Michigan auto czar leading trade trip to China

Updated: 2013-10-17 09:10

By Michael Barris in New York (China Daily USA)

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For Nigel Francis, China is both Michigan's "highest priority and greatest opportunity" as a source of automotive-industry investment.

That's why Francis, the state's newly appointed automotive adviser, is leading a delegation of state economic development officials and executives from Michigan companies on a nine-day auto-focused trip to China.

The visit, which began Monday, comes a month after Michigan Governor Rick Snyder wrapped up a 10-day trade mission to China.

"Michigan's strategic priorities for success in our automotive industry are directly connected to global outreach, and China is our highest priority and greatest opportunity," Francis said in a statement. Michigan, Francis said, "can partner with China on every step of its automotive industry evolution and growth, from R&D and prototyping to clean tech and connected vehicles".

The delegation will spend two days at the Global Automotive Forum in Wuhan, in Hubei province, with executives from Chinese automakers and suppliers, according to the release by the state marketing arm, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The delegation will also visit the automotive centers of Shanghai and Ningbo, in Zhejiang province.

In an interview from Beijing last month near the end of his China trade mission, Snyder told China Daily that Michigan was focusing on bringing more Chinese automotive companies to the state. More than 100 companies from China have set up shop in the Detroit area in the past decade to have access to the area's engineering talent.

Last year, Michigan, which ranks ninth in the US in Chinese investment, sent nearly $3.3 billion in goods to China, a 22 percent jump from 2011, led by $1.6 billion in transportation- and automotive-related items.

"Nigel and his team will build on and strengthen relationships we developed and carry the message that Michigan is the location of choice for automotive investment in North America," Snyder said in the MEDC release.

Michigan created its auto czar position last month in response to aggressive campaigns by other states "aimed at stealing some of Michigan's thunder as the nation's premier automotive state," according to the Detroit News. Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia have all formed automotive manufacturing associations since the late 1980s.

Francis, 53, is a British-born engineer whose 29-year automotive career in Europe and the US included stints as a vice president of Mercedes-Benz Technology North America, executive vice president of plug-in hybrid venture Bright Automotive and an engineering and program management role with Tata Technologies.

"We've gotten past the bottom, and we've now got to climb back up the ladder," Francis said in the MEDC release. "There are some big changes working in our favor in the global economy right now. It's cheaper to design, engineer and manufacture a car in North American than in Europe, and every day, the cost of doing business in China gets more expensive, which means the gap between us and China gets smaller."

China overtook the United States in 2009 as the world's largest automotive market. A study by consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers in August said the global auto market will continue to expand in the coming years, driven particularly by China where sales will nearly double to 27.7 million units by 2019.

Auto sales in the US have rebounded as Americans replace older models and take advantage of dealer incentives, including interest-free financing. Since 2009, new vehicle spending in the US is up nearly $500 billion, or 48 percent, according to the MEDC release.

In September, amid concerns over the impact of a federal government shutdown, the annual US auto sales rate was 15.28 million vehicles, close to what many analysts expected. Michigan's share is estimated to be more than 21 percent of the 2013 total. Automotive employment in the state increased 31 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to MEDC.

Contact the writer via michaelbarris@chinadailyusa.com