SHANGHAI -- With sales up sharply this year -- and with its aggressive expansion into overseas markets -- Great Wall Motor Co. is a fast-rising star among China's domestic brands.
At a time when SUVs are China's hottest segment, Great Wall is the country's largest SUV maker, and it also leads all rivals in pickup sales.
But one question lingers: Will Great Wall's star dim as its domestic rivals, Chery Automobile Co. and BYD Co., did before? There are good reasons to believe that this private Chinese company will continue to outshine its larger rivals.
Unlike other Chinese automakers that sell inexpensive small cars, Great Wall mainly produces SUVs and pickups. Its Hover SUV and Wingle pickup account for two-thirds of sales.
That's a great product mix, since SUVs and pickups offer wider profit margins than small cars. And Chinese consumers are snapping up Great Wall's products.
During the first 11 months of 2010 Great Wall sold 337,500 light vehicles, up 79 percent from the year-ago period. It has surpassed Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. to become the third largest Chinese automaker by own-brand sales, next only to Chery and BYD.
Now, Great Wall is preparing to sell sedans in Europe. It has certified four of its products for the European market and will sell its Voleex small car in Italy and Bulgaria in the first half of 2011.
Thus, the company appears poised for continued growth. But the most impressive thing about Great Wall is its focused approach towards product development. This is where it differs from Chery and BYD.
For years, Chery was regarded as a clear leader among own-brand Chinese automakers. But the company developed too many models too quickly, and it rushed into too many overseas markets.
In 2008, Chery's sales declined as exports slumped and quality suffered. Its growth has lagged behind China's overall market ever since.
BYD is another company that grew too fast. Last year, BYD's sales more than doubled as it overtook Chery to become China's largest own-brand automaker.
But its overly aggressive dealership network expansion has created a huge backlash. Many dealers went bankrupt this year, and BYD's sales started declining in August.
By contrast, Great Wall has patiently grown its business. In 1996, it started making the Wingle pickup, and in 2002, began producing SUVs. Five years later, it started making sedans.
Unlike Chery and BYD -- which have diversified into construction equipment and laptops, respectively -- Great Wall remains focused on its Wingle pickup, Hover SUV and Voleex sedan. And the company brags about it.
"We have stressed that we should be focused, focused and even more focused," Great Wall President Wei Jianjun said at an industry forum in September. "We should devote all of our limited resources to our three types of products."
To be sure, Great Wall's ability to sustain its growth is still untested. In fact, the company may even be a bit too conservative. So far, it has financed its expansion with its own capital and has never borrowed from banks.
But Great Wall's patience and focus on core products bodes well for its future.