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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

China's Geely becomes largest investor in Daimler after buying $9bn stake

Billionaire Li Shufu, the owner and chairman of the Chinese carmaker holds about 10 per cent of the German company

Chinese carmaker Geely CEO Li Shufu bought a near 10-percent stake in Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler, making him the German group's largest single shareholder. NICOLAS MAETERLINCK / AFP
Chinese carmaker Geely CEO Li Shufu bought a near 10-percent stake in Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler, making him the German group's largest single shareholder. NICOLAS MAETERLINCK / AFP

The founder of Chinese manufacturer Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. has acquired a stake worth about 7.3 billion euros ($9bn) in Daimler to become the largest investor in the German automaker.

Daimler confirmed the holding in a regulatory filing, shortly after Bloomberg News first reported that Geely has been building up a position of just under 10 per cent through purchases in the stock market in recent weeks. Billionaire Li Shufu, the owner and chairman of the Chinese carmaker, acquired the stake through an investment fund, the filing shows.

The investment in the parent of Mercedes-Benz furthers Hangzhou-based Geely’s foray into the European premium automotive market and ends months of speculation. The Chinese company already owns Volvo Cars, whose refreshed line-up of vehicles have made it a popular alternative to the German luxury stalwarts.

“A Geely stake in Daimler would underscore their push for cooperation that’ll help them get more expertise, like electric cars,” said Frank Biller, a Stuttgart-based analyst with Landesbank Baden-Wuerttemberg. “At the same time, this opens another path into China for Daimler.”

Daimler, which said it welcomes another major investor, has been on an upward trajectory, reclaiming the No. 1 spot in luxury cars from BMW by broadening its offerings to include more SUVs and freshening its lineup with sportier designs. The Stuttgart-based carmaker sees the investment as a vote of confidence, spokesman Joerg Howe said by phone.

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“Li Shufu is a Chinese entrepreneur Daimler knows well and regards highly in terms of his competency and focus on future developments,” Mr Howe said. “Daimler already has a strong footing in China. We have a very strong partner with our existing cooperation with BAIC Motor.”

Representatives at Geely couldn’t immediately be reached outside business hours in Asia.

Chinese companies have been more active buying into German companies in recent years. HNA Group Co. has a stake of about 8.8 per cent in Deutsche Bank, and industrial-robot maker Kuka was purchased by Midea, the world’s largest appliance maker a few years ago.

In December, Li became the biggest shareholder in Sweden’s Volvo, the world’s second-largest truckmaker, following a $3.9bn deal with activist investor Cevian Capital. In 2010, he acquired Volvo Cars from Ford Motor Co., and last year won control of British sports-car maker Lotus Cars Ltd.

The Chinese firm, which controls Hong Kong-listed Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd., has ambitious expansion plans for both its home market and overseas as it takes on global car majors. Geely plans to start selling a compact five-seat SUV, currently marketed under the Lynk & Co brand, outside China from mid-2019. It’s likely to look first at Europe.

As Geely has made an unprecedented foray into Europe, Daimler too is undergoing significant change. The carmaker plans its biggest corporate overhaul in a decade to break up its conglomerate structure to create a holding company.

Daimler firmed up plans toward the end of 2017 to break up its rigid conglomerate structure, instead creating a holding company with three separate units: Mercedes-Benz Cars & Vans, Daimler Trucks & Buses and the financial-services division. While Daimler said the move isn’t a prelude to a spin-off of any of the businesses, some investors have called on the company to consider an eventual split on the back of the clearer delineation between the units.

Kuwait’s sovereign wealth fund, which has been an investor in Daimler for decades, was the largest stakeholder in the automaker as of the end of December with a 6.8 per cent holding.

Daimler isn’t the only German automaker to have a big anchor investor: Volkswagen is essentially controlled by the Porsche-Piech billionaire clan, while also counting the government of Qatar as a major stakeholder. BMW is controlled by the Quandt-Klatten family, whose billionaire siblings boosted their personal holdings in the second-largest luxury carmaker this year after equally dividing their late mother’s stake.

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