Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Leave the Driving to Us -- China Steers Detroit

It comes down to this: I'ts better to build it here, in the US, instead of there, in China. Meanwhile, Americans working for this newly Chinese company should learn all they can about doing, keeping and expanding business with China. This deal appears to open a window through which Americans can learn more about Chinese markets that will become huge in the coming decade.

The Chinese advantage decreases as its prosperity increases. Prosperity is the condition that will level the playing field among global competitors.

A GM Unit in China's Hands

You don't need to understand exchange rates and trade wars to grasp the economic change that has come to Saginaw, Mich. Remarkably, the largest private employer there will soon be the city government of Beijing.

In the weeks ahead, a 104-year-old unit of General Motors will be sold to new owners from China. The unit made steering equipment for decades under the name Saginaw Steering Gear. Now known as Nexteer, it employs 8,300 people around the world. Its new Beijing owners call themselves Pacific Century Motors.

You and the rest of the world probably missed this $450 million deal. General Motors, still controlled by the U.S. government, gave it little attention this summer as it readied its own high-profile return to the stock market.

But it is one of the landmark deals of the era, the first time Chinese investors have bought a U.S. industrial operation of such scale and history: Twenty-two factories around the globe, six engineering centers, 14 customer-support centers. All of it will be run from Saginaw, where devotion to the company extended to a now-defunct hockey team. It called itself the Gears.

The deal will, of course, test China's nascent foreign investment and management prowess. But it is shaping up to be more of a test stateside, where attitudes against China continue to coarsen as unemployment stays stubbornly high and politicians complain about China taking U.S. jobs, if not U.S. pride.

During World War II, Saginaw Steering Gear manufactured M1 carbines used by Marines in the Pacific.

"Did it really need to be sold to the Chinese?" asks Roger Kahn, a Michigan state senator from Saginaw. "I want to see businesses successful in the U.S. owned in the U.S. This doesn't meet the standard."

Ironically, at the G-20 conference in Seoul this week, U.S. leaders are trying to cajole China to buy more from the U.S., to help right a trade deficit that hit $28 billion in August alone. Such imbalances, they say, helped feed the credit craze that culminated in the 2008 financial crisis.

All of these things are conveniently abstract at G-20 meetings. In Saginaw, they are experiencing first hand the collision of two economies in motion, of Chinese ambition and American pride.

People inside and outside the company seem gingerly accepting of Pacific Century, a venture of the city of Beijing's investment arm and a closely held Beijing auto parts company called Tempo Group.

Nexteer was in bad straits in recent years. It has been starved for capital. Its customers—other car companies—preferred it to be independent and not a part of GM.

Once Nexteer hit the auction block, the Chinese investors proved surprisingly thorough, even though some of them didn't speak English, said a person familiar with the transaction. They funded their deal with all cash, using no debt. And the opportunity for Nexteer to penetrate the Chinese auto market, soon to be the world's largest, was a major selling point for GM, this person said.

Beating out Korean and U.S. private-equity buyers, the two sides announced their deal at a small July news conference in Saginaw. U.S. and Chinese flags flanked the dais.

"I'm sure there are a lot of people who are not happy they're Chinese-owned," says Scott Somers, who runs Mid-States Bolt & Screw just down the road from Nexteer, which is a customer. "But at this point it seems to be a positive thing. Lots of businesses are involved with that complex and depend on it for their livelihood."

The feeling is more begrudging for the workers inside the company. One, who called the Chinese "commies," complained to a union official that the U.S. flag and a P.O.W.-M.I.A. memorial flag were taken down when Chinese officials visited recently. A company spokesman said he had no knowledge of any flags being taken down.

And while they like the stability of new owners, "everyone is concerned about long-term viability," said one United Auto Workers official who asked not to be named. The union recently took a pay cut ahead of the transaction. "We don't know whether the intention is to buy the book of business and move to China or stay here. We do not feel comfortable."

One can sympathize with the union's worries of a Trojan horse. Auto parts have remained a key U.S. export. And Nexteer's new owners are eager to buy the company because of its more than 1,000 patents, says Jack Chen, an investment banker at Los Angeles's Transworld Capital Group who helped arrange the deal. "This dramatically shortens the technology gap between China and the rest of the world," he said in an interview.

It is hard to know just how the technology will make its way back to China in the years ahead. Nor whether that will hurt or help the people who work in Michigan or those served by the Beijing city government.

Meantime, Saginaw must strike a most practical of arrangements. Chinese capital and access to its home markets is once again giving the city some optimism after unemployment spiked to 14% early this year. The company is adding 100 engineering jobs this year. It is expected to increase its United Way contribution after having to reduce its gifts in recent years.

More broadly, direct Chinese investment on U.S. shores may help improve the countries' fraught trade relationship, in the same way that a wave of Japanese auto plants did here in the 1980s and 1990s.

More investment may also give the U.S. leverage to encourage China to open up its borders to U.S. firms, which are frequently hamstrung by onerous investment rules.

The U.S. was built on foreign investment for centuries, reminds Dewey & LeBoeuf attorney Alan Wolff, a former U.S. trade negotiator. "And we should bolster any investment that encourages U.S. manufacturing, including from China. We'd rather build it here than there."

And so it begins. The Pacific Century.

First stop, Saginaw.

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Blogger SNAKE HUNTERS said...

India's population explosion must not be ignored; studies indicate a huge market potential for Ford and General Motors, and their sub-contractors. - reb
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11:52 AM  

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