PLUGGING IN

Chinese supplier lays plans to revive Fisker and give itself a jolt

Lu Guanqui, chairman, Wanxiang Group: "We want people to know that we are an American company here, trying to create American jobs."
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Lu Guanqiu, the chairman of supplier Wanxiang Group, is in a talkative mood.

At a July 25 press conference in Washington, he shakes hands and exchanges laughs with a gaggle of Chinese colleagues. A lone photographer furiously snaps photos.

He tells the reporters about his White House meeting that day with Vice President Joe Biden. Lu briefed him about his plans to revive Fisker Automotive Holdings Inc., whose former General Motors assembly plant is in Biden's home state, Delaware.

In February, Lu had won an auction for Fisker, paying $149.2 million for the assets of the bankrupt producer of plug-in hybrid cars. Now, he was wrapping up a weeklong visit to the United States to raise his company's profile with key politicians and drum up support for his turnaround plan.

His plan is nothing if not ambitious. If he can pull the right strings -- and work out the many engineering kinks in the Fisker Karma -- the former bicycle repairman will bring the sleek plug-in hybrid back to life. That would establish Wanxiang as a high-profile coach-builder in the prestigious U.S. market.

Those are big ifs. But Lu is not accustomed to failure.

Lu's U.S. visit included a stop in suburban Detroit, where he met Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder at the headquarters of A123 Systems Inc., a once-bankrupt maker of lithium ion batteries that Wanxiang acquired in 2013.

Lu followed that with a visit to Delaware -- home to the shuttered Wilmington assembly plant that someday might produce Fisker cars -- where he met Delaware Gov. Jack Markell.

If Wanxiang Group is successful, the Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid could make a comeback.

But the high point for the chairman seemed to be his encounter with Biden, who had told Lu about his son's purchase of a Karma -- a defect-plagued vehicle that Beau Biden eventually replaced.

That anecdote, in turn, gave Lu an opportunity to explain Wanxiang's plans for Fisker cars, A123 batteries, the Wilmington plant and the entire North American market.

Wanxiang has $23.5 billion in annual global sales, a large portion of which is generated by sales of auto parts. In the United States, Wanxiang has acquired a string of suppliers that produce axles, bearings, driveshafts and other components.

Wanxiang America generates $3 billion in revenue from auto parts, the company said.

Yet the company remains relatively unknown. But that could change if Lu gets his way.

With A123 and Fisker under its wing, Wanxiang is vertically integrated -- a company that can produce many components, batteries and finished cars.

But with many engineering and supply chain questions requiring answers, Fisker's revival will take time, said Pin Ni, president of Wanxiang's U.S. unit.

"The car has hundreds of issues that we need to fix," Ni said. "Our goal is to fix all the issues and get the car back on the road, but this car has to be a good car. It cannot be a car with problems."

Ni told reporters that Wanxiang has a flexible schedule for the Karma, with no firm date for production to resume. Nor did he say how many Fiskers would be produced.

Lu's ambition to produce entire vehicles is reminiscent of Frank Stronach, the strong-willed Austrian entrepreneur who founded Magna International Inc.

Like Stronach, Lu is a self-made man. Born in Hangzhou in the 1940s, Lu started out repairing bicycles and tractors, then branched out.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Lu's factory purchased 300 tons of cannon barrels from the Chinese army in 1973. Lu's wife, an expert welder, used an electric saw to cut the barrels up into tractor blades, which they sold to farmers.

Lu's factory prospered, and he entered the automotive sector in the 1980s, when he started producing universal joints.

It's too soon to tell whether Lu will successfully revive Fisker, but he appears determined to gain a higher profile.

Following Wanxiang's acquisitions of Fisker and A123, "there are still so many people that don't understand who we are and don't know us," Lu said. "We want people to know that we are an American company here trying to create American jobs."

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com.


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