‘Hard life’ in revitalising Proton, but he’s loving it


  • Nation
  • Sunday, 10 Mar 2019

Product excellence: Proton’s image has gone up after the launch of Proton X70, according to a customer survey.

AUTO specialist Dr Li Chunrong has been working 12 hours a day, six days a week for Proton Holdings Bhd in the past 17 months to rescue the persistent loss-making company.

These long working hours may seem gruelling for many people, but for the 56-year old Chinese national who was headhunted to lead Proton, working hard to achieve his mission is in his DNA.

China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group sent Dr Li to Kuala Lumpur after it acquired a 49.9% stake in Proton from DRB-Hicom Bhd in mid-2017 to become its strategic partner.

“In Proton, I work 12 hours a day, six days per week. But I have been doing so since I started working,” says the Proton chief executive officer of 17 months in an interview with Sunday Star.

“I am a kumin ren,” he quips in Mandarin, meaning he is someone destined to lead a very hard life.

In fact, there is little choice for Dr Li but to lead the charge at Proton. Expectations on him to turn Proton into a viable and professionally run company are high.

“Li Chunrong has a mission: to revive Malaysia’s national car – not any car.

“This mission is not just his own personal commitment, but also the dream of China,” says Datuk Keith Li Zhongping, president of the China Entrepreneurs Association in Malaysia.

Now that Proton is confident of generating profits in 2019 or 2020, many are excited.

“Inviting Geely to take a strategic stake in Proton is the best move our government has ever made.

“And appointing Li to be the Proton CEO is wise. We are witnessing the rebirth of Proton,” says Ian Yoong, investment consultant for businesses from China.

Dr Li’s credentials are near impeccable. He is academically qualified and possesses the relevant auto experience.

He graduated from Huazhong University of Science and Technology with a Bachelor of Electrical Automation, followed by a Master in Industrial Engineering and Management.

He pursued a second master’s degree in business at the world-class Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States.

After MIT, Dr Li returned to Huazhong Unveristy to earn a PhD in Management Engineering.

Dr Li started his career with Dongfeng Motor Corporation in 1987, where he was involved in Dongfeng’s joint ventures with Peugeot, Honda, Nissan, Kia and Cummins.

In 2007, he set up Dongfeng Passenger Vehicle Company. His efforts in establishing the firm’s design, branding and production systems led to the company’s success.

When Dr Li was serving as executive vice-president of Dongfeng Honda Engine Company, he was handpicked by Geely to spearhead Proton’s transformation.

At the first local press conference to announce his appointment as Proton CEO on Sept 29, 2017, Dr Li pledged: “My job is not to look at the past. I will work day and night to make sure Proton is strongly successful.”

Proton, set up in early 1980s when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the Prime Minister for the first time, had undergone several rescue exercises before Geely came in.

The government had injected more than RM15bil into Proton, but this did not stop Proton from bleeding and piling with debts.

Dr Li is optimistic about Proton after months of planning, revamp, problem-solving and practising leadership by example.

But success did not come easy for the auto veteran, who knew little about Malaysia’s complex multi-racial society.

When Dr Li instituted reforms one year ago to upgrade Proton sales centres, his new management faced sharp criticism of harbouring discrimination against bumiputras.

But this bitter experience has become history after upgraded service centres began to enjoy more businesses and higher profitability.

The newly launched SUV Proton X70, which has received 20,000 orders, is set to boost revenue for Proton this year.

As a result of optimism, analysts expect financial improvement in Proton’s parent company DRB-Hicom Bhd. Public Investment Bank recently maintained an “outperform” call on DRB-Hicom with a target price of RM2.10.

Inundated with good news, it is no wonder Dr Li wears a wide smile throughout his lively interview with Sunday Star.

He says: “I am happy now. Things are on track. Starting from 60,000 units, my next target for Proton is 100,000 units, followed by 150,000 and 200,000.

“I now have the support of everybody. Malaysia is wonderful, the climate and air is good and the food is wonderful.”

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