Billionaire investor George Soros wants to be an automaker.
He is preparing to invest $200 million in a joint venture with China's Chery Automobile Co. to produce vehicles and distribute them in the United States, say sources at Chery and elsewhere in the industry.
The big question: Will the New York investor push entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin from main partner with Chery to a subordinate role?
Bricklin, reached in his New York office last week, was tight-lipped about the situation. He confirmed that an investor, whom he refused to name, has committed $200 million to Visionary Vehicles LLC, which Bricklin established to form a joint venture with Chery and import cars to the United States.
Asked whether the investor is Soros, he said, "No comment."
Bricklin also declined to indicate whether the investor would gain control of Visionary Vehicles. He said the joint-venture agreement between Chery and Visionary Vehicles "is being finalized as we speak."
Soros and Chery declined comment last week.
Soros, 75, built a fortune spotting investment opportunities overseas. He also is well known for his liberal politics and philanthropy.
Soros' $200 million is in escrow and not yet available to the joint venture, sources say. The billionaire's investment was arranged by Atlantic-Pacific Capital Inc., an investment bank in Greenwich, Conn.
Any agreement would have to be approved by the Chinese government. The government is expected to support the joint venture; Beijing has steadfastly supported Chery's export plans.
It is not clear what role Bricklin would play if Soros and Chery strike a deal. Two sources say Bricklin's role would be reduced.
Asked what role he would play under the agreement, Bricklin's reply left room for interpretation: "I believe I will be doing exactly the same thing I've been doing since the beginning."
Bricklin announced his plans to import Chery vehicles in 2004. He since has been recruiting dealers. He says he has signed about 50, but his staff will not release the complete list.
Bricklin, a skilled salesman, has had a long career starting auto importers in the United States. He successfully launched Subaru here in 1968. His best-known failure was Yugo America Inc., which died in 1992.
Chery, which sold 189,000 cars last year, is China's largest fully domestic carmaker. By comparison, Shanghai General Motors, a joint venture between GM and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., sold 325,000 vehicles.
Chery, based in the central China province of Anhui, is owned by the local government. Last year Chery exported 18,000 units to developing countries such as Egypt and Malaysia, making it China's largest car exporter.
Chery assembles cars in Iran and recently signed an agreement to assemble cars in Russia.
Bricklin had predicted Visionary Vehicles would start exporting cars to the United States in 2007. Chery sources say a more likely date is 2009.
Soros was born in Budapest, Hungary. After earning a degree at the London School of Economics, he moved to the United States in 1956 at age 26.
He started an international investment fund and accumulated a fortune estimated at $7 billion in 2004. He is chairman of Soros Fund Management LLC.
You may e-mail Alysha Webb at [email protected]
You may e-mail Gail Kachadourian at [email protected]