SHANGHAI -- Bill Fisher is confident, almost cocky, when he talks about finding a Chinese automaker that can make cars for the United States.
"I've had 22 years' experience in China," he says. "I was here in 1986."
In the gold-rush atmosphere of the Chinese auto industry, finding a Chinese-made car to bring to the United States is attracting entrepreneurs hoping to strike it rich. Fisher is one of those. Last year he quit his job with entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin, who also is trying to import Chinese cars to the United States, to pursue his dreams.
Sitting in a cafe here, Fisher is convinced that he is not on a wild-goose chase.
A born salesman, he brushes aside the huge obstacles of getting a Chinese car to the United States.
"There is a segment of (U.S.) consumers who are looking for good transportation at a reasonable price, in the $10,000 to $12,000 range," Fisher says. "The Chinese car business is coming. The question is not if, it is when."
2 things needed
Fisher needs two things: money and a capable Chinese automaker. China's automakers are small and inexperienced. None now can make vehicles that meet the quality, safety and emissions standards of the United States and Europe.
Fisher says he has contacted Geely Automobile Holdings Group, which has announced it would like to bring cars to the United States in a few years.
He also would like to meet with SAIC Motor Corp., General Motors' main partner in China.
As for money, Fisher says: "We have an initial commitment of $500 million from a major investment group. They have to agree that the company we find fits the bill." He declines to name the group.
In January, Fisher formed a Florida company called AmAsia International to import Chinese-made cars to the United States. It joins a handful of companies seeking to import Chinese cars, including Bricklin's Visionary Vehicles LLC. Bricklin is working with Chery Automobile Co.
Fisher's first China experience was through his own trading company, which sourced electronics in China to sell in the United States. The automotive industry was one of his biggest customers, he says.
The pitfalls of trying to bring a Chinese car to the United States are many. Chinese automakers are still learning what it takes for a car to meet U.S. regulatory and consumer requirements. Chinese engineers don't have the experience to design a car from the ground up. Chinese suppliers can't meet international quality standards.
Fisher figures his team has the answers, for the right Chinese partner. AmAsia seeks "someone that can take our guidance," he says.
Easier said then done. For example, entrepreneurs such as Geely founder Li Shufu are full of self-confidence. Used to success in China, they trust their own judgment.
Fisher brushes that concern aside. But he does admit the project will need a lot of money.
Given that it typically costs about $1 billion to develop a car from the ground up and equip an assembly plant, $500 million seems a paltry sum, even if development costs in China are lower.
AmAsia's investment group has discussed doubling the investment amount, "depending on the project scope," says Fisher. The Chinese partner may need to contribute, he adds.
"We are not really looking at little companies," says Fisher. "A Geely is about the smallest."
Size is relative, of course. Geely sold 151,366 cars in 2005. Chery, China's largest domestic car manufacturer, sold 189,158. Both totals are less than the annual production of one good-sized assembly plant in the United States.
In other words, it's an open question whether Geely and Chery have the size and financial heft to sustain a serious effort to export high-quality cars to demanding markets such as the United States.
Fisher won't predict when AmAsia could begin importing cars. Nonetheless, AmAsia Vice President John Blake, another Visionary Vehicles alumnus, is talking with dealers in the United States.
Unlike Visionary Vehicles, AmAsia won't require an upfront investment. Dealers must provide trained sales staff, technicians, a parts package and signs. They can use existing unused space, which is abundant, says Blake.
"We've visited 70 or 80 dealers; 80 percent have space," he says.
Finding dealers to sell Chinese cars is the easy part. The hard part for Fisher and Blake now is finding a decent-quality Chinese car. And convincing a Chinese automaker that they are the right ones to distribute it in the United States.
You may e-mail Alysha Webb at [email protected]