Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

China Billionaires Chasing Electric-Car Talent Power Salaries

  • Competition between 200 startups triggers soaring compensation
  • Government plans 10-fold boost in new-energy car production

China’s biggest iPhone maker, largest e-commerce company and leading internet-video producer are all in the hunt to build electric cars -- and to grab the small pool of available talent to build them.

All of this is great news for marketing professional Ronan Lu, 32. The bidding wars see some workers earning double their peers’ salaries and others landing jobs with minimal experience, according to recruiters.

Jia Yueting
Jia Yueting
Photographer: VCG via Getty Images

“Many companies offered me job opportunities with good payment, but I chose LeEco because I believe it has great potential,” said Lu, who left Toyota Motor Corp. to join LeEco’s auto division in Beijing last month. “Startup EV companies usually can offer a higher salary than traditional automakers. You can get good rewards from stock holdings in such companies.”

More than 200 Chinese companies -- with backers including Terry Gou, Ma Huateng, Jack Ma and Jia Yueting -- are developing 4,000 models of new-energy vehicles and unveiling prototypes at motor shows and home-electronics expos. Traditional automakers and a bevy of startups see opportunity in the government’s commitment to boost yearly sales of NEVs by a factor of 10 in the next decade.

China surpassed the U.S. last year to become the world’s biggest market for new-energy vehicles, a fleet comprising electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and fuel-cell cars. Domestic automakers sold 331,092 units in 2015, according to the state-backed China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

An electric car charging station in Beijing.
An electric car charging station in Beijing.
Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

In a country with some of the worst urban air pollution on the planet and a rapidly urbanizing populace, the government has set a sales target of 3 million units a year by 2025. China also is accelerating construction of charging stations to serve 5 million electric vehicles by 2020.

‘Prying Talents’

“Internet companies that want to make cars are prying talents from us, and other rival automakers are also trying to lure them away,” said Wang Jun, vice president of Chongqing Changan Automobile Co. “It’s not only bolstered human-resource costs but also changed people’s expectations about their future.”

For QuickTake explainer on cleaner cars, click here.

The positions in top demand include designers, software developers and engineers focusing on systems architecture and creating “smart cities,” said Shirley Xia, an auto-industry recruiter in Beijing for Aimsen & Company.

Recently, Xia and seven colleagues suspended all projects for 45 days to search for an engineer to design charging poles for electric vehicles. Their client, an auto parts maker, wanted someone with at least three years of experience but settled for a candidate with half that.

“For some positions that only emerged over the past couple of years, there aren’t that many talents in the market,” Xia said. “It’s challenging for us to find candidates.”

Salaries for key research-and-development workers have risen 30 percent this year, with some reaching 1 million yuan ($151,000), said Jennifer Feng, chief human resource expert at Shanghai-based 51job Inc. That’s almost 16 times the national average for urban Chinese, based on data from the National Bureau of Statistics.

DeLorean Doors

Park Piao left Changan Automobile to run the R&D department for startup Zhiche Auto in Shanghai. Zhiche’s chief executive officer is Shen Haiyin, who formerly worked for Chinese e-commerce company 360.com.

“I received quite a lot of offers from all kinds of companies before I decided to join Zhiche,” said Piao, 38. “A startup company can be more focused on EV products and thus can achieve innovations more quickly.”

Zhiche displayed a concept electric SUV before the Beijing Auto Show this year, complete with DeLorean-style doors that flip up. Zhiche plans to release the car next year.

There’s also strong demand for branding and marketing specialists to help make household names out of startups with sights on initial public offerings.

Foxconn, Tencent

“Part of this EV startup bubble can be explained by hot money,” said Jochen Siebert, managing director of JSC Automotive Consulting in Singapore. “It reminds me a bit of the 1990s, when almost everything with internet or e-commerce was supported by private equity, and the stocks went through the roof.”

A lot of that money is being spent on recruiting for the corporate suite, with companies backed by some of Greater China’s richest people hiring top executives from rivals and from Silicon Valley to help distinguish themselves.

Take Future Mobility Corp., an EV-maker backed by Gou’s Foxconn Technology Group and Ma’s Tencent Holdings Ltd. The company hired Daniel Kirchert, who was president of Dongfeng Infiniti Motor Co., and Carsten Breitfeld, project manager for BMW AG’s i8 plug-in sports car. Then it lured more managers from BMW.

“It is such a huge opportunity and advantage to start from zero,” Kirchert said. “Our company offers a really big platform for talented people to reach their goals without hitting the glass ceilings they would have hit at traditional automakers.”

Tesla Challengers

Internet entrepreneur William Li’s NextEV Inc. hired Padmasree Warrior, Cisco Systems Inc.’s former technology chief, to lead its U.S. operations.

The Faraday Future FFZero1 concept vehicle.
The Faraday Future FFZero1 concept vehicle.
Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Jia’s Faraday Future Inc., an electric-car startup planning a $1 billion factory in Nevada to challenge Elon Musk and his Tesla Motors Inc., recruited Porter Harris from Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Harris left Faraday earlier this year.

The presence of those high profiles usually attracts workers who can actually build cars. Only about a quarter of the 4,000-plus NEVs approved by the government are in production, according to a National Development and Reform Commission survey. Ma’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. is partnering with SAIC Motor Corp. on an internet-connected SUV called the Roewe RX5.

Yet public subsidies that can total 60 percent of an EV’s sticker price are helping fuel a manufacturing boom. For the first half of this year, China produced 177,000 NEVs, more than double the same period a year ago, the manufacturers’ association said.

“Talent is one of many things these EV startups need to get right,” Robin Zhu, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Sanford C Bernstein, said in an e-mail. “It may even be the most important, given how early stage many are at this point, and particularly given the realities of fund raising (investors back the best people).”

— With assistance by Yan Zhang, and Tian Ying

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