Alysha Webb is an Automotive News staff reporter based in China.
A Chinese company investing in the United States? That's a switch. So I set out to find out more about Tempo and Century as well as their plans in the United States.
I got more questions than answers.
Like most Chinese companies, Tempo is secretive. And its corporate structure is a maze. My experience mirrors what many U.S. companies are discovering in China: Those accustomed to clear lines of corporate ownership and standard investment practices are in for an education.
"In a Chinese company the risk is corporate governance and transparency," says Kenny Tang, associate director of Tung-Tai Securities in Hong Kong.
Here's what I did find out, after dozens of phone calls and Google searches in Chinese and English.
Tempo makes brake parts and other automotive components. It exports to the United States, Europe and Canada, said a man in Tempo's office who refused to give his name.
The man would not give an annual sales figure but said the United States was Tempo's biggest export market.
Century Automotive is the U.S. sales and marketing arm of Tempo, according to John Carroll, executive director of the Detroit Regional Economic Partnership, which worked with Tempo on its purchase in Canton Township, Mich.
Carroll said Century would pay $20 million for the real estate. But the Tempo staffer who fielded my phone call said he hadn't heard of Century Automotive. I did find a company with "Century" in its name and ties to Zhou Tianbao, Tempo's owner. Zhou owns 37 percent of a company called Century Founders Group, based in the British Virgin Islands.
Have patience; it gets complicated.
Century Founders owns 62 percent of Hong Kong-listed Norstar Founders Group, which makes auto parts in China for export. Zhou is managing director of Norstar.
In mid-October, a Norstar plant in Beijing making chassis, brake parts and shock absorbers received a visit from a Wayne County trade mission that included Carroll and Wayne Country Executive Robert Ficano. Zhou dropped in, and the group lunched at a nearby hotel.
"I was told the Beijing plant was under the Tempo Group," Carroll says.
But a Norstar executive in Beijing, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak on the record, said: "I want to emphasize that Norstar (in Beijing) and Tempo Group are not related. Maybe because Zhou Tianbao is Norstar's managing director and Tempo Group's president, people are confused about the relationship between our two companies."
I was confused, that's for sure.
More en route
Century Automotive will move a small r&d center in Novi, Mich., to the Canton Township site, according to Wayne County's Ficano.
"Zhou wants to expand beyond research and development," he says.
As for Carroll, he isn't concerned with Tempo's murky corporate structure. "It's a private company," he says. "I wasn't given a detailed organizational chart." He adds: "We are looking for other Chinese companies that might come and employ people and buy buildings. We see it as part of globalization process."
You may e-mail Alysha Webb at [email protected]