Auto Industry, Belt and Road, Talking Point

Li Shufu’s great car chase

Geely swoops for James Bond carmaker as its bid to go global continues


Nobody does it better: Lotus, the maker of the iconic Bond vehicle, is set to have a new Chinese owner

The cachet of carmaker Lotus likely peaked in 1977 when its Esprit model featured in The Spy Who Loved Me. The sleek white sports car was modified to do all sorts of things for James Bond, such as spraying oil into the path of chasing vehicles. Indeed, the car was arguably the star of the movie thanks to the memorable scene in which a pursued Bond drives it off a jetty into the Mediterranean, to the palpable shock of his passenger, a typically stunning female.

Played by the recently deceased Roger Moore, Bond then nonchalantly flicks a switch and converts the car into a submarine. The surprises don’t end there: displaying another of his car’s neat tricks, he launches a missile at the enemy helicopter hovering above, telling his beautiful companion it was “time to get rid of an uninvited guest” (cue raised eyebrow, Roger). The scene culminates with the British secret agent driving the English-built Lotus out of the sea onto a Sardinian beach, to the astonishment of sunbathing Italians.

Four years later the same car had a minor role in another Bond film For Your Eyes Only but by then Lotus was in financial trouble and in the decades ahead ownership switched between the Americans (General Motors), the Italians (businessman Romano Artiolo) and the Malaysians, when the country’s national carmaker Proton bought Lotus in 1996.

Now Lotus looks almost certain to become Chinese after Geely – the owner of Sweden’s Volvo – announced that it will buy a majority stake in Lotus and just under half of Proton. The move also has analysts wondering if Geely is emerging as China’s strongest carmaker overseas.

What is Geely buying in Proton?

The acquisition, similar to Li Shufu’s other international deals, will be led by Hangzhou-based Zhejiang Geely, through which Li controls the Hong Kong-listed Geely Automobile.

Speculation about Li’s latest deal has propelled the share price of Geely Automobile to a record high since February. Earlier, the Chinese firm’s executives had warned investors they might pull out of the deal, apparently because they feared overpaying amid a rival bid from French carmaker Groupe PSA, which owns the Peugeot and Citroen brands.

The U-turn came last week as Zhejiang Geely announced that it had agreed to buy a 49.9% stake in Proton and 51% of Lotus Cars. The company is still in talks with DRB-Hicom, the Malaysian firm which is selling the stakes, over the final price tag for Proton, while Lotus has been valued at $130 million. (Malaysian tycoon Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, who controls DRB-Hicom, will buy out the remaining stakes in Proton and Lotus himself.) Zhejiang Geely expects the deal to be concluded next month, pending regulatory approvals.

Proton was set up in 1983 by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as part of an industrialisation drive. However, the car firm has always lacked the scale to succeed outside Malaysia and it has struggled to impose itself in the region. According to Bloomberg, it accounted for 74% of new cars sold in Malaysia in 1993. But its share of the home market had dwindled to 12.5% last year as it struggled to compete with imported brands after tariffs were cut due to an ASEAN free trade pact.

Under Proton, Lotus has also lacked the investment it needed to boost sales of the British marque at the higher end of the market. Figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders in London suggest that the famed Esprit model sold just 339 units in Britain in 2016, for instance. The 21CN Business Herald also reports that Lotus was Rmb2 billion ($290 million) in debt despite repeated capital injections from Proton.

Why does Geely want Proton?

Geely already owns Volvo and London Taxi Corp, which manufactures the British capital’s iconic black cabs. The addition of Lotus Cars as a higher-end brand supports Li’s plan to create a portfolio of international brands at different price points, Bloomberg reports, just as “Volkswagen has Porsche and Toyota has its Lexus.”

Through Volvo – which has enjoyed three straight years of record sales in the wake of Geely’s takeover and turnaround – the Chinese firm has strengthened its presence in Europe and North America. The sales network of Lotus Cars will help Geely prepare for expansion in Britain. Geely is also buying Lotus Engineering, a sister company that operates as a consulting firm for other carmakers.

The agreement with Proton will strengthen its “global footprint and develop a beachhead in Southeast Asia,” according to Geely’s vice president Daniel Li. Acquiring the Proton plants will qualify Geely as a domestic producer in Malaysia, meaning its vehicles can be sold in other ASEAN markets without import duties. The region has more than 650 million consumers but car sales are dominated by cheaper, smaller Japanese models from the likes of Honda, Toyota and Nissan.

Chinese automakers have been trying to develop ASEAN as a market for some time but have made little progress. According to figures from the Malaysian government, Anhui-based Chery sold only 95 vehicles to Malaysians in the first quarter of this year, while Beijing Automobile sold half a dozen cars. In comparison, Honda and Toyota were sitting on a 30% market share over the same period.

“ASEAN is the backyard of the Japanese carmakers. The acquisition of Proton gives Geely a shortcut into the market. This is the curtain raiser for an inevitable battle between the Chinese and the Japanese brands,” Sina Auto reckons, adding that the Proton marque will be retained and boosted by Geely’s production platform to drive sales in other Southeast Asian markets.

Another area of focus is introduce new models to local customers. “In order to move fast into the market, part of the agreement is to inject a sports utility vehicle (SUV) platform into Proton and Geely offered their best-selling SUV to us without even batting an eyelid. This will enable Proton to enter a new segment and a segment that has grown tremendously over the last few years,” Syed Faisal of DRB-Hicom added.

To this end Geely is expected to make a sizeable investment to revitalise the Malaysian producer, which received about $500 million in government subsidies last year on the condition it found a foreign partner and came up with a turnaround plan.

Any political resistance?

There’s not likely to be regulatory opposition from the Chinese side. As Bloomberg has noted, Li Shufu is also betting that Geely will ride the wave of enthusiasm at governmental level for Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Just weeks before he announced the Proton deal, Li attended the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing (see WiC366) alongside 28 government heads, many from ASEAN nations (including Malaysian leader Najib Razak). Perhaps significantly, Li was chosen to represent China’s private sector car firms at the prestigious event.

Compared with the likes of HNA Group and Anbang, Geely has been less buccaneering in its global dealmaking. Aviation conglomerate HNA has splashed out heavily on a wide range of overseas assets, including a 10% stake in German lender Deutsche Bank (see WiC362). Zhejiang Geely has tended to stay focused on the auto sector, but it did buy 30% of Danish lender Saxo Bank for an undisclosed amount last month in a deal that will give the group better access to the Scandinavian financial sector. It also prompted China’s state media to describe the Geely-Volvo partnership as a highlight for relations between China and Scandinavian countries.

Geely’s ASEAN expansion could run into more resistance. Mahathir Mohamad, for one, has slammed the sale of a national brand to the Chinese. “They say Proton is my brainchild. Now the child of my brain has been sold,” the former Malaysian prime minister fumed on his personal blog. “I am a sissy. I cry even if Malaysians are dry-eyed. My child is lost. And soon my country.” (See Sinofile on page 17, for more from Mahathir on the Chinese.)

His remarks didn’t seem to enjoy much sympathy in Malaysia, with news outlets pointing out that Mahathir had travelled to China himself in 2014 to try to pull off a partnership between Proton and Geely. Syed Faisal also rebuffed any notion that Proton was being lost to the Chinese. “Yes, Proton is the first national car brand by virtue of it being the first car marque that Malaysia produced back in 1985. By the same token, DRB-Hicom retaining 50.1% equity means that we still own the majority stake and the brand remains a national brand, a national car,” he argued.

Back in China, the concern was more whether Geely can forge a healthy relationship with the Malaysian government.

“Geely owns Volvo entirely but it is only a minority shareholder in Proton,” an auto analyst warned on Tencent Auto.

How have investors reacted?

Buoyed by reports of the Proton deal, Geely Automobile’s share price climbed 20% in May alone. Since the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect commenced operation in November 2014, Geely Automobile has also become one of the most actively bought stocks for “southbound” investors from Shanghai. Indeed, in that time the Zhejiang-based company’s value has nearly quadrupled.

In comparison Shenzhen investors have proven less supportive of BYD, their home-based automaker, which has been vying with Geely to become the leading national auto brand. A similar Shenzhen-Hong Kong Stock Connect launched in December last year but BYD’s share price has stayed largely flat, with a market value of about HK$130 billion ($16.68 billion).

As a result Geely Automobile has been catching up fast. Over the past 12 months, its market capitalisation has more than doubled to HK$113 billion, with the benchmark Hang Seng Index (HSI) climbing 23% during the same period. In March Geely Automobile made its debut in the HSI, the first Chinese carmaker to be included in the Hong Kong’s blue-chip index. Its entry came as a surprise to many analysts, given that Geely’s market cap trails BYD and Guangzhou Automobile (GAC). Backed by the Guangzhou government, the latter was worth HK$155 billion as of this week.

So Geely is leading the race among China’s automakers?

Geely’s biggest rivals are the state-backed car manufacturers listed in Shanghai, most notably SAIC Motor (valued at Rmb340 billion, or $49.9 billion). But companies like SAIC have been criticised for depending on the sales of premium international brands that they produce with their foreign joint ventures, rather than developing homegrown cars.

Private sector automakers including Geely, BYD and Great Wall Auto have been more conscious of cultivating their own technology and brands. BYD has bet heavily on electric vehicles. Great Wall has chosen to focus more on lower-priced vehicles targeted at China’s mass market, although its shares have struggled since delays in the launch of new models of its SUV brand Haval in 2015 (Great Wall’s market value is HK$109 billion).

According to Tencent Auto, Geely is the carmaker that has made the most significant inroads overseas. “The Proton deal now has Geely copying what foreign automakers have been doing in China for years: exchanging market share [in ASEAN countries] with patented technologies,” the news portal suggests, adding that a separate spin-off for Volvo, which Zhejiang Geely purchased in 2010 for $1.8 billion (see WiC361), is set to boost its international exposure further.

Moreover, Hong Kong’s Apple Daily has suggested that investors ought to pay close attention to Geely shares as a “Xi Jinping concept stock” because the Chinese leader is viewed as a supporter of Geely as a national brand.

The newspaper notes that Geely expanded quickly between 2002 and 2007 (Geely Automobile went public in Hong Kong in 2005). Significantly this was also the period in which Xi was serving as a top official in its homebase, Zhejiang province. And as China’s vice president in 2010, Xi also timed his visit to Sweden to attend the signing of Geely’s deal to buy Volvo.

Eagle-eyed netizens have even suggested that Li Shufu’s wife has the same name as the younger sister of Peng Liyuan, Xi’s wife. Such coincidences sound trivial but for some they reinforce the notion that Geely is enjoying high-level support – and crucially that it might have been identified as China’s best chance of producing a carmaker capable of selling multiple brands across multiple continents.

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