Chinese carmaker Geely shifts gear with Proton

Proton's Lotus provides Geely Automobile Holdings with diversification into the sports cars segment.
Proton's Lotus provides Geely Automobile Holdings with diversification into the sports cars segment. PHOTO: REUTERS

Acquisition can give Geely an entree into South-east Asia

China's most acquisitive auto mogul is at it again.

Mr Li Shufu, founder and controlling shareholder of Geely Automobile Holdings, is adding another distressed asset to the trophy cabinet he has assembled over the past decade.

His holding company, Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, has agreed to buy half of Proton Holdings, Malaysia's former national champion carmaker, the Chinese company said in a statement on Wednesday.

Mr Li can add Proton - propped up by Kuala Lumpur with a RM1.5 billion (S$486 million) loan in April last year - to a collection of waifs and strays that includes Volvo Car AB and the London Taxi Corp, makers of that city's famed black cabs.

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The question for Proton's staff and current owner DRB-Hicom, which will hold on to the other half of the business, is whether the deal means a trip to the hospital or the hospice.

There is actually reason for optimism. Volvo, which Mr Li bought from Ford Motor Co for US$1.8 billion in 2010, has performed rather well since the deal.

While Ford's operating margin has flailed around the low single digits, contributing to the company's decision to replace chief executive officer Mark Fields this week, Volvo's has steadily risen. Its net income was about 1 per cent of Ford's in 2011, the first full year of Mr Li's ownership. Last year, it came to about 19 per cent of its former parent's.


Proton's Lotus provides Geely Automobile Holdings with diversification into the sports cars segment. PHOTO: REUTERS

Not every acquisition has gone so well. London Taxi continues to haemorrhage money, with £8.8 million (S$15.7 million) of losses since Mr Li took the group under his wing in 2013. Even there, though, the underlying business is arguably performing better, with operating income of £1.5 million in 2015 versus a £1.8 million operating loss two years earlier.

Mr Li's strategy in many ways resembles that of Renault-Nissan Alliance chairman and CEO Carlos Ghosn, who has stitched together a global automotive group by picking up stakes in companies at distressed prices, assembling the sprawling alliance of Renault SA, Nissan Motor Co and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.

As with Renault-Nissan, Zhejiang Geely has been trying to reduce duplicated costs at its brands by building its Volvo and Geely cars off a common platform and sharing production lines.

That is probably a better strategy than the one by tycoon Ratan Tata. While Tata Motors' Jaguar Land Rover acquisition has proved an even greater success than Geely's investment in Volvo, there has been little synergy between that high-end operation and Tata's low-cost domestic brand. As a result, the British business continued to supply the overwhelming majority of Tata Motors' group profits in annual results.

Proton would provide a better opportunity for integration. In geographic terms, it would play a similar role to Mitsubishi's standing within the Renault-Nissan Alliance, delivering the broader group an entree into South-east Asia.

Its relatively affordable cars could also provide a bridge between the premium Volvo segment and Geely's own-brand vehicles, while Proton's Lotus marque provides a bit of diversification into sexier sports cars.

The dealer network around Asia, Australia and the United Kingdom could help revive Geely's flagging export sales too. Whether that will be enough to knit together Mr Li's disjointed network of automotive investments is another matter - but the odds are better for entrepreneurial outfits such as Geely than they are for the giant state-owned enterprises that dominate China's domestic industry in volume terms.

Most state-owned enterprises are still a long way from acting as anything more than parasites on their foreign joint-venture partners - one reason that they have argued so vociferously against government plans to relax the restrictions around international ownership.

While Geely's state-owned rivals focus on taxing offshore carmakers who want to sell cars in China, Mr Li has a vision for the world. In China's parochial car industry, that is a refreshing change.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2017, with the headline 'Chinese carmaker Geely shifts gear with Proton'. Print Edition | Subscribe