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.

Geely set to unveil mid-tier brand

China Daily, October 15, 2016

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A Geely Auto’s SUV model Emgrand GS is presented at the Auto China 2016 show in Beijing.
[Photo/ REUTERS]

Chinese billionaire Li Shufu will test whether there’s room for another global car brand by introducing a new marque next week, built on technology jointly developed by his two car companies, Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd and Volvo Cars.

The new brand, called Lynk & Co, will be unveiled on Oct 20 in Berlin and share its underpinnings with Volvo Cars models. Sales are slated to start in the second half of next year, with the first model likely being a sport utility vehicle, according to Geely Auto Chief Executive Officer Gui Shengyue, declining to provide more details ahead of the official announcement.

“The new brand carries great importance for Geely’s development,” Gui said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “We are currently competing against other local car brands, as well as high-end brands with Volvo Cars.” Lynk & Co will help Geely fight against other mass-market foreign brands, he said.

The new mid-tier brand comes about two years after Li killed three sub-brands and unified its models under the Geely nameplate. The new marque, to be produced in China but distributed globally, will allow Geely to compete in the lower end of the market while freeing Volvo Cars to focus on the premium end.

Even so, any new brand would have to fight for consumer acceptance in a market crowded with more than 100 passenger-vehicle nameplates. Geely’s Lynk & Co will join newcomers such as Borgward Group AG, a defunct German brand revived by Chinese State-owned BAIC Group, and a host of electric vehicle startups in trying to carve out a niche.

Geely has some advantages because the new brand would have access to a platform and technology from Volvo, and it may have better insight as a Chinese company in how to tap growth in faster-growing smaller cities, said Bill Russo, managing director of Gao Feng Advisory Co.

“The market is not asking for yet another brand, unless it brings a clear and unique proposition,” Russo said. “I assume Geely has learned a lot from its previous failed multi-brand strategy which they’re unlikely to repeat.”

Li purchased Volvo Cars from Ford Motor Co in 2010 for $1.5 billion and has rejuvenated the Swedish automaker with an $11 billion modernization and investment program. The company unveiled the XC90 in 2014, the first model wholly developed under Geely’s ownership, followed by the revamped S90 luxury sedan.

Bloomberg

Click here to read the article at China Daily

Volvo: Remaking the marque

The Financial Times, June 19, 2016

Under Geely, the carmaker is back in profit and selling well in China. But is it big enough to compete with its rivals?

There is nothing exceptional about the shiny grey chassis on display in western Sweden. Its wheels, suspension and engine are all where you would expect to find them. But it stands out because of what it represents: tangible evidence of progress in one of the most daring industrial stories of recent years.

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Known as compact modular architecture, it is a shared platform destined to underpin the small vehicles made by both Volvo Cars, the Swedish premium manufacturer, and its owner Geely, the Chinese mass-market brand. “This is a bridge between the two companies,” says Mats Fagerhag, head of the joint venture that created the platform. “Everything is nice words before you start a common project and face hard facts.”

Click here to read the full article at FT.com

Bill Russo’s quote:

“The most important thing [Geely] has done is to help Volvo become a China-centric company,” says Bill Russo, a Shanghai-based consultant. “Geely has shifted Volvo from being a marginally global company situated in Scandinavia to being a global one centred in China.”

Chinese firms accelerate in race toward driverless future

AFP Newswires, April 23, 2016

 

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Chinese Internet giant LeECO Holdings Ltd unveils its internet electric battery driverless concept car ‘LeSEE’,  during a launch event in Beijing, on April 20, 2016

 

Beijing: Chinese manufacturers and internet giants are in hot pursuit of their US counterparts in the race to design driverless cars, but the route to market is still littered with potholes.

While Google has been working on autonomous vehicles for at least six years, with the likes of BMW, Volvo and Toyota in its wake, more recently Chinese businesses have entered the race, from internet search giant Baidu to manufacturer Changan.

Last week, ahead of the Beijing Auto Show opening on Monday, two self-driving Changan cars made a mountainous 2,000 kilometre (1,200 mile) journey from Chongqing in the southwest to the capital in the country’s first long-distance autonomous vehicle test.

Another Chinese internet giant, LeECO, is also venturing into autonomous technologies, unveiling Wednesday in Beijing an electric car that can park itself and be summoned to its owner’s location via smartphone.

And late last year Baidu tested China’s first locally designed driverless vehicle, a modified BMW, with a 30 kilometre ride through the streets of Beijing.

Despite China’s relatively late entry to the field, analysts believe the country could become a key market for driverless vehicles thanks to a more favourable regulatory and consumer environment.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) forecasts that global sales of driverless cars will reach 12 million by 2035, with more than a quarter sold in China.

Vehicles which automatically adjust their routes in response to real-time traffic information could solve chronic gridlock in China’s major cities, BCG’s Xavier Mosquet told AFP.

“If they believe this would ease traffic, Chinese authorities will do all they can to promote the development of this technology and then its use,” he said.

Robot taxis

Public concerns over the safety of driverless cars are far lower than elsewhere, according to a survey by Roland Berger consultants in 2015, which found 96 per cent of Chinese would consider an autonomous vehicle for almost all everyday driving, compared with 58 per cent of Americans and Germans.

In a country notorious for accidents, the promise of better safety through autonomous technologies could also be appealing.

The ultimate prize, say analysts, will be when mass transport firms such as taxi-hailing giant Uber, or its Chinese rival Didi, can deploy huge fleets of robot taxis.

“The real payoff for truly driverless technology will come when cars on the road are no longer owned by people, but are owned by fleet management services,” said Bill Russo, managing director of the consultancy firm Gao Feng.

“That’s where you want to think about taking the driver out of the equation. Mobility on demand is hugely popular here.”

In the Roland Berger survey, 51 per cent of Chinese car owners said they would prefer to use robot taxis rather than buy a new vehicle themselves, compared with 26 per cent of Americans.

With a ready market, China may soon become the top location for companies to refine driverless technology.

Swedish manufacturer Volvo, owned by China’s Geely since 2010, this month announced plans to test drive up to 100 of its vehicles on Chinese roads this year.

Changan, a partner of Ford, is set to roll out commercial autonomous vehicles for motorways from 2018, while mass production of driverless city cars is projected to begin in 2025.

‘Does the car choose?’

Baidu, meanwhile, says it will launch self-driving buses by 2018, which will operate on fixed routes in select cities in China.

Like Google, the internet giant already owns detailed road maps and has experience in electronic security, and a company spokeswoman told AFP it had had “very positive feedback” from the government.

But analysts are more cautious, predicting slow-moving autonomous vehicles will not appear in towns until at least 2020.

Production costs were still too high to make a robot taxi fleet viable, BCG’s Mosquet said.

“There are still many questions to be resolved” before fully autonomous vehicles can be put into public use, said Jeremy Carlson, a senior analyst for IHS.

He pointed to “chaotic traffic situations” on roads shared with cyclists and pedestrians, and less-than-adequate infrastructure.

Technology will be the first to see solutions, he said, but that still left regulation and issues around liability and insurance to be addressed.

For some, there are moral dilemmas as well.

“If you have someone jumping out in front of an autonomous car, does the car have to choose between killing that person, or swerving and crashing and killing the passenger?” asked Robin Zhu, senior analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein.

“If your car could choose to kill you, would you get in it?”

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-04-chinese-firms-driverless-future.html#jCp

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.”