HONG KONG (Reuters) -- Geely founder Li Shufu, China's "Henry Ford," will rewrite the automotive history books with the purchase of Ford Motor Co.'s Volvo car unit for $1.8 billion.
Li, very much a plain-folks character, shares many traits with Ford, from a childhood on the farm to a scrappy determination to build a car-making behemoth from nothing.
Li's Geely, which means “auspicious” or “lucky” in Chinese, captured the imagination of car buffs worldwide with its dark-horse bid for the Swedish brand, which is being sold by Ford Motor Co. in a deal sealed on Sunday.
He was born in 1963 and comes from eastern China's Zhejiang province, just south of Shanghai, which is known for producing some of China's best and brightest entrepreneurs. He is a mechanical engineer by training.
And while Li is one of China's richest men, he lives in a modest apartment in Beijing, said Lawrence Ang, executive director of Zhejiang Geely Holdings' publicly traded arm, Geely Automobile.
After graduating from high school, he used a small graduation gift to buy a camera and open a photo studio in his village.
He put earnings from that business into an operation salvaging gold from discarded appliances before moving into the refrigerator parts business in 1984.
Motorcycles were next, as he took over an ailing state-run firm in the mid-1990s and turned it into China's best-known domestic brand. He later moved into cars, and built his company into China's largest privately held automaker, aiming to sell 400,000 vehicles this year.
Similarities to Henry Ford
Like Henry Ford, to whom the Economist magazine compared him, Li's focus is on the mass market, with models such as the Free Cruiser and Geely Kingkong, which sell for as little as 40,000 yuan ($5,859). In contrast, Volvo's top of the line XC 90 sells for up to $205,000 in China.
Hong Kong-listed Geely Automobile has seen its stock soar more than 12-fold since 2006, including a more than six-fold jump in 2009 alone on hopes for the Volvo bid, strong sales in the world's largest car market and a major investment by Goldman Sachs.
Li, increasingly setting his sights on expanding onto the global stage, is also nearing a deal to increase Geely's hold on money-losing London black cab taxi maker Manganese Bronze by taking a controlling stake and moving more of the production of the TX4 cab to China.
But Li's apparent early distaste for politics also cost him along the way. His lack of political savvy and government connections almost kept him out of the auto business altogether due to China's complex licensing and permitting requirements.
More recently he has become more practiced at navigating China's political waters, and now serves as a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a largely ceremonial political advisory body.
His bid for Volvo was publicly endorsed by Beijing, in contrast to General Motors Co.'s efforts to sell its Hummer brand to Tengzhong, a little known Chinese machinery maker, which foundered after failing to get state backing.
"Li is indeed a man with vision. He is someone that shouldn't be underestimated," said a senior executive with a major Chinese state auto group who asked not to be identified as he is not authorized to talk to the media.
"I think he has a big chance to make it because he has the Chinese government and, most of all, the huge China market behind him."