The bigger picture

Proton Iriz media driving experience. Convoy gets ready to depart Proton Centre of Excellence in Shah Alam fro Penang.

If Proton wants to have a global view, it must have a global team in place

IF we listen to the race-laced statements of some of our politicians and self-appointed communal leaders, no non-Malays and foreigners should hold any top government post, including government-linked companies.

The rambling and grumbling still continue over the appointment of Datuk Subromaniam Tholasy as the director-general of the Customs Department.

It was the same irrational pre-occupation with race when a foreigner was picked to rescue the ailing Malaysia Airlines.

And now even Proton Holdings Bhd – although it is already a private-owned company.

So recently, Parti Amanah Negara, playing the race card, raised questions over why a China national should be made the chief executive officer (CEO) of Proton’s manufacturing arm.

Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) deputy president, Aminuddin Yahaya, went a step further, describing the appointment of Dr Li Chunrong as a “tragedy to a national asset”.

It never occurred to them, or they pretended not to acknowledge, that the reality of Proton is that it has cost Malaysians as much as RM360bil from the time the first Proton was rolled out from the Shah Alam assembly plant in 1985.

It has been a failure and even if Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his supporters still stubbornly insist it is a national asset, the results have shown otherwise. It has become a liability.

The federal government has tried all it can to protect the national car with protectionist policies, resulting in Malaysians having to pay outrageous amounts for foreign cars, but Proton has failed.

We all know the story well. Proton is now owned by DRB-Hicom Bhd, with China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co Ltd (Geely) as its partner.

Geely acquired a 49.9% stake in Proton for RM460.3mil from DRB-Hicom, which owns the remaining 50.1% stake.

A new Chinese CEO has been named to take over Proton’s manufacturing operations, with a promise to turn it around within five years.

Why would anyone care about the nationality or the race or religion of anyone heading a company or government department? Apparently, some misguided individuals and groups do, but they should be ignored.

In the case of Proton, many tend to forget that between 1987 and 1993, two different Japanese men had led the company.

They were of course from Mitsubishi Motors Corp, Proton’s founding partners. Iwabuchi-san and Hattori-san were the first two foreign managing directors of the national carmaker.

So, having a foreign CEO isn’t a new thing for Proton. Some politicians, of course, have selective memories.

It certainly isn’t a foreign concept either. This is certainly true across all industries as well. British Petroleum of Britain is led by an American (Bob Dudley); the Coca-Cola Company is led by a Turkish national, Muhtar Kent, who also has American citizenship; Deutsche Bank is led by an American, John Cryan; Merck & Co, which was a German company at founding, is now American-owned and led by Austrian Peter Loscher.

The Renault-Nissan Alliance is led by a Brazilian in Carlos Ghosn; and Peugeot Citroen (PSA Groupe), a traditional French company, is being led by Carlos Tavares, a Portugal national.

Malaysians, who still can’t get over the race and nationality issues, need to look at the bigger picture here. If Proton wants to have a global view, then it is a must for it to have a global team in place.

On the subject of nationality, the “nationality” of a carmaker today isn’t necessarily depicted by the nationality of their owners.

There are many OEMs – original equipment manufacturers – in the world that represent their country of origin but are owned by foreign groups.

Jaguar Land Rover is for all intents and purposes a British brand, but is owned by India’s TATA Group; Skoda originated from the Czech Republic but is now owned by the Germans; and Volvo remains a Swedish carmaker but is owned by Geely.

Conversely, why should the nationality of a company’s leadership have any link to the “nationality” of the company itself?

Just take a look at the Volvo Cars management team. Apart from Swedish nationals, they have a Dutch, a Chinese, a German, a Spaniard, a British and an American of Indian descent.

So yes, apart from having a shareholder from China, Proton is very much a Malaysian automotive company.

DRB-Hicom remains the majority shareholder of Proton, and the new management entry doesn’t mean that Proton is no longer a Malaysian brand.

Volvo is technically China-owned, but does anyone see Volvo as a China company? Even the noisy protestors whining about the Chinese CEO at Proton wouldn’t think so, even if they refuse to acknowledge it.

Dr Li is a graduate of Huazhong University of Science and Technology with a Bachelor of Electrical Automation, followed by a Master of Industrial Engineering and Management.

He then attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to complete a second Master’s degree in Business Administration. Dr Li then went back to his first alma mater, where he obtained a Ph.D. in Management Engineering.

His first job was in 1987 when he joined Dongfeng Motor Corp (DMC), a Chinese state-owned company founded in 1969.

It is today one of the top-four carmakers in China. In 1997, he ascended the post of deputy director of the board secretary’s office. In this role, he led the formation of five joint-ventures with DMC; the partners were PSA, Honda, Nissan, Kia and Cummins. So, Dr Li has the credentials and experience in working with global brands.

Dr Li subsequently joined one of the joint-ventures he helped form; in 2002, he was appointed executive vice-president of Dongfeng Yueda Kia Motor Co Ltd.

Five years later, in 2007, Dr Li set up Dongfeng Passenger Vehicle Company. Here, he honed his skills in design, development and production systems as he built the company from the ground up.

He oversaw the first prototype model in October 2008, and the launch of its first model, the S30, in 2009.

Then, there is Winfried Vahland, who is now a member of the board at Proton. He was chairman of the board and CEO at Skoda Auto, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group.

Vahland graduated from Darmstadt Technical University, majoring in Mechanical Engineering and Business Administration. He participated in a Master’s Programme in Business Administration (MBA) at the General Motors Institute in Michigan in the United States.

In 1984, he began working as a project analyst of European investments at Adam Opel AG, before moving on to become the head of manufacturing strategy review at General Motors Europe in 1987.

In 1997, Vahland was appointed as the finance executive director of Volkswagen Brazil. One year later, he became the company’s vice-president for finance and corporate strategy. He also took responsibility for the Argentine market.

In August 2002, Vahland became a member of the board of directors at Skoda, where he was subsequently promoted to vice-chairman of the board of directors one year later.

In July 2005, he assumed the position of president and CEO of Volkswagen (China) Investment Company (a subsidiary of Volkswagen Group China), as well as global vice-president of Volkswagen AG. He was appointed executive vice-president of Volkswagen AG in the following year (July 2016).

In September 2010, Vahland returned to Mladá Boleslav, and was appointed as chairman of the Skoda board until October 2015. And Skoda is one of the successful turnaround companies under Volkswagen; from languishing sales and deep losses to a highly profitable company now under the leadership of Vahland.

We are talking about top-quality executives with solid credentials. They have huge expertise and experience at national and international levels.

In the case of Vahland, it is a huge bonus to have him on the board of Proton. His turnaround playbook at Skoda will surely come in handy in Proton.

Perhaps, we should all take a leaf out of one of China’s most famous leaders, Deng Xiaoping’s book, which states that “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice”.

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Business , proton , CEo , foreigner


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