A year ago, Todd Fortner rolled the dice on his future and left a sales manager's job with Visteon Corp. in China.
His new position? President of Changshu Automotive Trim Co., a privately owned supplier in Changshu, a small city near Shanghai.
The company, also called CAIP, has landed contracts to make engine compartment plastic parts for a Volkswagen AG joint venture in China and for the Ford Mondeo worldwide.
``You can make a difference here. There are more opportunities for smaller parts companies in China now,'' said Fortner, a 38-year-old American. ``Before, the larger companies affiliated with the big [original equipment manufacturers] were guaranteed sourcing contracts.''
Many Chinese companies, especially privately owned companies, want to be more than just low-cost manufacturers for overseas suppliers. They aggressively are laying the foundation to become exporters in their own right.
The joint ventures, and bringing in a foreigner as president, are part of CAIP owner Luo Xiaochun's brash plan to challenge multinational giants such as Visteon in the international market.
In June, CAIP started two joint ventures with Seeber Roechling Automotive, an automotive plastics company owned by privately held Roechling Group of Mannheim, Germany. The ventures will manufacture parts under the Volkswagen and Ford contracts.
In a few weeks, CAIP will launch a venture with Intier Automotive, Magna International Inc.'s automotive interiors company, to make parts such as instrument panels and consoles.
Information on contracts will not be released until after the launch.
The ventures will give the ambitious Chinese supplier a shot at winning more contracts from Seeber and Magna customers, which include every major European and U.S. automaker. They also will drive more exports, part of Luo's master plan.
``We want to export 60 percent of our output by 2010,'' said Luo, a gregarious man who speaks only Chinese. ``We want to be an international company, and having a foreigner as president will help make our culture more international. We need to be that way.''
The two new Seeber ventures follow a previous one with Seeber that was set up in 1999 and makes door panels for the Jetta, Bora and Audi A4 models assembled at VW's joint venture with First Auto Works in Changchun, China.
VW pushed Seeber to set up the first joint venture, said Georg Duffner, CEO of Roechling Group.
``We want to export,'' Duffner said. ``But for now the main target is to produce for the China market.''
CAIP's sales have grown from $100 million in 2003 to an estimated $125 million for 2005. But only about 5 percent of sales come from exports, mainly spare-tire covers to General Motors in North America, Fortner said.
Luo did more than boldly hire a foreigner as president. He offered Fortner and about 10 other Visteon managers who now work at CAIP equity stakes in his company. That made the job offers even more attractive.
``Visteon was a big company,'' Fortner said. ``If you're in your mid-30s, you ask yourself, `Where do you go from here?' Mr. Luo offered ownership.''
CAIP's modest technology center has 35 engineers in one room. But a building is being constructed across the street. Scheduled for completion in 15 months, it will house more than 200 engineers by 2010. They will do testing as well as product development, said Xu Jun, the center's director and a Visteon alumnus.
Visteon is the only supplier in China that can handle the entire automotive interior program, from design to modeling to manufacturing. CAIP wants to match that.
``The final target is for 100 percent of the program to be done in China,'' Xu said.
For now, the engineers are taking designs and modifying them to suit Chinese tastes and meet Chinese regulations.
``The long-term goal is for the technical center to do work for overseas clients,'' Xu said. ``First we have to cover the Chinese market requirements. Then we can set up a global design resource along with our partners.''
CAIP is looking in China and beyond for future talent.
``We have a venture capital fund with investment from Mr. Luo and the Changshu government,'' Fortner said. ``We will use it to develop not only Chinese entrepreneurs; we will look at overseas acquisitions if they make sense and fit our core business strategy.''