend while General Motors and Chrysler were being bailed out by the U.S. taxpayer and Europe’s auto sales seemed in free fall. The trouble is, too many carmakers sought the same refuge.

“When you get too many competitors with too much capacity, there’s just not enough growth to sustain everybody,” says Thomas Callarman, Shanghai-based director of the China Europe International Business School’s Centre for Automotive Research. “They’re all smart people, and they look at the right things, but I think they read the tea leaves wrong.”

For now, the China car market remains profitable. Chinese automakers accounted for 7 of the 10 carmakers with the highest profit margins in the world, with BMW’s Chinese partner, Brilliance China Automotive Holdings, topping the ranks at 8.2 percent in the past year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence. Toyota Motor’s margin was 7.6 percent. Hyundai Motor and Volkswagen’s Audi count China as their largest market, with Subaru maker Fuji Heavy Industries standing out as the only car manufacturer among the 10 most profitable that doesn’t have a factory in China.

-1x-1

Foreign carmakers have been among the most enthusiastic factory builders in China, with Hyundai, Renault, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Jeep among those that have announced plans or are already building in China.

GM will soon sell Buicks made at a plant that opened last month, with plans to open a Cadillac factory later this year. GM has 22 factories on the mainland. Volkswagen, which is vying with Toyota and GM for the global auto sales crown, has 28 plants in China and will open three more within the next few years.

Jochem Heizmann, who heads Volkswagen’s China business, told reporters in November that the automaker has decided to expand its China capacity to more than the previously targeted 4 million autos a year by 2018 because it couldn’t build enough to keep up with demand.

In the next few years, however, increased competition amid slowing growth in car sales will result in lower prices, says Yang Yipeng, a Beijing-based analyst at Goldman Sachs’s Chinese affiliate. As the world’s second-largest economy cools, vehicle sales are forecast to expand this year at just half of 2013’s 8 percent growth, to 21.3 million passenger vehicles. General Motors President Dan Ammann said in January that he expects China’s sales expansion to slow over the next few years after being the main engine for the global industry’s growth for 15 years. Volkswagen in November also said the pace of expansion is becoming “more normal” in China.

The spare capacity may force carmakers to increase sales incentives, hurting profit margins, Barclays says. “This is a heavy asset industry,” says Song Yang, an analyst at Barclays. “When utilization trends down, margins will trend down.” Already, car dealerships in China are asking for financial support and lower sales targets from carmakers after a combination of rapid expansion of sales networks and increased restrictions on vehicle ownership by city governments hurt their profits. BMW agreed last month to pay 5.1 billion yuan ($815 million) to its dealers. Toyota will give $200 million to the dealers of one of its joint-venture partners, FAW Group, while Renault, which is building a plant that opens in China next year, said it will give its distributors more rebates.

The bottom line: By 2017, plants in China will be able to produce 11.4 million more cars than will be sold there, JSC Automotive forecasts.

 

Click here to read this article at www.bloomberg.com

Qoros Names Former Head of GM China Operations as CEO

The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2015

Chinese Startup Car Maker Appoints Former GM Exec in Bid to Revive Fortunes
By Colum Murphy

BN-GT656_0203QO_J_20150203052536

Phil Murtaugh in Los Angeles on March 16, 2012. PHOTO: REUTERS

SHANGHAI—Chinese startup car maker Qoros Automotive Co. appointed the former head of General Motors Co.’s China operations as its new chief executive in a bid to revive its fortunes in the world’s largest car market.

Phil Murtaugh ’s appointment is effective immediately, a statement on the company’s website dated Monday said. He succeeds Guo Qian, who resigned in December as chairman and chief executive to return to Qoros partner Chery Automobile Co., according to a Qoros spokesman. Mr. Guo couldn’t be reached for comment, and a Chery spokesman said he had no immediate comment.

Qoros produces cars in China and is a 50-50 joint venture between China-based Chery and Israeli investment firm Israel Corp. It had hoped to woo customers in China with a mix of quality and affordability. But the brand sold just under 7,000 cars in China last year, the company’s first full year of sales, according to data from consultancy Automotive Foresight.

In October, Mr. Guo told The Wall Street Journal that awareness of the new Chinese auto brand in China was falling below company expectations. Anning Chen, a Chery executive, has succeeded Mr. Guo as chairman.

Stefano Villanti, head of sales, marketing and product strategy, has also recently left the company. He told The Wall Street Journal last October the startup period for the company had been “tougher than expected.” Mr. Villanti couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

In November, Israel Corp.’s controlling shareholder, billionaire Idan Ofer, reaffirmed his support for Qoros. This followed reports in Chinese media that the firm was considering pulling out of the venture.

Mr. Murtaugh is credited in the automotive industry with being a pioneer of GM ’s earlier successes in China and has spent almost 16 years in the country. Most recently, Mr. Murtaugh headed the now-defunct Chinese-invested electric-car manufacturer Coda Automotive Inc.

Bill Russo, managing director of consulting firm Gao Feng Advisory, who worked briefly with Mr. Murtaugh at Chrysler in China, said Mr. Murtaugh’s challenge will be to create a car that appeals to buyers, whether they are in China or elsewhere.

“The question is whether the world is waiting for a high-end Chinese car? So far the market is saying ’no,’” Mr. Russo said.

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