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Great Wall Motor of China Sets Its Sights on Jeep

August 22, 2017

China is trying to clamp down on overseas acquisitions by its companies. Hostility is growing in the United States toward Chinese deals. And the auto industry faces substantial change in the form of battery-powered vehicles and autonomous cars.

[JACK EWING and KEITH BRADSHER | August 21, 2017 | The New York Times]

None of that deterred one Chinese automaker, Great Wall Motor Company, from saying on Monday that it was interested in buying the Jeep brand — a quintessentially American car that is known for its sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, but that also has a strong resonance in China.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, the Italian-controlled company that owns Jeep, said it had not heard from Great Wall, however, suggesting that considerable ground would have to be covered before a deal could be reached.

Still, the comments from Great Wall signal China’s continuing interest in becoming a global force in the auto industry. Chinese carmakers have shown interest in expanding outside their home market in recent years, and the fastest way to do that would be to acquire an existing automaker.

Fiat Chrysler is an obvious target because its chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, has signaled interest in finding a buyer. It would also be relatively cheap, valued at $19 billion on the stock market.

The automaker owns the Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Jeep brands, as well as the Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Maserati brands in Europe.

The seriousness of Great Wall’s interest in a deal could not immediately be determined, and a company spokeswoman declined to say whether the two parties had even met. The Chinese carmaker, controlled by the billionaire Wei Jianjun, has struggled in recent years to find success with new models in China, but it has since enjoyed faster-growing revenue and profit from freshened-up models of S.U.V.s.

In a statement on Monday, Fiat Chrysler said it had “not been approached by Great Wall Motors in connection with the Jeep brand, or any other matter relating to its business.” The carmaker’s shares were nevertheless up 4 percent in Milan.

Jeep has a strong link to China, as it was one of the first foreign brands to enter the country, initially shipping parts to China for assembly in the late 1970s, before a joint venture called Beijing Jeep was created in 1983.

Gerald C. Meyers, at the time the chairman and chief executive of American Motors, which owned the Jeep brand, has said that he initially saw China as a low-cost place to build vehicles for the Australian market, and never anticipated that the country would grow into such a major well of customers.

Chrysler, which bought American Motors in 1987, later decided not to invest in a big expansion of manufacturing operations in China, hoping instead to import Jeeps from the United States. But Jeep was hurt by very steep Chinese tariffs on imported vehicles; for many years, as a consequence, models like the Grand Cherokee cost twice as much in China as in other countries.

Jeep’s difficulties in China, and the extent to which it found itself transferring considerable technology to China in exchange for short-term financial gains, were an early lesson for Western businesses and the Chinese government alike, and were chronicled in a popular 1989 book, “Beijing Jeep.”

The brand’s experience is far from unique, as a long list of Western companies have seen Chinese companies absorb their technology and become global competitors in sectors like diesel freight locomotives, high-speed electric trains and power station turbines.

Tariffs and other taxes shielded the domestic automotive industry in particular from international competition and allowed companies like Great Wall to grow into strong competitors. Chinese manufacturers now hold not only much of their home country’s market for sport utility vehicles, but also large shares of emerging markets in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia, where cost-conscious buyers like Chinese producers’ deeply discounted prices and don’t mind the basic designs and sometimes uneven quality.

More recently, Fiat Chrysler has been expanding Jeep manufacturing in the past two years in China, starting production in Changsha and Guangzhou, two big manufacturing centers in the country’s southeast. But it now faces well-financed domestic competitors with highly developed supply chains and considerable economies of scale.

Great Wall’s expression of interest might prod other suitors to come forward and start a process that could lead to Fiat Chrysler’s sale or breakup. Companies such as Volkswagen might be interested in parts of Fiat Chrysler such as Alfa Romeo, a maker of small and midsize passenger cars known for their Italian styling.

There is a precedent for a Chinese acquisition of a European automaker — Zhejiang Geely Holding Group bought Volvo Cars of Sweden seven years ago.

But any deal between Fiat Chrysler and Great Wall would face considerable obstacles.

From the American perspective, politicians including President Trump have criticized China’s trade policies, and a number of lawmakers in the United States have called for tighter reviews of foreign deals, particularly ones involving China.

And China itself has tightened limits on acquisitions of foreign properties, out of concern that too much money has left the country to chase hotels and soccer clubs, among other entities.

For foreign auto brands, though, Beijing might make an exception. Despite being the world’s largest auto producer, and having made slow progress building cars for foreign brands like Ford and selling them abroad, China still exports only a tiny proportion of the vehicles it makes.

A major issue for Chinese automakers is a lack of brand recognition overseas. Even at home, most Chinese car buyers prefer Chevrolets, Fords and Volkswagens made by foreign companies working with local partners.

shift to electric vehicles could provide an opening for Chinese automakers. The country is already the largest market for battery-powered cars, and buying an existing auto brand could provide a platform for a Chinese company to sell electric cars abroad.

Geely Holding established a template when it acquired Volvo. Volvo’s revenue has grown, in part because of rising sales in China, and Geely has provided funds that have allowed Volvo to invest more in new products and expansion, including at a new factory in Berkeley County, S.C.

Last month, Volvo became the first traditional carmaker to say it would phase out cars powered solely by diesel or gasoline motors. Beginning in 2019, all new models will be either hybrids or powered solely by battery.

Previous efforts by Chinese automakers to strike overseas deals have not succeeded: A Chinese company tried, but failed, to buy the Hummer brand in 2010.

 


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