Warren Buffett doesn’t typically invest in new technology companies. But when he discovered BYD Auto, the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK.A) chairman and CEO knew that he had found something special.BYD Auto – not to be confused with Boyd Gaming, whose stock symbol matches BYD’s initials – is an auto company that is defined simply as Build Your Dreams.
In 2009, Warren Buffett announced that he was investing in the dream.
At this year’s North American International Auto Show, Michael Austin, the VP of BYD America, told Benzinga how Buffett came to the company, and why he chose BYD over another automaker.
“I would tell you, it is that BYD wasn’t like a Detroit auto company,” Austin said. “We weren’t. We weren’t coming out of the same tub. We weren’t coming to compete with Kia or Hyundai. We weren’t coming here to compete on price. We had something completely different. Even our vision was not about making EVs and flooding the market with EVs. It wasn’t even that vision.”
Austin credits BYD’s holistic vision – which includes putting solar panels on the roof of every home and adding solar panels to every parking lot – as being another major feature that attracted Buffett to the company.
“I think he was really, really keen on – even though he didn’t understand the technology, he caught the vision,” Austin continued. “[This is] a Chinese company that’s thinking about the environment, and it’s thinking about how to change China. And certainly Warren said, ‘I need that in the U.S.’ BYD wasn’t convinced that he needed it in the U.S.”
But Buffett didn’t give up. “Warren pushed them a lot,” Austin said. “Because the truth is, the market is in China. The market is in India next. It’s never going to be in the U.S. We’re going to sell, what, 10 to 15 million vehicles here. They sold 15 million in China alone! They passed the U.S. market two years ago.”
To be clear, Austin says that the whole Chinese market is at 15 million automobiles a year, whereas the U.S. market is only at 11 million. In the prior year, the U.S. market was at 9 million, whereas the Chinese market had swelled to 13.
“What’s the penetration for vehicle usage in the United States?” Austin questions. “90-eight per cent. What’s the penetration in China? Six.”
With 1.6 billion people, there’s a lot of room for growth. “The middle class has reached 30% – 30% wants a car,” Austin insists. “They don’t have a dream of owning a home. Their dream is mobile. Their dream is getting a car so they can be mobile. And they’ll do one car per family, that’s still the goal. But one car per middle-class family is still 320 million cars yet to be sold. It would take me 80 years to sell 320 million cars in the U.S. and Europe put together. So China’s the market.”
But where does that leave America? Can Detroit automakers make a comeback?
“I think Detroit has the willpower,” Austin said. “Detroit certainly has the manpower. They have the resources. They don’t need new leadership, they just need brave leadership. And it takes some guts to say, ‘I’m gonna go first in the market,’ like GM did with the EV1. You know? And it takes some guts to say, ‘I’m gonna crush all those EV1s.'”
Finally, when asked if he believed that David Sokol would be Buffett’s successor, Austin said that he didn’t need to say that himself. “It’s been published that he’s a likely candidate,” Austin said. “And you know, only Warren and Charlie – Charlie seems to know more about his successor than Warren knows. [Laughs] It’s true! You should ask him.”
— Louis Bedigian