Move over Elon Musk, meet Wang Chuanfu, the Chinese billionaire whose company sells more electric cars than Tesla. While Musk plainly dismisses his cars as bad products, his company is backed by Warren Buffet and sells 150 cars every hour.

Wang Chuanfu of BYD attends the press conference of the company’s interim result 2012 at Conrad Hotel, Admiralty in Hong Kong. Photo: Sam Tsang

About 20 years ago, Chinese billionaire Wang Chuanfu had a plan to buy a failing state car manufacturer and replace its internal combustion engines with batteries to launch his own electric vehicles venture.

Today his company BYD has dethroned Tesla as the most popular maker of battery-driven cars in the market, per Financial Times. In July, Forbes even reported that BYD’s stock jumped 90 per cent despite the ongoing Covid-19 cases in the country as he raked in another US$7 billion. His personal wealth is valued at over US$25 billion, which makes him currently the 22nd richest person in China, per FT.

Wang Chuanfu, chairman and president of BYD Auto, the biggest global electric brand by sales volume, prepares to show the latest cars during the Auto Shanghai 2019 show in Shanghai. Photo: AP

The chemist and billionaire entrepreneur is known for his innovative ideas and, with his company at the forefront in dominating the electric vehicles market, it seems that Wang isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Here’s what you should know about him …

Wang Chuanfu, founder and chairman of BYD Auto, attends a news conference in Hong Kong, in March 2018. Photo: Bloomberg

Wang Chuanfu got Warren Buffett’s support, but are his shares for sale?
His company BYD – short for “build your dreams”– is backed by American billionaire Warren Buffett. In 2003, BYD pivoted from being the world’s largest manufacturer of rechargeable mobile phone batteries to becoming a leader in the automotive sector.

American investor Warren Buffett, centre, and Chinese tycoon, BYD Chairman Wang Chuanfu, right, pose with one of taxi drivers from the first BYD taxi team, in Shenzhen city, Guangdong province, in 2010. Photo: AP

But BYD has received little brand recognition outside of China, despite the company selling more than 641,000 vehicles in the first half of 2022, per Forbes. Meanwhile, CNBC reported that it sold about 130,000 last year. BYD’s success mainly stems from being able to build longer-lasting batteries and cheaper vehicles than American and Japanese manufacturers, according to Fortune.

BYD chairman Wang Chuanfu, Berkshire Hathaway vice-chairman Charles Munger and Berkshire chairman Warren Buffett pour wine to commemorate BYD in 2010. Photo: Neil Gough

In 2008, Buffett bought 10 per cent of BYD for US$232 million on the advice of his chairman. This July, he enjoyed a 33-fold gain after 13 years of investment, per Nikkei. However, rumour has it that the American billionaire’s stake is now for sale and has affected BYD’s share price.

“This guy is a combination of Thomas Edison and Jack Welch – something like Edison in solving technical problems, and something like Welch in getting done what he needs to do,” Munger said of Wang, to Fortune. “I have never seen anything like it.”

Wang Chuanfu of BYD attends the press conference of the company’s interim result 2012, at Conrad Hotel, Admiralty, Hong Kong. Photo: Sam Tsang

His US$25 billion net worth
While his wealth accounted for US$27 billion in July, Wang’s net worth slightly declined at time of writing to US$25 billion, per Forbes’ real-time data. Still, Wang’s giant net worth can’t be ignored.

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Wang topped the Forbes China rich list back in 2009 after his firm received the boost from Buffett, reported China Daily. At the time, Wang gained US$5.1 billion and was placed first on the annual Chinese rich list compiled by Hurun, a Shanghai-based consultancy.

Wang Chuanfu, chairman and president of BYD, attends the company’s 2017 interim results press conference in Wan Chai, Hong Kong. Photo: Nora Tam

In 2021, Forbes reported that Wang’s wealth increased to US$23.5 billion and made him the 14th richest person in China at the time, thanks to the twofold increase in BYD’s share price.

Wang Chuanfu, founder and chairman of Chinese carmaker BYD, does a chin-up in an electric bus during a visit by former California Governor Jerry Brown and wife Anne Gust, with Michael Austin, former vice-president of BYD America, in Shenzhen, China, in April 2013. Photo: AP

How did he dethrone Elon Musk’s Tesla?
BYD now competes with Musk’s Tesla in becoming the world’s largest electric cars manufacturer. But ironically, Musk dismissed his product. “Have you seen their car?” Musk said in a 2011 Bloomberg interview. “I don’t think they make a good product.”

Elon Musk arrives for the 2022 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, in New York. Photo: AFP via Getty Images/TNS

So how did Wang beat out Musk? The tenacious businessman seemed to encounter less issues during the Covid-19 pandemic and even made fat profits due to his company’s ability to diversify supply chains and production bases – unlike Musk who had to shut down his China company to comply with Shanghai’s punishing two-month lockdown.

Tesla is a multibillion-dollar company run by the world’s richest man, Elon Musk. Photo: @tesla_hk/Instagram

BYD also has a unique business model where it doesn’t source parts from specialised manufacturers. Instead, it manufactures its own chips and batteries as well as EVs – 90 per cent of BYD car parts – and thus protects the company from supply and logistic strains, as Forbes explained.

BYD vehicles stand in front of a charging car park tower at the company’s headquarters in Shenzhen, China, in September 2017. Photo: Bloomberg

This year, BYD beat out Tesla in sales after they sold 641,350 new energy vehicles in the first half of 2022, while Tesla only delivered around 564,740 vehicles.

When asked why Wang sought after building an electric car company, he told CNBC that “as petrol was set to create an (environmental) problem, we needed to start developing electric cars. The future of electric cars in China is very bright”.

A BYD electric bus arrives at a public transport hub in Shenzhen, China. Photo: Bloomberg

BYD produces electric vans in a joint venture with Mercedes-Benz (with a starting price of US$50,000), but its main focuses are passenger cars, buses, trucks, electric bicycles, forklifts and rechargeable batteries.

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BYD’s Wang Chuanfu attends BYD Company Limited press conference on its 2017 annual results in Admiralty, Hong Kong. Photo: Edmond So

His company also produces five million surgical masks per day
The Shenzhen-based electric-vehicle maker has also claimed to be the world’s largest manufacturer of masks, churning out about five million a day, per Fortune Magazine. He reportedly became one of the first businessmen to make a pivot to meet the Covid-19 mask demand.

Workers loading boxes of surgical masks donated by BYD, bound for the United States. Photo: Jack Ma Foundation

He created a task force to design and build new production lines to manufacture face masks and hand sanitiser (300,000 bottles daily). With the help of 3,000 engineers, the company built mask machines within seven days. Now, dozens of the machines can be made daily, per China Daily.

“As a representative of the Chinese manufacturing industry, we felt we should lend a hand in this situation and use all our strength to produce the much-needed masks,” Wang said at the beginning of 2020.

Wang Chuanfu, now a multibillionaire, came from humble roots. Photo: @officialchuanfu/Twitter

He overcame great poverty and wears national pride on his sleeve
Born in Wuwei County in Anhui province to a family of poor farmers, the 56-year-old business mogul was raised by his siblings after they lost their parents, according to multiple reports.

He then studied chemistry at the Central South University and obtained a master’s degree from the Beijing Non-Ferrous Research Institute that led him to work as a government researcher before founding BYD in the 90s.

BYD’s Wang Chuanfu talks to the press at the company’s 2010 annual results announcement. Photo: Jonathan Wong

But Wang faced immense struggles in the beginning due to the lack of government funding for researchers and resorted to borrowing money from relatives to set up his nickel batteries shop, per Financial Times.

Wang Chuanfu attend a news conference ahead of the Beijing auto show in Beijing, China, in April 2018. Photo: Reuters

He’s since come a long way, to say the least. When asked by CNBC why he got into the industry, Wang replied, “I think it stems from curiosity. When we see something good, we wonder how come it’s so good, and we want to find out why and how it’s created, to find the root cause of its goodness.”

He also takes pride in his country and once shared that “I believe Chinese companies can become leaders in the alternative car business because we make good batteries,” per FT.

Note: This story was originally published on SCMP and has been republished on this website.

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