ECONOMY

Chinese billionaires/CATL: a lower profile means higher net worth

The status of Chinese billionaires can offer a useful indicator of a sector’s health. Since Alibaba founder Jack Ma lost the title of China’s richest man earlier this year, tech stock prices have slid downhill. The latest mega-rich local to top China’s wealth ranking is Zeng Yuqun, founder of the country’s biggest electric car battery maker CATL.

Zeng’s $49.5bn net worth has overtaken Ma’s $48bn, according to Bloomberg data. His 25 per cent stake in Contemporary Amperex Technology, better known as CATL, rose 170 per cent in the last year.

It benefits from the impressive local sales growth of new energy cars, which includes battery driven ones. In June, units rose 139 per cent even as total car sales fell 12 per cent. Expect more to come. Electric cars still account for just 7 per cent of the total.

CATL has positioned itself well, with 44 per cent of the local battery market. It has continued building capacity aggressively, with the plants under construction set to double its current production potential. It is a major supplier to Tesla. But unlike rivals such as Panasonic, which relies heavily on a handful of clients, CATL has diversified. It supplies both local carmakers, including Xpeng, and global manufacturers such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Credit for that dominant position goes to government backing. Favourable policies, sales quotas and a rapid buildout of charging infrastructure have all helped. It still relies heavily on Beijing, for subsidies for example, to maintain this rapid expansion.

Then again, that means CATL and its dominant position hardly threatens the government’s remit. That contrasts with local tech giants which have suffered under Beijing’s scrutiny. Encouraging users to switch to a smaller, rival ecommerce app looks a simpler prospect than getting other battery makers to build new plants. China takes its 2060 carbon neutral pledge seriously and needs all the capacity it can get.

Another positive attribute for Zeng: most people outside of China have never heard of him. A low profile should protect CATL from disruptive regulatory risk.

Lex recommends the FT’s Due Diligence newsletter, a curated briefing on the world of mergers and acquisitions. Click here to sign up.

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