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.”

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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.

Premium carmakers see China drama ahead

The Financial Times, August 30, 2015

Click here to read this article at FT.com

by Andy Sharman, Motor Industry Correspondent

China’s stock market crash this week brought a jolting end to an uncomfortable summer for most of the world’s carmakers, who in past years had enjoyed a smooth ride in the industry’s most profitable market.

For the luxury marques, though, the pain had begun a while back.

A crackdown on ostentatious consumption had threatened to depress sales for the likes of Bentley and Rolls-Royce, ever since Chinese president Xi Jinping launched his anti-corruption campaign in 2013.

This year, the impact has started to show. “Everyone’s really hurting,” says one executive at a luxury carmaker.

A combination of a slowing economy, restrictions on registration plates in larger cities to ease congestion, and increasing consumer appetite for domestic brands — all against the backdrop of the anti-corruption drive — have created a difficult environment for western manufacturers.

“All of these factors have a more direct correlation to sales than a volatile stock market,” says Bill Russo, a Shanghai-based consultant.

Even so, the sudden deceleration in Chinese car sales came as a surprise to some — not least when sales went into reverse in recent months. In July, car sales fell for a second consecutive month, by 6.6 per cent, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

Some analysts believe that the scale of the decline is such that multinational manufacturers such as Volkswagen and BMW — respectively the parent companies of Bentley and Rolls-Royce — will be forced to warn on profits in the coming weeks.

“Please keep in mind that we still have some drama ahead of us,” says Max Warburton, an analyst at Bernstein Research.

It amounts to a startling turn in fortunes for the car industry.

But registrations of luxury and ultra-luxury vehicles were down almost 10 per cent year-on-year in the first six months of 2015, based on figures from Bernstein Research.

devaluation of the Chinese currency has not helped, making already expensive European cars even more so.

This has taken a heavy toll on exports of British-made models. Bentley, which counts China as its second-biggest market, reported worldwide first-half sales down almost 12 per cent to 4,600 units. It was a similar story at Rolls-Royce, for which global deliveries fell 10 per cent to about 2,000 cars in the first half. Neither manufacturer breaks out six-month sales by country, but domestic peer Jaguar Land Rover offered a window to the state of the world’s largest car market: sales in China were down 27 per cent in the first half.

Not all luxury car brands have suffered such declines. Porsche, maker of the Cayenne sport utility vehicle, reported sales up 48 per cent in the first half of the year.

But volumes to not tell the full story. China’s economic headwinds have already created what analysts describe as a “hyper-competitive” market. Porsche has admitted that dealers, independent of the company, have been cutting the price of its Panamera sports car by as much as 20 per cent. Chinese pricing website Bitauto also carries examples of Bentley Flying Spurs and Rolls-Royce Wraiths discounted by a similar percentage.

To put that in context, in the past, western luxury cars typically sold at a premium to their list prices in China.

For some companies, this turnround is already having an effect. China accounts for more than 60 per cent of JLR’s earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation, according to Bernstein — and the country’s slowdown has caused net income to almost halve at parent company Tata Motors. Similarly, Bentley’s operating profit fell from €95m to €54m in the first half.

Both companies, however — having ridden the tide of rising wealth in China for several years — are outwardly calm.

“Don’t worry,” said Wolfgang Dürheimer, Bentley chief executive, speaking to the FT last month. “Of course we need to take the slowdown of the market seriously but . . . I strongly believe in the Chinese market. There are some changes going on at present, but on the long-term view it will be a very profitable basis for us.”

Industry executives point to low car density — less than one in 10 people drive in China — and a still growing middle class as growth opportunities. Bentley and Rolls-Royce, for example, plan to launch SUVs — increasingly the vehicle of choice in China — over the next two years.

Amid the turmoil this week came another cause for optimism. Alongside the interest-rate cut announced on Tuesday by the China’s central bank was a targeted intervention in the car industry: the country reduced by 300 basis points the reserve ratio required to be held by auto financing and leasing companies, potentially increasing the funds available to car buyers in the country.

It seemed to suggest that China was committed to supporting car sales. But with two-thirds of premium auto purchases still made in cash, the impact may initially prove limited.