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The rise and precarious reign of China’s battery king

Zeng Yuqun, chairman of Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. (CATL), poses for a photograph in Ningde, Fujian province, China, on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.
Enlarge / Zeng Yuqun, chairman of Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. (CATL), poses for a photograph in Ningde, Fujian province, China, on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

The headquarters of battery giant CATL tower over the coastal Chinese city of Ningde. To the untrained eye, the building resembles a huge slide rising out of the urban sprawl. It is, in fact, a giant monument to the company’s raison d’être: the lithium-ion battery pack.

You may have never heard of CATL, but you’ve definitely heard of the brands that rely on its batteries. The company supplies more than 30 percent of the world’s EV batteries and counts Tesla, Kia, and BMW among its clients. Its founder and chairman, 54-year-old Zeng Yuqun, also known as Robin Zeng, has rapidly emerged as the industry’s kingmaker. Insiders describe Zeng as savvy, direct, and even abrasive. Under his leadership, CATL’s valuation has ballooned to 1.2 trillion Chinese yuan ($179 billion), more than General Motors and Ford combined. Part of that fortune is built on owning stakes in mining projects in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia, giving CATL a tighter grip on an already strained global battery supply chain.

Such scale gives CATL huge influence—and allows the company to be picky with its contracts and push the rising prices of raw materials onto its clients. “They’re pretty much dictating the terms,” says Mark Greeven, professor of innovation and strategy at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland. CATL pushes clients for long-term, five-year deals. and it’s reluctant to customize its batteries for different carmakers, he adds.

So far, these decisions have helped make Zeng rich—very rich. He ranks 29th on Forbes’ 2022 list of the world’s wealthiest people. On Bloomberg’s 2021 list of the world’s top green billionaires, he is second only to Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Musk might make more headlines, but Zeng holds almost as much power.

But Zeng is not Musk. He dodges the limelight and rarely gives interviews. Insiders point out that Zeng is operating in an environment where notoriety could hinder, not help, his business. “In the West, the personality-cult style of leadership is something that’s valued, encouraged, and celebrated. In China, it’s dangerous,” says Bill Russo, former head of carmaker Chrysler’s northeast Asia business in Beijing who now runs the Shanghai-based advisory firm Automobility. “You can’t be bigger than Beijing.” Carmakers are also becoming wary of how much power CATL has as they search elsewhere for batteries to power their vehicles.

China dominates EV battery supply
Enlarge / China dominates EV battery supply

Ars Technica

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