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A123 buyer quietly built presence

Brent Anderson is operations manager at a Wanxiang solar facility in Illinois.

John Zich for The Boston Globe

Brent Anderson is operations manager at a Wanxiang solar facility in Illinois.

ELGIN, Ill. — Despite the concern about China snatching American technology, the Chinese company slated to buy Waltham battery maker A123 Systems Inc. has been a fixture in US manufacturing for two decades, building a base in the Midwest and saving thousands of old-line factory jobs at a time when local businesses were folding.

Wanxiang America Corp., the North American arm of a Chinese conglomerate, owns several auto parts factories in the United States, and provides parts for one out of three cars manufactured in America. It is a major property owner in the Midwest, leasing to Walgreens drugstores among other businesses, and its growing presence in the alternative energy business includes a large stake in GreatPoint Energy of Cambridge.

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Supporters say Wanxiang is a model corporate citizen in its American communities. Its Chinese executive sent his children to local public schools, and the company finances exchange programs to China for local students. Moreover, they said its investments have preserved American jobs in the heartland.

“If we can’t work with a company that has the extraordinary track record of Wanxiang, then who can we work with?” asked William Kirby, who wrote a case study of Wanxiang for Harvard Business School, where he is the Spangler Family professor of business administration. “Their core business remains manufacturing, and if we say we want to preserve manufacturing in this country, this is one way of doing it — through international partnerships.”

The company’s political connections are hard to ignore: Former mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, whose brother was chief of staff to President Obama, is a Wanxiang consultant. In China, the parent company, Wanxiang Group, has close ties to prominent state-owned businesses, and its chief executive, Lu Guanqiu, is a member of the national Legislature and one of the country’s richest men.

Now Wanxiang’s pending purchase of A123 Systems has critics complaining US taxpayers are underwriting China’s expansion into cutting-edge technologies and is reminiscent of the 1980s when companies from another fast-rising Asian nation, Japan, bought up American assets, including New York’s Rockefeller Center.

A123 Systems received more than $200 million in government funds to develop batteries for electric vehicles and power delivery systems before it went bankrupt. Last week, Wanxiang won a court-led auction to buy most of A123’s assets for $256.6 million; the deal must be approved by a US panel that reviews foreign investments.

‘The philosophy has always been [to] grow in the region, invest in the region, and then reinvest.’

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The purchase has put a spotlight on a Chinese company that has spent nearly 20 years steadily — and quietly — building a diversified conglomerate from the Chicago suburb of Elgin. Housed in an undistinguished office park just off the interstate, Wanxiang (pronounced won-shiung) America is a $2 billion operation with more than 3,000 employees, 27 manufacturing facilities, and a venture capital firm in Chicago.

“The philosophy has always been [to] grow in the region, invest in the region, and then reinvest,” said its president, Pin Ni, who is the son-in-law of company founder Lu.

The company that Lu started with about $500 in 1969 neatly follows the arc of modern China, from its origins repairing farm tools during the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution to becoming an international conglomerate with fingers in every corner of the global economy, following the central government’s goal of diversifying Chinese industry and influence abroad.

A worker at Wanxiang’s solar panel manufacturing plant in Rockford, Ill.

John Zich for The Boston Globe

A worker at Wanxiang’s solar panel manufacturing plant in Rockford, Ill.

Flush with cash, Chinese firms have stepped up their overseas investments, buying companies or taking stakes in others at a $60 billion annual clip in recent years, according to the Rhodium Group, a New York City research firm that tracks foreign investments. In just the first three quarters of this year alone Chinese firms invested a record $6.3 billion in US businesses, said Thilo Hanemann, Rhodium’s research director.

“Wanxiang is one of the biggest Chinese investors in the US,” Hanemann said. “They have some solar, they have some real estate investments. So they’ve turned from an auto parts supplier into a diversified business.”

Privately held, mostly by the Lu family, Wanxiang has grown into a $16 billion company with offices around the world on the strength of its signature product: the universal joint, that mundane marvel at the core of a car’s drive system. Wanxiang, from which the company takes its name, means universal, and the company’s product is known as wan xiang jie in phonetic Chinese.

Lu is also a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s highest legislative body, and Wanxiang has close business ties with many government owned-enterprises, including one of the nation’s largest grid operators, State Grid.

Hoping to break into the US market for auto parts, in 1994 Lu asked Ni, then a doctoral student in economics at the University of Kentucky, to open an office here.

In the ensuing years, Wanxiang America acquired auto part makers like Neapco Holdings, which produces car and truck drivelines in Michigan, D&R Technology in Illinois that makes automotive sensors, and a plant that makes Ford components.

Those purchases came as a time when the US auto industry was ailing, and jobs at suppliers were disappearing.

The company says its acquisitions have kept more than a dozen automotive plants open, andsaved some 3,500 American jobs during the recent recession.

“Wanxiang has shown itself a strong corporate citizen with a commitment to supporting local workers and developing the local economy,” said Daley, a scion of the Chicago political dynasty who now works at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, a large Chicago law firm that has an office in China.

The US affiliate is now zeroing in on another troubled American industry, alternative energy, where companies in the solar, wind, and advanced batteries fields have struggled as markets for their products have been slow to materialize.

Ni credits billionaire Warren Buffet for Wanxiang’s investment strategy, saying the company has always looked for undervalued areas in which it can invest for the long term.

“Somebody has to burn the money,” Ni said. “The clean-tech space is kind of chilly right now, so this is the time for us to show our commitment. It’s a good investment.”

Those investments include EnerDel, an Indiana company that makes advanced batteries; Suniva, a Georgia outfit that makes solar cells; a $75 million joint venture with Smith Electric Vehicles Corp. in Missouri to build electric school buses and commercial vehicles; and a solar manufacturing plant in Rockford, Ill.

The company also made a $1.25 billion deal with GreatPoint Energy, the start-up developing technology to convert coal into synthetic natural gas. Wanxiang won the rights to develop a large coal mine in the Gobi Desert, where GreatPoint will build a coal-to-gas conversion plant. The agreement is expected to help GreatPoint expand its US workforce from just 30 employees to about 650 in the next several years.

GreatPoint chief executive Andrew Perlman said he has been impressed with Ni's business acumen and sensitivity to protecting the Cambridge company’s intellectual property in China, where regulations are not always strongly enforced.

“One of the nice things about Wanxiang is that while they are clearly a Chinese company, they have an enormous American presence,” Perlman said. “Pin is just down the street here in Chicago [and] more than anything else he has continued to fill that role of being a bridge for our Western understanding of how you do business the Chinese way.”

The purchase of A123 Systems, however, has put Wanxiang under a microscope, especially given how the United States and China have been aggressively competing for dominance of the emerging alternative energy industry.

To some, A123's purchase by Wanxiang demonstrates how the United States is falling behind, despite putting millions of taxpayer dollars into clean energy companies. A123, for instance, used about $133 million in public funds to build two automotive battery plants in Michigan, only to file for bankruptcy in mid-October, the victim of high production costs, slow adoption of electric vehicles, and a costly recall earlier this year.

“With the US government underwriting A123, there’s probably a certain irony that the technologies there may end up in the control of a Chinese company, said Jonathan Brookfield, associate professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

But Ni said Wanxiang will run A123 the same way it has its other local companies — keeping its jobs in the United States, while finding ways to use its technology globally.

Correspondent Jonathan Kaiman contributed to this report from Beijing. Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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