ZHEJIANG Geely Holding Group Co Ltd was relatively unknown in Malaysia until it bought a stake in Proton two months ago.
On a global scale though, the Hangzhou-based automobile manufacturer grabbed headlines after it bought over Volvo in 2010.
The building of the Geely empire is a typical rags-to-riches story of China’s rapid economic growth.
Its founder and current chairman Li Shifu started Geely as a refrigerator business in 1986. Borrowing money from his farmer father, the businessman manufactured refrigerators before moving on to motorcycles in the 1990s, then automobile manufacturing later that decade.
Geely’s first car was the HQ, reportedly based on the G100 Dahaitsu Charade, but spruced up with an almost Mercedes-like grille. Since then, the company has grown by leaps and bounds. It now has 60,000 employees worldwide, and owns Geely Auto, LYNK & Co, Volvo, Polestar, Proton, Lotus, London Taxi Company and Yuan Cheng Auto.
It is also a majority shareholder in Zhejiang Qianjiang Motorcycle that owns Benelli and Keeway, both of which are available in Malaysia.
The company has four research and development centres in Ningbo, Hangzhou, Gothenburg (Volvo cars) and Coventry (London Taxi Company). In addition to this, it has design centres in Shanghai, Gothenburg, Barcelona and California.
In total, it has a dozen car manufacturing plants, six engine plants and four commercial vehicle plants worldwide.
Last week, we spent three days getting to know Proton’s new partner by visiting its various facilities in Shanghai, China.
The Geely Design Centre
Our visit to Geely kicked off with a tour of Geely Design China in Pudong.
Hosted by Guy Burgoyne, the vice-president for Geely Design in China, we were given a tour of the facility, and briefed on the company’s new design language and philosophy. We were given a rare look into the latest models that Geely was developing. A clay model was even actually being milled as the group entered the facility.
Upon entering the studio, the first department that we walked through was external design. Colour and materials was next, while at the far end of the studio, interior designers were working on interior components.
Geely was in the midst of unifying their design language, and creating a cohesive identity for the carmaker, explained Burgoyne.
“It must be consistent to get the confidence. Previously, we had a sporadic design language,” he said.
At the centre of the new design patois is the expanding cosmos grille - which Burgoyne pointed out was an inspiration from the “rings of the cosmos”.
There are uniquely Chinese design elements such as a power line on the front wheel instead of the rear.
The Chinese care less about rear-wheel drives, so this allowed the design to take a more “honest” approach by placing the power line over the front wheel well.
Led by European experts, the design language of the new models reflects a new found maturity and sophistication previously not seen in their cars.
Geely Research Institute, Hangzhou Bay
The following day, our group boarded a tour bus and crossed the Hangzhou Bay to the Geely Research Institute. There, we had a whirlwind tour of the research facility. This new R&D facility houses 6,000 employees and develops five new models, three new engines and three new gearboxes a year. It also focuses on the research and design for new energy and autonomous cars.
We were then ushered to another site where five Geely cars awaited to be tested. The models on hand included the Borui sedan, the smaller Emgrand GL sedan, the Emgrand GS SUV, Emgrand EV and of course, the Boyue. While Proton and Geely were coy about it, there is no denying that any of the vehicles could form the basis of future Proton models.
The GS, a stylish compact SUV about the size of a HRV, in particular seemed particularly ripe for a minor facelift and a Proton rebadge.
LYNK & Co signing with Volvo
The next day, we were invited to witness a signing ceremony where Geely Holding formed two new joint ventures with Volvo Cars to co-operate on automotive technologies, purchasing and the future development of the LYNK & Co brand.
LYNK & Co brand is a new brand with revolutionary new ideas for the future of automobiles. Chief among them is a plan to sell their cars on-line, as well as a car-sharing app which allows others to use the car when the owner is not using it. Positioned a notch above Geely, but below Volvo, the new premium brand will develop and sell new high-end cars mainly targeting the North American and European markets.
Malaysia will also likely be a market for the new manufacturer, according to Geely Auto Group chief executive officer An Cong Hui at the event.
“LYNK & Co is global brand, so it’s a global development. Surely it will find its way to Malaysia,” said An at the signing ceremony.
The new brand will use shared platforms like Volvo’s Compact Modular Architecture (CMA) to form the basis of LYNK & Co models.
Geely Experience Centre
The next itinerary on the trip was a visit to the Geely Experience Centre at the Geely HQ where we were given an insight into Geely’s stellar rise and its global intentions.
Its first car was launched in Linhai in 1998, but it only obtained its manufacturing licence from the Chinese government in 2001.
At the time, it was the first private car manufacturer in China. By 2002, it was already on the top 10 manufacturers list in China. Geely Auto was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exhange in 2005. By 2007, it made its transition from low price to high quality. By 2010, it had already acquired Volvo, and just two years later, it became a Fortune 500 company.
Walking through the Geely Experience Centre was an enlightening experience on the frantic pace of development that Geely went through. Early Geely models looked rudimentary and basic, but newer models, such as the Emgrand GS, are testament to the progress that this company has been making.
Last year, Geely Auto sold 766,000 units of its cars, posting a year-on-year growth of 50 per cent.
In the same time, it earned 53.7 billion yuan (RM34.50 billion) in revenue, which is a 78 per cent growth compared to the year before.
Profit meanwhile rose to 5.17 billion yuan, a 126 per cent growth. Geely’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric, and it has great ambitions to bring its success to the world market. If any Chinese carmaker can succeed at this, it may well be Geely.