MAN IN THE NEWS: LI SHUFU
If the west has lost confidence in itself during the financial crisis, it is clear where some of the old can-do spirit has ended up: in China. Li Shufu, whose automaking group Geely will soon be the proud new owner of Volvo, personifies this burgeoning surplus in self-assurance.
On Sunday Mr Li's company is scheduled to sign one of China's highest-profile takeovers of a foreign brand at a ceremony in Volvo's hometown of Gothenburg. With Xi Jinping, China's vice-president, in likely attendance, Geely – China's largest private carmaker – will agree to pay Ford Motor $1.8bn (€1.3bn, £1.2bn) for the producer of famously solid estate cars and executive sedans.
In Volvo, Mr Li will be taking on a carmaker with revenues about five times Geely's and a European premium brand that he himself admits he can tamper with only at its peril. The deal will be a bellwether for China's ambitions to add supremacy in global automaking to its newly won title as the world's largest vehicle market.
The 47-year-old Mr Li is just the kind of larger-than-life character to act as the figurehead for a new age of carmaking with Chinese characteristics. “He says ‘Why not' while the rest of the world is asking ‘why',” says Bill Russo, former head of Chrysler in China and head of Synergistics, an auto consultancy. “He is the kind of story that exists in China today, that existed in the west 100 years ago”. Mr Russo mentions Carnegies and Rockefellers, not Henry Ford. But associates say Mr Li savours the irony of helping out the company Ford created.
On the other hand, it is hard to imagine even the famously polymathic Ford writing verse – one of Mr Li's favourite pastimes. The vast reception room of his headquarters features a carpet woven with a poem he wrote himself. His personal website bears 21 more, including one entitled: “Who could choose a clearer way than Geely?”
Mr Li likes to play up his peasant roots, but it would be a mistake to underestimate this man in his nondescript blue suit, grey socks and slightly scuffed slip-ons. Business partners use words such as “wily”, “crafty” and “brilliant” to describe Mr Li, and admit that they expect to be outwitted by him in any negotiation.
In a country where stiff business protocols are de rigueur, he is friendly, tactile and emotional. “He is a man of great humanity – very charming, strong on relationships,” says John Russell, chief executive of Manganese Bronze, the producer of black London taxis, in which Geely announced plans to increase its 20 per cent stake to majority control last week. (When in Shanghai, Mr Li is chauffeured around in a white London cab.)
Associates say that he dreams big and worries about execution later – but agree that his dreams have a habit of coming true. Just 12 years ago, he made his first car; last year, Geely made 329,100. He wants to produce 421,000 this year and 2m by 2015.
Mr Li was born in 1963 in a village near Taizhou City, Zhejiang province, homeland of many of China's wealthiest entrepreneurs. The son of a small business owner, he used a Rmb100 school graduation present to buy an old camera and a bicycle and started photographing tourists at beauty spots, multiplying his seed capital tenfold in six months.
With that money he set up a photo studio, establishing a lucrative sideline selling silver extracted from film developing. He moved on to making refrigerators and their parts. When that failed, he made motorcycles, and eventually cars.
Like China's other rising carmakers, Mr Li built his company largely by buying in technology. In an interview with the FT in October 2008, he showed slides of 42 models his company was developing – a line-up that would look grandiose even for a Toyota or a Ford. One was dubbed the “baby Rolls-Royce”, raising complaints from Rolls – not the first car company to make a similar complaint – that Geely merely copies foreign models.
Mr Li also dabbled in the property market on Hainan island, and launched a Geely-branded football team with a losing record, leading him to concede that he was “only good at industrial investment”.
Mr Li's cagey staff will not say whether he belongs to the Communist party, but he told one visitor he occupies the office of party secretary in Geely and he is known to attend party conferences. Beyond dispute is the fact that he has played the politics of the Volvo deal masterfully.
Mr Li first set his sights on Volvo in 2007, when Rothschilds approached him about buying the marque, which Ford was due to put on sale. Mr Li was confident he could build western-quality cars by 2012, but realised he needed to buy an established marque to sell them credibly and at good prices.
He delegated most of the sale negotiations with Ford to advisers, but met Lewis Booth, Ford's chief financial officer, at least six times when the talks hit obstacles. Mr Li now describes the mood of the talks as “difficult but very friendly”.
Last year he toured Volvo's Swedish operations, and in January a union delegation from Volvo toured Geely's facilities. He spoke of nearly doubling Volvo's sales to 600,000 by 2015, but promised anxious delegates that the brand would keep its European manufacturing footprint. At another meeting last year with union representatives at Volvo's headquarters in Belgium, he was asked to sum up in three words why he was interested in the carmaker. Mr Li said simply: “I love you.”
The politics in China were trickier. Unlike state-owned carmakers, most of which are backed by powerful provinces, privately owned Geely needed to find its own sponsors. Mr Li spread favours around the country by promising to build at least two car plants and one engine plant in different provinces, lining up soft loans behind the sale. Associates argue that he can inject new life into Volvo under more flexible, innovative leadership.
And if that does not work? Li tells visitors he can always go back to the land. That is where being a poet comes in handy: in 2006 Mr Li wrote a poem that includes the line: “Life is a question without a standard answer.” It may be just the approach for an industry in which the standard answers no longer seem to deliver.
47 岁的李书福性格突出，正是中国特色汽车制造新时代的合适代表人物。“当世界其它地方在问‘为什么'的时候，他却说‘为什么不'，”克莱斯勒 (Chrysler)前中国区总裁、汽车业咨询公司Synergistics总裁比尔•拉索(Bill Russo)表示。“他就是西方一百年前的故事在当今中国的翻版”。拉索提到了卡内基(Carnegie)与洛克菲勒(Rockefeller)家族，而 不是亨利•福特(Henry Ford)。但李书福同事说，对于自己帮助解救了福特创办的公司这一讽刺性的宿命，李书福颇为得意。
在 一个僵化商业惯例盛行的国家，李书福显得友好、亲切与感性。伦敦黑色出租车生产商——英国锰铜控股公司(Manganese Bronze)首席执行官约翰•罗素(John Russell)说：“他是个性情中人——很有魅力，很会搞关系。”吉利最近宣布，计划将其对锰铜公司的持股从20%提高至多数股权水平。（当在上海时， 李书福有一辆配有司机的白色伦敦出租车。）
与 中国其它正在崛起的汽车制造商一样，李书福主要是通过买 入技术来发展自己的公司。在2008年10月接受英国《金融时报》采访时，李书福展示了其公司正在开发的42款车型的幻灯片。即使是对于丰田 (Toyota)或福特来说，这个阵容看上去也甚为庞大。其中一款被戏称为“小劳斯莱斯(baby Rolls-Royce)”，导致劳斯莱斯抱怨吉利只是抄袭外国车型。其它一些公司也曾提出类似抱怨。
李 书福首次将目光投向沃尔沃是在2007年：福特计划出售这一品牌，洛希尔(Rothschilds)接洽了李书福，询问其是否有意收购。李书福自 信到2012年，他就可以制造出与西方品质不相上下的汽车，但他意识到，他需要购买一个老品牌，来帮助增强自主品牌的信誉，进而让它们能卖个好价钱。
去 年，他参观了沃尔沃在瑞典的工厂；今年1月份，沃尔沃的一个工会代表团参观了吉利公司。他宣称到2015年，将使沃尔沃销量接近翻倍，达到60万辆，但向 焦虑不安的代表团成员承诺，将会维持该品牌在欧洲的制造基地。去年，在沃尔沃比利时总部出席另一个与工会代表的会议时，他被要求用三个词总结一下他为何对 这家汽车制造商感兴趣。李书福直截了当地说：“我爱它。”
中国的政治更微妙一些。与大部分国有汽车制造商都有强大的省政府支持不同，民营的 吉利需要自己寻找赞助商。李书福在全国范围广抛绣球，承诺将在不同省份至少建造两家汽车制造厂、一家发动机工厂，从而为这笔交易安排了各项软贷款。他的同 事辩称，他更灵活且更具创新性的领导风格，能为沃尔沃注入新的生命力。