BEIJING/FRANKFURT (REUTERS) - The chairman of Chinese carmaker Geely has built up an almost 10 per cent stake in Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler, making a US$9 billion (S$11.9 billion) bet that he can push through an alliance to access the German company's technology.
The purchase by Mr Li Shufu, Geely's founder and main owner, means China's largest privately-owned automaker is now Daimler's biggest shareholder.
Geely said on Saturday (Feb 24) there were no plans "for the time being" to raise the stake further. Instead, it will seek to forge an alliance with Daimler, which is developing electric and self-driving vehicles, to respond to the challenge from new competitors such as Tesla, Google and Uber, which are all working on their own new technology cars.
"No current car industry player is likely to win this battle against the invaders from outside without friends. To achieve and assert technological leadership, one has to adapt a new way of thinking in terms of sharing and combining strength. My investment in Daimler reflects this vision," Mr Li said.
Only two or three manufactures will likely survive in the auto industry going forward, a source familiar with Mr Li's thinking told Reuters, prompting Geely to seek access to carmakers with a technological edge.
Its move on Daimler poses a challenge to the German carmaker, since Mercedes-Benz already has an industrial alliance to develop cars and trucks with Renault-Nissan, which owns a 3.1 per cent stake in Daimler, and has announced plans to build electric cars with existing Chinese joint-venture partner BAIC Motor Corporation.
Bernstein Research analyst Max Warburton said: "It's not clear what Geely wants and how it's going to work, but we view this move as part of a broader Chinese move to gain involvement in the European automotive industry."
"China wants a payback after spending a decade gifting the European auto industry super-normal growth and profits. Now it wants more direct access to technology, brands and profits," he wrote in a note late on Friday, shortly after the stake was disclosed in a regulatory filing.
German state secretary at the economy ministry, Matthias Machnig, said EU trade ministers meeting informally next week in Sofia would discuss how better to protect strategically important European companies from unwanted investors.
"It is important that Europe keeps a close eye on which key European technologies foreign strategic investors are setting their sights on," he said.
Mr Machnig did not comment specifically on Daimler.
Daimler is the only one of Germany's three carmakers not to be controlled by a family. Volkswagen is majority-owned by the Porsche-Piech clan, while BMW is 47 per cent owned by Susanne Klatten, Germany's richest woman, and her brother Stefan Quandt.
Zhejiang Geely Holding has been on an expansion drive. It owns Volvo Cars, LEVC, the maker of London's black cabs, and last year took a majority stake in sports car maker Lotus, a 49.9 per cent stake in Malaysian automaker Proton, a US$3.3 billion stake in Volvo Trucks and control of flying car start-up Terrafugia.
Analyst Arndt Ellinghorst of Evercore ISI said: "We only believe that Geely would consider an investment of this magnitude if there was a more significant industrial opportunity from cooperation between Geely/Volvo and Mercedes."
The stake purchase follows an initial approach last November, when Mr Li sought to buy a Daimler stake as a way to access Mercedes-Benz technology for electric cars and trucks, including battery technology, to help Geely comply with a Chinese crackdown on pollution.
Geely sees potential in Daimler because it is developing high-speed internet connections for autonomous cars at a time when Mr Li believes satellite-based Internet connections could become more important for the auto industry, the source familiar with his thinking said.
In November, Geely asked Daimler to issue new shares so it could buy a stake, but the German company turned down the offer saying it did not want to dilute existing shareholders, sources at the time told Reuters.
Mr Li changed tactics, and quietly amassed a stake of 9.69 per cent worth US$9 billion at Daimler's current share price.
Normally, investors are required to inform the German financial regulator and the market when their share of a public company reaches 3 and then 5 percent. German watchdog Bafin did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether it was looking into Geely's acquisition of the Daimler stake.
The German economy ministry said in a statement emailed to Reuters: "There are legal regulations that have to be adhered to in takeovers. It is the duty of investors to follow these and to check them."
Chinese investors in German technology companies have tended to take a consensual approach, buying incremental stakes in companies such as robotics firms Kuka and Kion, typically after long consultation with management and other stakeholders.
Daimler said in a statement: "Daimler is pleased to announce that with Li Shufu it could win another long-term orientated shareholder, which is convinced by Daimler's innovation strength, strategy and future potential," the German company said in a statement.
"Daimler knows and appreciates Li Shufu as an especially knowledgeable Chinese entrepreneur with clear vision for the future, with whom one can constructively discuss the change in the industry."
The source said Daimler and Geely had not held concrete talks about how to structure a potential joint venture, adding: "You know we have to become a stakeholder in order to engage." Swedish truck maker AB Volvo, one of Geely's other investments, has objected to the Chinese firm's stake-building in Daimler, citing anti-trust concerns, the source added.
"We will protect interests of both companies by abiding laws in the country and the company's governance structure. We are not seeking to have a controlling power in Daimler. We are just one of the investors in that given company," the source added.
In early February, Geely began courting Germany's automotive establishment in a carefully timed public relations campaign. Mr Li gave a video statement to Germany's Car Symposium, an annual automotive congress attended by senior industry leaders.
Mr Li underlined that Geely's stewardship of Sweden's Volvo Cars had contributed towards "growth and prosperity" in Europe.
His statement was followed by a keynote speech by Geely board member Carl-Peter Forster, a former BMW board member and the former head of German carmaker Opel.
Forster explained that in the areas of electromobility and autonomous driving there should be more cooperation.
"We are in competition with one another, but should cooperate in areas where it makes sense," Forster told the audience.