Buffett-backed BYD eyes big overseas drive

on February 23 2010 8:08 AM

BYD Co Ltd, a Chinese car and battery maker founded by China's wealthiest man and backed by U.S. billionaire Warren Buffett, aims to boost its car exports this year as it feeds what it hopes will be improving demand in a recovering global economy.

BYD (slogan: Build Your Dreams) aims to export 5-10 percent of the 800,000 vehicles it should produce this year, up sharply from last year when its overseas sales were just 2.2 percent of its 450,000 vehicles, said Paul Lin, manager of BYD's marketing department.

Exports in 2009 were about the same as 2008 due to the financial crisis, Lin said in an interview at a BYD car building campus festooned with red lanterns to usher in the Chinese New Year. Exports this year should be many times higher.

Lin said BYD aims to sell its clean-technology cars in Western Europe next year, following plans to export electric cars to the United States later this year.

West Europe is a mature market and competition is keen, he said. We see opportunities in new energy cars because we are on the same track as Western automakers in making them.

BYD, which employs 130,000, has said it aims to be a major global player by 2025, with vehicle sales of 8-9 million -- not far short of world leader Toyota Motor Corp's <7203.T> current annual sales.

Its F3 sedan was the best-selling car in China last year, beating popular domestic and foreign models, such as Hyundai Motor's <005380.KS> Elantra and Chery Automobile's QQ.

The company has exported to more than 70 countries, mainly in emerging markets such as Egypt, Russia, Iran and Southeast Asia.

Its cars typically sell from as little as 30,000 yuan ($4,400) to 200,000 yuan, and its e6 electric car is expected to cost around $42,000 when it hits showrooms in the United States.

Lin said the company has already sold several hundred e6 cars in China, mostly to government clients, but is waiting for the government to roll out subsidies, probably in the first half of the year, before selling to the mass market.

RAPID RISE

Founded in 1995 by entrepreneur Wang Chuanfu, BYD has enjoyed a rapid rise, first as a mobile phone battery maker for Nokia and Motorola and, more recently, making cars.

Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway bought a 10 percent stake in 2008.

BYD shares rose more than five-fold last year, propelling Wang to the top of Forbes 2009 list of China's wealthiest, but the stock has lost steam this year, dropping 9 percent.

BYD makes its cars in a sprawling complex with three concentric hexagons in the southern China boomtown of Shenzhen. The innermost unit, a model design center, is windowless and accessible only to those with top-level clearance.

The Hong Kong-listed firm said last year it would like to list A-shares in Shenzhen in mainland China to help it grow. Lin said the Shenzhen IPO plan was progressing, and he is confident the initial public offering will take place this year.

China overtook the United States last year as the world's largest car market, but Chinese automakers such as Geely Automobile <0175.HK> have so far been limited mainly to the domestic market.

Several hope to change that, using both organic growth models such as BYD, as well as acquisitions, such as Geely's planned buy of Ford Motor Co's Volvo brand.

($1=HK$7.762)

(Editing by Doug Young and Ian Geoghegan)