Marchionne’s Fiat Review Spurs Great Wall Interest in Jeep Brand

Bloomberg News, August 21, 2017

Sergio Marchionne’s plans to review Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s businesses has one Chinese company expressing interest in purchasing its Jeep division, as Asian carmakers continue to seek European and American brands in search of technology and new markets.

A spokesman for Baoding, China-based Great Wall Motor Co. didn’t say whether the two companies have begun negotiations.  Fiat Chrysler manufactures Jeeps in China with local partner Guangzhou Automobile Group Co., which said it doesn’t have plans to buy the SUV brand. Fiat Chrysler declined to comment.  Great Wall Chairman Wei Jianjun has been trying to steer the SUV maker to sell pricier and more profitable models, recently introducing a new premium brand named WEY. Acquiring Jeep would put Great Wall on a similar path as Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., which bought Sweden’s Volvo Cars and recently sealed a majority stake purchase of Lotus, the British sports-car brand.

“From an SUV manufacturer’s point of view, to have a premium brand of the top of the portfolios, it makes sense,” said Bill Russo, managing director of Gao Feng Advisory Co. and a former head of Fiat Chrysler’s Chrysler unit in China. “But outside of off-road technology, Jeep is not necessarily known as a brand with strong technology pipeline in terms of EVs and autonomous driving. If you look at the future, the technology improvement it brings to Great Wall can be limited.”

Shares of Great Wall gained 2 percent to HK$10.12 as of 2:57 p.m. in Hong Kong trading. Fiat shares jumped to a record in Milan trading. The stock gained as much as 3.1 percent to
11.03 euros, valuing the company at 16.45 billion euros ($19 billion).

Premium SUVs

Building a full-fledged luxury marque would take years with no promise of success. A purchase of Jeep, however, would give the Chinese automaker a stable of world-famous models from the
Cherokee to the Wrangler. At a starting price of 209,800 yuan ($31,400), the Cherokee would also catapult Great Wall into the premium end of the market.

With prices beginning at 88,800 yuan, Great Wall’s H6 competes in a crowded field. In that price range, consumers have a wide array of SUVs to choose from, from Geely Automobile
Holdings Ltd.’s Boyue, Guangzhou Auto’s Trumpchi GS4 and Chongqing Changan Automobile Co.’s CS75 to BAIC Motor Corp.’s X65, to name just a few.

While buying Jeep would give Great Wall a boost in branding, it would also “face big challenges in the near future as the government tightens up requirements on emissions and oil consumption, just like Hummer, which was undermined by the U.S. emission rules years ago,” said John Zeng, LMC’s Shanghai-based managing director.

Chinese regulators in 2010 blocked the acquisition of General Motors Co.’s gas-guzzling Hummer brand by Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co., saying the company
didn’t provide a reasonable purchase plan.  Chairman Wei has warned of rising competition in the entry-level SUV segment.  The company is rolling out the new WEY nameplate at a time when sales of its flagship Haval H6 model, which accounts for half of its total deliveries, declined 5.5 percent to 263,872 units in the first seven months of this year.

Great Wall will probably report a 79 percent plunge in second-quarter net income to 537 million yuan later this week, according to the average analyst estimate compiled by Bloomberg.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story:
Yan Zhang in Beijing at yzhang1044@bloomberg.net;
Tommaso Ebhardt in Milan at tebhardt@bloomberg.net
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Anand Krishnamoorthy at anandk@bloomberg.net
Chua Kong Ho, Sam Nagarajan

Chinese Billionaire Adopts English Name in Bid to Sell More SUVs

Bloomberg News, April 18, 2017

Most auto executives have reasons to feel at ease after hitting the one-million annual sales mark in China, an exclusive club that includes General Motors Co. and Volkswagen AG. For Great Wall Motor Co.’s Wei Jianjun, the feat stoked fears that the SUV maker may be doomed.

Wei Jianjun

That’s because history is littered with companies that grew big but eventually failed because their products became a commodity and lacked the star power to create clamor among customers, according to the chairman of the manufacturer that has kept a 14-year streak as China’s top SUV seller.

“Moving up is testimony of a company’s strength; if you can’t, you’ll disappear the way Nokia did after Apple muscled in on their turf,” Wei said during a recent interview in Hong Kong, as he recalled how the iPhone maker upended the mobile-phone industry and eventually toppled the erstwhile Finnish leader.

Wei’s paranoia signals the maturing of the world’s largest auto market, where an increasingly sophisticated middle class is no longer satisfied with cheap, me-too products. China’s more successful homegrown automakers, also including Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. — the owner of Volvo Cars — and BYD Co., have embarked on efforts to burnish their nameplates in the belief that with more than 100 brands competing for buyers, the fight will be won by those who look beyond price competition to create income streams from products with higher profit margins.

Premium Nameplate

For Great Wall’s Wei, it turns out, the effort also involves adopting the English name “Jack Wey” and creating the premium nameplate “WEY.” Sales of the brand’s first model that has features such as a warning system for lane changes are set to begin at the Shanghai auto show this week, and another three models will be added this year, Wei said.

Wei, a native of Baoding born in 1964, has built Great Wall into China’s top seller of SUVs without leaning on any foreign partners, and by offering consumers spacious models at cheaper prices than sedans such as Volkswagen’s Passat and GM’s Buick. That strategy helped boost deliveries to a record 1.07 million units last year, outpacing industrywide growth.

At 26 — and after several factory jobs — Wei took over a small car-modification business and turned it into a van maker. He later shifted focus to pickup trucks after witnessing their popularity in Thailand. Small business owners and farmers turned Great Wall’s Deer into China’s most popular pickup brand by 1998. And in 2002, he rolled out the first Haval SUV model. The popular Haval H6 accounted for more than half of the company’s deliveries last year.

The idea for going upscale came just over four years ago when branding guru Al Ries, chairman of the Atlanta-based market-strategy firm Ries & Ries that counts Microsoft Corp. and Ford Motor Co. among its clients, advised Wei to create a separate brand. “Jack Wey” would help foreigners get around the difficulty of pronouncing Wei’s name in Chinese, Wei was told.

Staying Competitive

“A new idea requires a new brand name. To keep a company competitive in the future requires a constant launch of new concepts,” said Ries. “The future belongs to multiple brand companies, not single-brand companies.”

As Chinese consumers shift their tastes away from sedans, demand for roomier SUVs is surging, with such vehicles accounting for 37 percent of the total sales last year, up from 5.7 percent a decade ago. Still, the introduction of WEY comes at a time when new models are flooding the market. PSA Group to Hyundai Motor Co. are boosting their lineup in the segment. Geely, owned by billionaire Li Shufu, will start selling the first SUV model under its new upscale Lynk & Co. from the fourth quarter, using the same platform adopted by affiliate Volvo Cars.

“We added WEY brand to prepare for the SUV market to enter the price competition era,” said Wei, who has a net worth of $5.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. “Sales of WEY brand cars will bring us higher profit margins and with the rising sales volume, it will make bigger contribution to Great Wall’s bottom line.”

Shares of Great Wall fell 2.2 percent to HK$8.91 as of 3:19 p.m. in Hong Kong. The benchmark Hang Seng Index declined 1.1 percent.

Target Buyers

WEY carries features usually found in more-expensive foreign models, such as a cruise control that maintains a safe distance from the car ahead. The marque targets buyers who patronize brands such as Kate Spade, Calvin Klein and DKNY, according to Wei.

Wei estimates the new brand will have a gross profit margin of about 27 percent. Great Wall is more profitable than some of its peers including General Motors and Volkswagen.

“Even successful mass-market players like Hyundai have struggled to add brands above their mainstream brand,” said Bill Russo, managing director of Gao Feng Advisory Co. and a former head of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Chrysler unit in China. “In the age of hardware commoditization, he will need a key feature to attract upscale consumers or a unique selling proposition. The odds are against him, but he’s beaten the odds so far.”

Great Wall is targeting to sell 56,000 units of WEY brand vehicles this year, competing with Toyota Motor Corp.’s RAV-4, Honda Motor Co.’s CRV and Volkswagen’s Tiguan SUVs. The first model will be priced in the 150,000 yuan to 200,000 yuan ($22,000 to $29,000) range, according to Wei. That would put the vehicle in the same bracket as Great Wall’s H8 and H9 models.

Wei, who rues the fact that his company didn’t change its strategy quickly enough to focus only on SUVs, isn’t satisfied with being leader in the segment just at home. Great Wall is in the process of selecting a site in the U.S. to assemble Haval vehicles after reviewing an earlier plan for Mexico. Wei wants Haval to surpass Jeep and Land Rover becoming the world’s biggest SUV brand by 2020 and Haval H6 to become the global No. 1 by then.

“By counting on a strong domestic market, we will develop our global business and build our brands into global ones,” Wei said. “It’s a huge challenge and a golden opportunity as well.”

— With assistance by Tian Ying

 

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.

How China Brands Took Over the World’s Hottest SUV Market

Bloomberg News, April 16, 2015

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BYD Co.’s Sport-Utility Vehicles

BYD Co. S6 sport-utility vehicles (SUV) move along the production line at the company’s assembly plant in the Pingshan district of Shenzhen, China. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

After years of losing out to foreign brands, China’s automakers are winning in the world’s hottest SUV market by employing a tried-and-tested strategy: offering them cheap.

By flooding the market with comparable models at lower prices, Chinese automakers accounted for eight of the 10 bestselling sport utility vehicles in the first quarter, crowding out global nameplates like Toyota Motor Corp.’s RAV4 and Honda Motor Co.’s CR-V.

Chinese-branded SUV sales more than doubled in the first quarter to overtake foreign nameplates in the segment this year, accounting for 56 percent of all deliveries, according to data from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. At the Shanghai auto show next week, Honda will unveil a full-sized SUV concept that will compete for attention with local offerings like BYD Co.’s new Song and Yuan SUVs.

“A significant number of Chinese consumers are looking for a more affordable alternative to premium-priced foreign SUVs,” said Bill Russo, a Shanghai-based managing director at consultant Gao Feng Advisory. “Foreign automakers now need to price more aggressively as the market matures and becomes more hyper-competitive.”

Almost half of the new and refreshed passenger vehicles slated for debut this year in China are SUVs, with about three-quarters of them from local automakers, according to estimates by Bloomberg Intelligence.

Cheaper SUVs

Global automakers are competing against names little known outside China: Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Co.’s Ruifeng S3, BAIC Motor Corp.’s Huansu and Chongqing Changan Automobile Co.’s CS35 all rank in the top 10 by sales. Great Wall Motor Co.’s H6, the most popular SUV in China, costs about half the price of Volkswagen AG’s Tiguan.

The average price of the bestselling Chinese SUVs in the first quarter was was 82,900 yuan ($13,380), versus 167,300 yuan for the foreign makes, according to dealership quotations compiled by Autohome, a car-pricing website.

The addition of new models is being accompanied by a surge in production. Annual output of SUVs in China is estimated to reach more than 7.04 million units in 2018, up from 4.32 million last year, according to researcher IHS Automotive.

Rare Win

The SUV success represents a rare win for China’s automakers, which have struggled despite heavy government intervention. Foreign companies are required to set up joint ventures with local carmakers to operate in the country, sharing profits and technology.

Utility vehicle sales accounted for 24 percent of the total passenger-vehicle market in the first quarter. Local carmakers have been fast to catch the shift in consumer preference from traditional sedans to more spacious crossovers, and fill the gap in the market for lower-priced alternatives.

“It’s about time Chinese automakers gained back some territory after losing out to foreign brands for so many years,” said Cao He, a Beijing-based analyst at China Minzu Securities Co. “But they have to watch their backs and make sure the growth is sustainable and they don’t put all their eggs in one basket.”