China’s indigenous brand policy backfires

The Financial Times, May 5, 2014

Even the most ardent car lovers would struggle to identify some of the vehicles built by major multinational auto companies in China.

BMW Brilliance Zinoro, an SGMW Baojun and a Dongfeng Nissan Venucia are among the “indigenous” brands that the Chinese government requires foreign-invested joint ventures to develop in return for approvals to expand production capacity in the world’s largest auto market.

SGMW – GM’s joint venture with SAIC Motor and Liuzhou Wuling Motors – embraced the dictat by developing popular Baojun sedans and mini-cars. SGMW sold more than 100,000 Baojuns in 2013, up almost 20 per cent.

Priced at just Rmb50,000 ($8,000) to Rmb70,000, Baojun’s success has come primarily at the expense of China’s struggling domestic automakers, suggesting that the policy has had at least one unintended consequence.

“After several decades in China, the earliest models introduced by the foreign joint ventures are now priced as cheaply as Chinese brands,” Liu Bo, vice-president of Chang’an Auto, said at a seminar held in conjunction with April’s Beijing car show. “Their ability to focus global R&D resources on the China market is putting a lot of pressure on us.”

March sales of Chinese brand sedans fell 12 per cent year-on-year, as local automakers lost their market lead in the segment to their German rivals led by VW. “The indigenous brand policy is really dumb because all it does is cannibalise the local Chinese brands,” said Janet Lewis, head of Macquarie Securities industrials research team in Hong Kong.

The damage that Baojun and other joint ventures’ indigenous brands, such as Nissan and Dongfeng Motors’ Venucia, are inflicting on Chinese car companies could explain why the government does not appear to be putting much pressure on multinationals who have only done the bare minimum.

BMW’s joint venture with Brilliance Auto “rebadged” the German company’s X1 and electrified it for China’s anaemic new energy vehicle market – thus avoiding confusion with its better selling conventional cars – while Ford has yet to reveal its local contribution to the market.

“Zinoro is a brand of our joint venture here in China,” Karsten Engel, BMW’s country head, said at the Beijing car show. “It’s a brand only for China. It’s based a little bit on the BMW X1.”

BMW chose not to display the Zinoro at the show, instead highlighting its premium i3 electric car. “BMW’s i3 could generate interest in China,” said Bill Russo, founder of industry consultancy Synergistics. “Zinoro doesn’t have the brand panache. Even if it’s an X1 [customers] want to be able to call it what it is.”

The Chinese government’s indigenous brand requirement is particularly challenging for Ford as it runs counter to outgoing chief executive Alan Mulally’s “one Ford” strategy, under which the company jettisoned brands such as Jaguar Land Rover and Volvo Cars to focus on a narrower portfolio.

“We were trying to be world class at so many things,” said Mr Mulally, adding that the strategy was in keeping with the vision of the company’s eponymous founder. “Henry [Ford] wanted to be part of the fabric of economic development in every country in which he operated but he didn’t know that Ford would have a different Ford in every country.”

John Lawler, the head of Ford’s China operations, insisted that the US automaker is in compliance with Chinese government policy mandates, even though it still has not rolled out an indigenous brand.

“We’re satisfying all the requirements from the government but at this point there really isn’t anything for us to announce relative to an indigenous brand or anything along those lines,” said Mr Lawler.

Additional reporting by Wan Li

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

Click here to read this article at FT.com

Bill Russo to Chair Automotive Panel Discussion at 19th CLSA Forum in Beijing

Beijing, China, May 12, 2014

Venue:  Grand Hyatt Hotel, Beijing
Time:  11:30am

Panel Discussion Overview:

China’s Automotive Market in Transition

Following a decade of rapid growth that culminated in a stimulus-driven surge in demand in 2009-2010, the China auto market sharply decelerated, with growth slipping to 2.5% in 2011 and 4.3% in 2012.  This brief slowdown was followed by 14% growth in 2013, with overall sales exceeding 22 million units.  While the market growth has been spectacular, there are rising concerns on the sustainability of this performance as the market may be approaching a saturation point in the traditionally strong coastal regions.  Intense competition among automakers as they pursue emerging growth opportunities in specific regions and segments is anticipated.  The aim of this session is to discuss opportunities and challenges faced by different competitors as they deal with this a transitional period in the world’s largest automotive market.

  • Opportunities and challenges in luxury and imported vehicles market
  • Opportunities and challenges in emerging provinces and cities, as well as in second and third tier cities
  • Sales and marketing strategies to exploit these opportunities
  • Strategies to diversify profit streams and maximize profit opportunities
  • Structural changes that may occur as the market transitions to a slower growth pattern

Mr. Uwe Stadtler, CEO of BMW Automotive Finance (China) Co., Ltd.
Mr. Manto Wong, CFO, Ford China
Dr. Joerg Mull, China EVP and CFO, Volkswagen China

Moderated by:
Mr. Bill Russo