China's BYD Gets a Boost From Warren Buffett Investment

By Michelle Krebs September 29, 2008

By Michelle Krebs

BYD e6 - 272.JPG China's fledgling battery maker-turned-automaker got a huge shot in the arm Monday when a unit of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway announced it will buy a stake in company.

Buffett's MidAmerican Energy Holdings will pay $230 million for a 10-percent stake in BYD to support its "green" technologies, the company said told Reuters news service.

The deal gives MidAmerican a foothold in the Hong Kong-listed company, which is developing electric-hybrid cars it expects to start selling in China later this year, Europe and Israel by 2010 and North America thereafter. It gives the Chinese company a much-needed boost in funding for further development and credibility.

Newcomer Grows Fast

BYD has been one of the more intriguing companies to watch in China - one with immense promise. BYD, which translates to Build Your Dreams, is a young company, established in 1995 as a battery maker. It quickly became one of the world's largest producers of rechargeable batteries. It claims to have about 30 percent share of the world's cell phone battery market.

In 2003, BYD got into China's then burgeoning car business by buying bankrupt government-owned automaker Qinchan. With a presence at world auto shows from China to Europe to Detroit, BYD Auto has laid out an ambitious plan to sell its cars, including electric and hybrid ones, around the globe.

A North American Beachhead

BYD Auto currently is being wooed by states in the U.S. for a port of entry, a test market for its electric-car fleet, a distribution hub and a possible manufcturing base for its hybrid and electric cars.

Earlier this month, Oregon government officials, including the state's governor and Portland's mayor, met with BYD Auto executives to discuss the possibility of BYD using its port and eventually establishing a manufacturing base in the state. BYD executives told Portland media that Michigan, Idaho and California are also in the running.

BYD F3 225.JPG BYD executives told Portland reporters they plan to sell two models in the North American market: the F3DM and the F6DM. The cars, which likely will sell for $25,000 to $30,000, are manufactured in China. In the future, BYD plans all-electric models, like the F3e and F6e, which have been displayed at auto shows.

The automaker claims its "dual mode" plug-in hybrids - a range-extending concept similar to that of General Motors' Chevrolet Volt - run on battery power for the first 60 miles (GM is claiming the Volt will do 40 miles). A gasoline engine only kicks in after that for a range of 260 miles. Plugging into a conventional outlet or a special charging station, which the city of Portland is installing, recharges them. BYD claims it uses a chemistry that offers better performance than conventional lithium-ion batteries with less risk of overheating, a major problem with such batteries.

Buffett Connection

The investment by Warren Buffett's company not only gives the Chinese automaker a financial boost for further development but credibility enhancement. Chinese auto companies have not been up to par in terms of vehicle quality, often making them the butt of jokes at international auto shows.

Buffett, in a statement issued Monday, praised BYD's chairman, Wang Chuanfu, for his "extraordinary managerial record."

MidAmerican Chairman David Sokol added that BYD's technologies will be an integral part of the future for the care of the environment especially relating to global climate change.

"The news is positive as the investment is big," Frederick Wong, analyst at BNP Paribas in Hong Kong told Reuters.

Buffett's investment in BYD is the second major one in recent days. Last week, Israel's Clal Industries and Investments, a unit of conglomerate IDB Development, signed a deal to import electric cars from BYD and sell them in Israel.

Photos by BYD

1 - BYD displayed the F6e at last spring's Beijing auto show.

2 - The F3 is among the first models BYD plans for export.

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