CHRISTIAAN HETZNER

Geely's 'hostile' move on Daimler is a watershed

Christiaan Hetzner is Automotive News Europe's Germany correspondent.Christiaan Hetzner is Automotive News Europe's Germany correspondent.
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Geely Chairman Li Shufu sounded almost fawning in his admiration for Daimler, the German industrial icon in which he had just spent 7.3 billion euros to acquire a tenth of the shares. Phrases such as "outstanding company," "first-class management" and an "honor to support this unique team" were used to flatter, as well as a pledge to abide by Daimler's charter and governance structure and respect its values and culture.

In reality everything about Li's coup to become Daimler's largest stakeholder shows the move was hostile. It's also a watershed: Until now, the industry feared that established players such as Daimler were acutely threatened by Silicon Valley. Instead it was a Chinese upstart that made an unsolicited play for the inventor of the modern automobile.

Reports already surfaced in late November that Daimler had rebuffed advances from Li, who was seeking to acquire a small packet of around 5 percent. Clearly he felt his business proposal wasn't being considered thoroughly enough and decided a bit more leverage was needed before he would be taken seriously.

With 9.7 percent of Daimler's outstanding shares, he has now bought himself a seat at the negotiating table. Just to make sure that Zetsche's management team comes to talk with the desired attitude, Li followed up with a veiled threat that he wouldn't add to his stake "for the time being."

The irony of the whole event descends like a ton of bricks. Thanks to China, all three major German premium brands have notched up record annual sales volumes over the past seven years straight. Mercedes-Benz has even been officially tallying the months: 58 in a row as of December. Many German car executives praise the efficiency of China's autocratic regime, talking about it as if it was a well-run company with one billion employees all working hard to achieve the goals set out by their management board. Once a decision has been taken, then it executes, delivering the desired results with total planning certainty.

This enormous dependence on China to drive further growth was highlighted recently when Daimler was forced into a humiliating apology over a harmless Mercedes posting on Instagram (officially banned in China) that featured a quote from the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet viewed as an enemy of the state in Beijing.

Now the very market that made Daimler and its peers rich all these years has for the first time threatened to consume them.

In the past Chinese companies have been careful not to kick up enough political dust to attract attention when arranging a deal. Whether it was Dongfeng's acquisition of a stake in PSA Group or Geely buying Volvo, the deal was always with the full support of all parties involved – never unsolicited.

But they have become emboldened of late, perhaps as a response to the cooling down of their own economy. ChinaChem, the same company that bought tire-maker Pirelli, grabbed headlines worldwide with its $43 billion takeover of Swiss agricultural chemicals producer Syngenta in 2016 - the biggest overseas deal by a Chinese company to date. Likewise, that year, China's Midea purchased robotics maker KUKA, kicking off a protectionism debate in Germany that came on the heels of Trump's strident attacks on Chinese trade policies during his presidential campaign.

Supervisory authorities in China responded by introducing stricter controls for acquisitions, leading to a decline last year both in the number and in the value of their European M&A deals, which fell by a third to $58 billion, according to figures from consultancy EY.

Li's purchase suggests these are loosening once more. For the moment though it is neither clear what his true intentions are, nor how Daimler might help to achieve them.

Daimler clearly does not need any help in China, having sold close to 600,000 vehicles there last year, a gain of 26 percent. It is also the only German premium automaker to be granted a stake in its local partner and maintains a second joint venture to build battery electric cars under the Denza brand. Neither would BAIC Motor nor BYD likely be happy with Li's move on their German partner from a direct domestic competitor.

But Li has backed Zetsche into a wall. How do you say no to your largest shareholder?

You can reach Christiaan Hetzner at christiaan.hetzner@gmail.com.

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