In the stodgy world of China's state-owned auto giants, Dongfeng Motor Corp. is a maverick. So is its 49-year-old CEO and chairman, Miao Wei. Since taking the top job in 1999, he has transformed Dongfeng from an almost bankrupt military truckmaker into a profitable manufacturer of both trucks and passenger cars with sticker prices from $9,000 to $30,000. He has shed the company's decades-old tradition of secrecy and opened it to the world through a series of joint ventures with giants ranging from France's PSA Peugeot Citroën (PEUGY ) and South Korea's Kia to Japan's Honda (HMC ) and Nissan (NSANY ). "We were part of the national defense as a military industry," says Miao. "Now we are being transformed into what will become an internationally competitive company."
Miao's biggest venture -- a $1 billion agreement to make trucks and passenger cars with Nissan -- has won him a reputation as an industrial turnaround artist. As part of the deal, Miao has launched a major corporate restructuring, ending cradle-to-grave workers' benefits and moving to an incentive-based salary system. Indeed, some have called him the Chinese equivalent of Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, who overhauled that company.
But Miao's deal with Nissan has sparked criticism, too. With memories of Japanese aggression in World War II still strong in some quarters, Miao has been accused of selling out China's national patrimony, especially because he allowed Nissan sweeping management control of the venture. Miao insists the Nissan link is critical to Dongfeng's survival in the wake of China's admission to the World Trade Organization. "Without this joint venture, we might have gone bankrupt," says Miao, a native of Hebei province near Beijing.
Miao aims to quadruple Dongfeng's vehicle sales, to 1.7 million units by 2008, bringing revenues and profits to $21.7 billion and $1.8 billion, respectively. "Without profits, a company can't invest in research and development or in design," says Miao, who worked in the ministry responsible for autos in Beijing in the 1990s. If Miao achieves his goals, Dongfeng will be a shining example of restructuring in China.