China’s carmakers have yet to make their marque

The Financial Times, February 3, 2014

By Tom Mitchell in Wuhan
  • Thousands of cars sit outside the Dongfeng-Peugeot Citroen plant in Wuhan awaiting shipment
    Crowded lot: thousands of cars sit outside the Dongfeng-Peugeot Citroen plant in Wuhan awaiting shipment. High production from the joint venture contrasts with Dongfeng’s own plants
  • Dongfeng’s Aeolus S30: the Chinese carmaker has four successful joint ventures, but it has struggled with its own branded vehicles. These account for less than 10 per cent of annual sales

Aside from a few Communist Youth League banners and a summary of the reforms unveiled at the Chinese Communist party’s third plenum last November, there is little to distinguish Dongfeng’s wholly-owned Aeolus car plant from its nearby joint venture with Peugeot Citroën and Honda.

Situated in a development zone in Wuhan, an industrial city in central China, the Aeolus factory has borrowed equipment and manufacturing systems from both Peugeot and Nissan, state-owned Dongfeng’s third joint venture partner.

Wheels in motion

Passenger car exports

The parking lots outside each plant, however, tell a different story. While thousands of cars are lined up outside Dongfeng’s Peugeot and Honda factories in Wuhan, awaiting shipment to distributors across the world’s largest car market, its Aeolus factory produces only about 300 vehicles a day, or about 100,000 units annually.

Dongfeng, one of China’s “Big Three” car groups alongside Shanghai Auto and First Auto Works, has more joint ventures with international car groups than any of its domestic peers. Including Korean partner Hyundai, it currently operates four joint ventures and signed a fifth partnership agreement in December with Renault. The Wuhan-based company is also poised to take a 14 per cent stake in Peugeot as part of €3bn capital raising.

Dongfeng’s four joint ventures account for more than 90 per cent of the group’s annual passenger car sales, dwarfing those of its own Aeolus brand. It is an imbalance shared by all of China’s state-owned car companies and helps explain why the country that boasts the world’s biggest car market has, unlike Japan and Korea before it, thus far failed to produce a national champion of its own that can compete globally.

“On the plus side, joint ventures spin off a tremendous amount of profit for the state-owned enterprises that they’re affiliated with,” says Bill Russo of Synergistics, an industry consultancy. “On the negative side, those profits are a drug that you become dependent on. Chinese car companies haven’t really been successful at investing them into their own branded vehicles.”

Last month, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers announced that the country’s car sales grew more than 15 per cent last year to 18m units – almost triple the number sold in 2008. During this period, the market share of Chinese brands peaked at 31 per cent in 2010 and has since fallen to 27 per cent. Meanwhile, China’s 2013 car exports fell almost 10 per cent year on year to just 596,300 units – accounting for only 3.3 per cent of total production.

Imports, meanwhile, nearly tripled to 1.1m vehicles, driven by strong demand for luxury vehicles. While China exports more cars to Algeria than any other country – with its next biggest markets being Russia, Chile and Iran – the largest source of its own automotive imports is Germany.

“The quality of Chinese cars currently can’t compete with multinationals,” says Yao Jie, deputy secretary-general of the association. “We need to work harder to improve domestic brands.” According to CAAM, last year China’s 10 most popular models, led by the Ford Focus, were all manufactured by Sino-foreign joint ventures.

“Most Chinese state car companies know how to bolt a car together,” agrees Max Warburton, car analyst with Bernstein Research. “But replicating a foreign manufacturing system is not a particularly valuable skill set. Real skills lie in product development and in future technology.”

On a tour of Dongfeng’s Aeolus plant, employees are humble but also determined. “I feel that we can catch up but it will take a long time, perhaps 10 years,” says Huang Mingke, a line manager who gave up a job with Dongfeng’s Peugeot joint venture even though the Aeolus plant generally pays lower wages than the joint ventures. “We are investing a lot in critical components, such as engines and transmissions.”
“Although we have borrowed some advanced management techniques from Peugeot and Nissan, it’s only a foundation on which we are building,” adds Tao Haiying, a company official. “We can study and absorb their best practices as we create our own.”

Many analysts believe Dongfeng and its domestic peers will have to sort out their competitive issues at home before they can emerge as a threat overseas. “Maybe China can do something that no one else has, but I haven’t ever seen a car company become a successful exporter without having stable development in their home market first,” says Mr Russo. “You have to achieve a certain size and scale at home before you can compete away.”

The challenge for China’s car companies will be to achieve this in the world’s most competitive automotive industry. When Japanese and Korean carmakers broke out in the 1970s and 1980s, they did so from the shelter of protected home markets.

Dongfeng’s pending deal with Peugeot and Geely’s acquisition of Sweden’s Volvo in 2010 suggest another way forward. What Chinese car companies lack in experience and technical expertise, they can make up for in cash.

Last year Geely established a research centre in Sweden, while Peugeot offers Dongfeng a tempting short-cut in some key areas. “Peugeot has kept spending through the [global financial] crisis,” notes Mr Warburton at Bernstein Research. “So even though its finances are a mess it does have basic platforms, power trains and transmissions that are fully competitive. Dongfeng doesn’t have any of that.”

Additional reporting by Wan Li

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