The Rise and Precarious Reign of China’s Drum King

Enlarge / Zeng Yuqun, chairman of Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. (CATL), poses for a photo in Ningde, Fujian province, China, Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

The headquarters of battery giant CATL dominates the Chinese coastal city of Ningde. To the untrained eye, the building looks like a huge slide emerging from the urban sprawl. It’s actually a giant monument to the company’s raison d’être: the lithium-ion battery.

You may never have heard of CATL, but you’ve definitely heard of the brands that rely on its batteries. The company provides more than 30 percent of electric vehicle batteries worldwide and counts Tesla, Kia and BMW among its customers. Its founder and chairman, 54-year-old Zeng Yuqun, also known as Robin Zeng, has quickly established himself as the industry’s kingmaker. Insiders describe Zeng as savvy, direct, and even abrasive. Under his leadership, CATL’s valuation soared to 1.2 trillion Chinese yuan ($179 billion), more than General Motors and Ford combined. Part of this fortune is based on owning stakes in mining projects in China, the Democratic Republic of Congoand Indonesiagiving CATL a better grip on a already tense global battery supply chain.

Such scale gives CATL enormous influence – and allows the company to be picky with its contracts and push higher commodity prices. about its customers. “They pretty much dictate the terms,” says Mark Greeven, professor of innovation and strategy at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland. CATL encourages its customers to enter into long-term contracts over five years. and it’s reluctant to customize its batteries for different automakers, he adds.

So far, these decisions have helped make Zeng rich, very rich. He ranks 29th on Forbes2022 list of the richest people in the world. On Bloomberg’s 2021 list of the best in the world green billionaires, he is second only to Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Musk could make more headlines, but Zeng wields almost as much power.

But Zeng is not Musk. He dodges the limelight and rarely gives interviews. Insiders point out that Zeng operates in an environment where notoriety might hinder, not help, his business. “In the West, the personality cult style of leadership is something that is valued, encouraged and celebrated. In China, it’s dangerous,” says Bill Russo, former head of automaker Chrysler’s Northeast Asia business in Beijing, who now runs Shanghai-based consultancy Automobility. “You can’t be bigger than Beijing.” Automakers are also beginning to be wary of CATL’s power as they look elsewhere for batteries to power their vehicles.

China dominates electric vehicle battery supply
Enlarge / China dominates electric vehicle battery supply

Ars-Technica

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