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China’s Geely: A Formidable Global Automaker In The Making?

Last updated on June 30th, 2018 at 03:07 am

Chinese automaker Geely (HKG: 0175) (OTCMKTS: GELYF) is on a hot streak. The company reported record sales in 2017 selling 1.24 million units, a 63% year-on-year increase, emerging as the world’s second-fastest growing automaker by sales volume in 2017.

Bar chart showing the world's top 10 fastest growing car brands in 2017 (by YoY sales volume growth %).

Much of Geely’s sales were concentrated in its home country China, the world’s largest passenger car market, which accounted for over 99% of the brand’s sales volume in 2017 according to data from its annual report. Geely’s strong sales performance in China helped boost its market share to 5.06% of China’s passenger car market in 2017, an increase of 1/75% from the previous year.

Outside China, Geely’s subsidiary Volvo Cars which Zhejiang Geely Holding Group acquired in 2010 is also on a run, reporting its fourth straight year of record sales; revenues grew 17% in 2017 to 210.9 billion Swedish crowns while operating profit rose jumped 28% to 14.1 billion ($1.76 billion) from 11.0 billion in 2016. Volvo sold 571,577 Volvo cars globally last year, up 7% thanks to strong sales in China its biggest market, which accounted for 20% of Volvo’s sales in 2017.

After years of lackluster performance under the Ford Motor Co umbrella, the upscale Sweden-based Volvo Cars is now a success story, enjoying a remarkable turnaround under Geely’s ownership.

Global expansion

For Geely, already a major automaker in China, Volvo’s success could be a sign of bigger things to come as Geely sets its sights on going global. The company has been aggressively amassing a formidable portfolio of international car brands thereby expanding its geographical reach and broadening it technical expertise; the company gained an avenue into Europe through its acquisition of Volvo Cars while its 49.9% stake in Malaysia’s Proton Holdings Bhd gives it an inroad into Southeast Asia.

Geely’s 51% stake in British sports car maker Lotus Cars will give the company a presence in the sports car segment while its acquisition of American flying-car startup Terrafugia gives it access to the nascent flying car industry. The investments may also play a part in uplifting the brand’s image going forward; having started life as a cheap, low-cost, no-frills car brand, Geely has already come a long way since its inception boasting four design studios around the world (specifically in Los Angeles, Barcelona, Gothenburg and Shanghai) employing over 500 designers (headed by Geely’s chief designer Peter Horbury who formerly worked at Volvo and Ford), and four R&D centers (in Hangzhou Bay, Ningbo, Coventry and Gothenburg) employing nearly 7,000 full-time engineers.

With average e-x-factory selling prices of its vehicles steadily climbing from RMB 47,872 per unit in 2012 to RMB 73,550 per unit in 2017 according to its latest annual report, the company is now making inroads into the midscale auto segment with its new car brand Lynk & Co which is being developed with technology from Gothenburg-based Volvo.

“Born global and connected”, the millennial-aimed Lynk & Co car brand which made headlines as the “most connected car ever” (a ‘smartphone on wheels’) is unique in several aspects; the company’s cars can be purchased outright, or they could be leased, or they could be subscribed to via the company’s subscription model, or they could just be borrowed via the car’s unique ‘sharing’ feature. The company’s focus on mobility rather than car ownership means it fills a niche that taxi companies, ride-sharing solutions such as Uber, and traditional auto companies such as Honda do not fulfill. Lynk & Co is also differentiating itself by building a direct-to-consumer sales model, allowing customers to purchase a car online thereby bypassing traditional dealer networks.

Geely’s new marque holds promise; in November last year, Lynk & Co held a three-day sales campaign in China for the brand’s ‘01’ SUV model. In just over two minutes, the stock of 6,000 vehicles was sold out.

However, while the Geely brand is expected to continue its goal of being a leading automotive brand in China, Lynk & Co which is European designed and engineered, aspires to be a global auto brand, competing against global car giants such as Volkswagen and Ford. Lynk & Co plans to launch sales of its cars in Europe in 2019 and in the United States in 2020. The brand is aiming to sell 500,000 cars globally by 2021.

Over in Southeast Asia, Geely has been busy trying to turn-around struggling Malaysian car company Proton, which it acquired last year. Established in 1983, Proton reached its zenith in 1996 when the company accounted for 64% of Malaysia’s car sales, and exported its cars to over 50 countries including Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Brunei. That was also the year Proton acquired sports car brand Lotus Cars.

Fast forward to today, Proton’s market share has dwindled to less than 15% with sales dropping to 70,991 last year from 72,291 units in 2016. Meanwhile local rival Perodua, and Japanese car company Honda are flying high in the country with market leader Perodua’s sales exceeding 200,000 units and Honda notching record-breaking sales of 109,511 last year.

Bar chart showing Malaysia passenger car sales (number of units) by car brand, 2016 and 2017.

Determined to regain lost ground, Proton is now on an aggressive transformation path with CEO Dr Li Chunrong introducing multiple changes for Proton dealerships and service centers in the country aimed at strengthening the brand and improving customer experience, as well as tapping into Geely’s technical know-how and expertise to help Proton expand its current model lineup to include SUVs (Proton is reportedly developing its first SUV model from Geely’s best selling SUV model the “Boyue”), and move up from producing fossil fuel vehicles to plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. Malaysia is Southeast Asia’s third largest automotive market after Thailand and Indonesia, and if Geely could repeat its Volvo turnaround success story with the currently loss-making Proton, Geely could be sitting on a potentially profitable investment as well as a platform to develop a beachhead in Southeast Asia.

Under its former owner Proton, iconic British sports car brand Lotus Cars struggled due to lack of funds and currently offers a handful of models dating back several years. However under its new deep-pocketed owner, Geely, it could be light at the end of the tunnel for Lotus Cars as Geely could do for Lotus Cars what it did for Volvo; offer much-needed financial support along with a relatively hands-off management to allow Lotus Cars to unlock its full potential.

The partnership could also result in a cross-pollination of technology, know-how and possibly other resources as well such as suppliers and distribution networks among Geely’s portfolio of automotive marques similar to the way the Geely-Volvo tie-up gave birth to Lynk & Co which uses technology jointly developed by the two companies. Volvo and Lotus Cars are reportedly exploring options on sharing their technologies (Lotus Cars is renowned for lightweight engineering while Volvo is known for safety features and hybrid drivetrains).  The resulting partnerships could generate significant cost savings such as through shared development costs and procurement costs.

Eye on costs 

While Geely’s global aspirations could boost top-line growth, such international expansion plans are expensive and hence if unchecked could negatively impact bottom-line performance resulting in poor investment returns. However, Geely seems to have its eye on costs as well. Geely’s new marque Lynk & Co is reportedly aiming for success by being “brutally simple” by limiting model variations that rotate seasonally and offering limited options which the management believes is not only cost effective since production costs are lower but also offers a better, less-complex customer experience since Lynk & Co cars will be sold at a flat rate throughout Europe so buyers won’t have the trouble of haggling for a discount.

Although the car companies under Geely’s umbrella operate independently and maintain their own unique identity, they are forging close ties to cut costs. Volvo is deepening links with Geely and Lynk & Co to cut electric car development costs for instance by sharing knowledge and thereby cutting costs on developing expensive new technologies.

Volvo is also exploring ways to share technology with Lotus Cars for mutual benefit while Proton is depending on know-how from Geely to develop its first SUV.

Lynk & Co meanwhile has tapped into Volvo and Geely’s jointly developed CMA platform (Compact Modular Architecture platform), a cost-effective move, particularly since the new CMA platform was developed to be highly scalable, allowing multiple models to be developed using the same platform.

Geely’s global ambitions are clear and how far the company gets remains to be seen, however the company is worth watching.

 

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