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Buffett-Backed BYD Puts U.S. Battery-Car Unit in Los Angeles

Wang Chuanfu and Arnold Schwarzenegger
Wang Chuanfu, left, chairman of the Chinese alternative-energy auto maker BYD, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California attend a press conference in Los Angeles on April 30, 2010. Photographer: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

May 1 (Bloomberg) -- BYD Co., the Chinese auto and battery maker backed by Warren Buffett, is locating its North American headquarters in downtown Los Angeles as the company prepares to sell electric cars in the U.S.

The company will hire 150 employees for the office by 2011, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, BYD Chairman Wang Chuanfu and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement yesterday. BYD also will base its U.S. solar-panel and battery storage business in the city, Wang told reporters.

BYD plans to sell rechargeable battery-powered cars in California initially before expanding throughout the U.S. The Shenzhen, China-based company aims to deliver e6 hatchbacks to fleet users in California late this year, before beginning retail sales in 2011.

“By the end of next year, the plan is to offer several models,” Senior Vice President Stella Li, who will manage BYD’s U.S. operations, said at a press conference in Los Angeles.

Li said that initial U.S. dealers for BYD products may include Penske Motor Group, an operator of auto franchises in California. She said she has held talks with Greg Penske, chief executive officer of Penske Motor. The company is part of Penske Corp., which also is the largest shareholder in auto retailer Penske Automotive Group Inc.

Budding Market

BYD, China’s fastest growing automaker this year, has said it wants to tap a budding U.S. market for cars that use little or no gasoline and cut greenhouse-gas emissions. The company will compete with Nissan Motor Co., General Motors Co., Tesla Motors Inc. and Coda Automotive, a Santa Monica, California-based startup that also plans to sell Chinese-built electric cars in its home state this year.

Li declined to provide the company’s U.S. sales goals for its electric vehicles, the price of its cars or how much the company is investing in the regional operations.

Austin Beutner, deputy mayor of Los Angeles and chief executive of city economic and business policy, estimated that in addition to the 150 initial jobs, BYD’s operation will spur at least 1,000 more positions in Los Angeles, including vehicle sales and support and solar-panel installation.

The company also plans to sell large-scale battery storage systems for electric utilities using its iron-phosphate batteries. BYD is in talks to supply a 10-megawatt system to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Li said.

BYD joins Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co., Kia Motors Corp., Mazda Motor Corp., Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Suzuki Motor Corp. in locating U.S. sales operations in Southern California.

Buffett’s Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns a 10 percent stake in the Chinese company. BYD’s Wang was named China’s richest man by Forbes magazine in November after Buffett’s investment helped increase his estimated personal wealth to $5.8 billion.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Ohnsman in Los Angeles at aohnsman@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Kae Inoue kinoue@bloomberg.net

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