Monday, 23 April 2007

Shanghai Auto Show 2007

The preparation for this year’s motor show was way behind plan. After the exhaustive work to get everything finished in time for the grand factory opening and NAC’s 60th Birthday celebrations – the Shanghai Motor Show had crept up on us fast. This would be the first public display of our vehicles – vehicles that despite some recent press reports had been built at the new factory, with localized parts and Chinese labor. In fact if anyone had looked close enough at the vehicles they would have noticed that they were far from being ready for public sale. We still had to grain many of the interior plastic parts, and the sunroof displayed on the MG7L was the first time we had ever fitted this part from the new supplier. Of course some of the parts on the vehicle had been stock items from the old MG-Rover days, but the majority (80%+) had been from re-sourced supply, most noticeably the Powertrain and the Body itself.

The big problem was that there was no time to build new cars for the show. It may shock some people, but the cars for a show are normally prepared 3-6 months before, with hand picked parts, they are assembled down special facilities, painted and re-painted several times, and basically given the ‘supermodel’ airbrush treatment.
After various meetings we agreed on a plan, and squeezed the show layout and vehicle designation plan from the Sales and Marketing team. Like always, marketing had some grand ideas of hanging vehicles upside down using sky hooks! We finally agreed on the vehicle selection. The biggest challenge was that they wanted one of the vehicles – an MGTF to be raised onto a glass bridge, which the public could walk underneath. Now I don’t know how many people had been unfortunate enough to see the underside of a vehicle – but it’s not a pretty sight. This is where with the right amount of advance planning; we would have ensured the underside of the car was treated as an A’ class surface, and not built to withstand the normal abuse of driving 100,000km’s in wind, snow, ice, stones, and salt! It was it was a mess of anti-corrosion protection. We had to drain the entire cars fluids, strip every pipe, tube, hose, cable, rod and linkage away, clean the entire surface down and re-spray the vehicle. Whilst the result wasn’t perfect, it was far better than I had expected when I saw the car on the ramp for the first time.

I had been asked to give a speech at our press conference to open the show, a daunting prospect. Especially as it would be in front of an audience full of motoring journalists, and a sea of automotive royalty from around the world. I remember how impressed I was whilst listening to Ian Robertson’s speech at the Beijing Show last year. Ian was my first MD, when I started out at Land Rover many years earlier; you might say he gave me my first break! Ian was one of those people who made you sit up straight when he walked in to the room; he had an aura of power and control around him. I went to speak to him in Beijing, and remember babbling away nervously! Not something that usually affects me – but I felt like I was talking to an old headmaster, despite Ian remembering me – I’m sure our encounter didn’t raise my prospects of a position with Roll’s Royce anytime in the near future!

I visited the stand on the evening before the opening, and was informed by Mr Yu, that they wanted me to translate his speech the next day, I was given several thousand words and a few hours to decipher the ‘Chinglish’ document. On top of this I was still required to drive the main car onto the turntable at the center of the stand. The car itself was a Long Wheel Base MG7, hidden behind a frosted glass wall, it would rotate 90 degree’s to reveal the car, I would then drive just 20 feet or so, onto the main stage turntable – well at least that was the plan!

A restless evening preceded the great day, and I finished the speech at the 6am breakfast buffet. Everything was set, the lights the PA system, the video screens, even the cars looked fantastic. We had prime position in Hall 4, nestled between Roll’s Royce, BMW and Lexus and Toyota. Our stand was larger than the R&R and Lexus stands, and looked much more vibrant than the rest. NAC MG would hold the first Press conference of the day – so an audience was guaranteed.
A nervous couple of hours followed, and the show began. The usual funky electric violin concerto by sexy Chinese violinists, a very strange display of dancing by people dressed in Charles 1st regalia - bizarre was an understatement. Then the speech’s! First Me and the company’s president would do a double act, the ‘same’ speech in Chinese and English, I had done the best I could with translating the speech, but even my talents couldn’t extend into making it earth shattering.

Afterwards I dashed around the back of the stage, and climbed into the highly polished car, started her up, slipped it into gear and released the handbrake. The show officials would only allow a teacup of fuel, and my biggest fear was running out half way! I would have been thankfully accepted that result over what really happened. The Vice-Governor of Jiangsu Province made a short speech and then introduced me, the turntable started to revolve into position………….then stopped! I looked over to the stage director and he pleaded with me to drive, I had 2 inch’s of clearance either side of the car and a large glass wall blocked my direct line! Stupidly I thought it was worth a go! I swung the car to the left and cleared the wall at the front of the vehicle, as I swung it back I knew I would hit the wall with the rear of the car, I clipped the stage lights and the edge of the glass wall with the rear wheel, and drove it onto the main stage. It was only afterwards when onlooker’s told me just how close I had come to the front wheel falling off the stage – I realized just how close I had been to a spectacular disaster.

The rest of the show went without a hitch, and the stand remained full for the entire day.
Which was more than can be said for the other stands, for an opening day the whole show seemed a little bit quiet, maybe this was something to do with the Beijing show being held just 6 months before. Several UK journalists told me that in there editors had had there fill of Chinese car news, since the coverage of our launch back in March, whatever the reason we were glad to see the other stands struggling whilst ours attracted an enormous amount of attention.

Monday, 16 April 2007

The reasons why?

I started to think about “Why did I want to write a blog?” People used to write about what they had done, whom they had met, how they felt and about their dreams and aspirations for the future in a diary. The diary was always seen as the most personal, of personal journals. They came with small padlocks just to emphasis the point that that no one but the writer was allowed to even open the cover. Now everyone wants to share his or her experiences with the rest of the world. No matter how small, minor, mundane or meaningless, people long to share it with everyone.
I guess we would need to study at a medical or psychological college for several years to fully understand why, I’m sure there are numerous reasons why people write blogs, and I am not nearly educated enough to go into them – I can also imagine that any search on Google will come up with a million and one links that will explain why. To add my ten pence to their research, my personal reasons are simple.
Late in life (although not too late) I found a love for writing. Some people like to write romantic thrillers, historic novels, instruction manuals and even god forbid - diaries. I have been fortunate to travel to many different countries, meet lots of interesting people, and experience a myriad of cultures, languages, delicacies and environments. I have been writing about all of this for a long time, and keeping it in private journals, scrapbooks and photo records – all for a personal record, that who knows? One day when I ‘m too senile to remember or my kids had long forgotten me, they could read about their old fathers travels. I figured that my family would be the only people who would be interested in the ramblings of someone who maybe hadn’t led the most interesting of lives.
Then I discovered an opportunity to combine my love of writing with my love for the country I had chosen to live in, and the company I had chosen to work for.
I have been writing about my experiences in China for over 2 years, and have documented the fall and rise of MG during that period, including many of the “real’ reasons why MG-Rover failed – including some untold “Secrets”. The story of how NAC managed to purchase the company! How NAC intends to turn the most British of Automotive icons, into an international company, with expansion plans beyond any that have been planed before, in the Brands long history. The influence of the communist party, the strange and sometimes bizarre Chinese business practices, the complex cultural differences between the East & West, and anything else I thought would make good reading for those that may be interested in MG, Rover, and/or China. All of this combined with numerous photos, letters and official documents would be put into a book for safe release sometime in the near future.
So why release a blog, and write articles for magazines here in the China and the UK. Several reasons really, maybe I’m just using up some of the articles as a prelude to the book, and I guess I’m using some of the story’s that won’t make the final cut!
I never intended the blog to be full of company secrets, or pre-releases of the company plans, new products, developments etc. (they are being saved for the book!). It was indented just to show a different side of working in Asia, giving people an insight into what life is like for someone living and working here, and to hopefully gauge some feedback from any passersby who stumbled across the blog.
So the blog will continue to cover some of the personal and professional things that happen here, sometimes about MG other times, simply about life in China. The difficulty is of course that whilst I want to correct all the wrongs reported, counter all the allegations, and put right the blatant lies that are being spread about MG / NAC, and whilst I want the stories to be juicier, full of background explanations of why, where, what and who, I know that I would probably do as much damage in the pursuit of the truth, as just sitting on my hands and keeping my mouth shut - something I have never found easy to do! It’s a difficult dilemma!

Thursday, 12 April 2007

What a fascinating last few days, my expectations of Japan were high, but these were exceeded ten fold. Japan has to be one of the most developed countries in the world – In fact I can’t think of anywhere (including the UK!) that is more developed. Both commercially and industrially Japan leaves the rest of the world far behind. It’s perhaps only culturally where Japan still let’s say - requires better influences – especially if you’re a whale or a dolphin!
My week started with a short plane ride from Shanghai to Tokyo, which like most international airports these days is located far from the center of the city. In fact an1 ½ hours train journey, and a couple of different subway lines finally brought us to our destination. We were guests of a supplier, who was helping us to negotiate a deal with a rather elusive key component source, which up to now had been rather reticent about supplying to a Chinese company. The following 24 hours involved numerous meetings, lunches and dinners in an attempt to woe this critical supplier, following a successful afternoon and an agreement made. We celebrated with a traditional Japanese evenings entertainment – sushi, karaoke and a late night drinking chilled Sake
The next day involved some sightseeing around Tokyo, a short tube ride into the main train station, which amongst a gleaming backdrop of mirrored glass, and polished chrome is a piece of Victorian period splendor. This was a perfect bright sunny spring day, with Cherry Blossom raining down as the wind rushed between the tall buildings that surrounded the station, a fantastic sight.

We ventured down to the enormous area that surrounds the imperial palace. Virtually deserted, even on a beautiful sunny day like today, the most noticeable differences between China and Japan is just how clean and quiet Japan is. Having lived in China for so long you get used to the noise – that is until you visit somewhere, where noise is considered pollution. In China the mobile phone is king, and there are no circumstances for putting your phone on silent (or god forbid turn it off), when I say no circumstances I mean absolutely, unequivocally no circumstances. I have attended weddings, press conferences, government banquets, ministerial meetings and even a funeral and all of them have been interrupted by the incessant scream of Wei (Pronounced whey, and used as a greeting when answering the phone). Whilst answering the phone in some circumstances is bad enough, the sound level of the conversation normally means that a mobile wouldn’t be necessary, as the other party could probably here you quite clearly without the use of technology! Japan the home of the mobile, is actually enforcing public responsibility, and announcements on public transport asks for you to put your phone on silent, and to move to the end of the carriage if you must take the call! For a country with over 100million obsessive mobile users I found this staggering – but nice!
A raw fish lunch, and a trip to the high tech gadget area of Tokyo were followed by a journey on the Bullet train to Nakoya. Again a trip I had always wanted to take – not that I knew much about Nakoya, but a journey on the famous bullet train at 300 kph – was on my “To Do – Before dying list”, and one that took you to the birth place of currently the most successful automotive company in the world. We were met by another friendly supplier, who treated us to an authentic / modern evening in Nakoya, which included sitting on the floor for 3 hours being served various raw fish by women wearing traditional Kimono’s and painted white faces. The Saki flowed freely, as did the tunes at the local Karaoke bar, which was the next venue - well into the early morning.
The following day, we traveled to Nakoya castle, which was absolutely stunning, especially with the backdrop of a deep blue sky and rose pink cherry blossom.

The castle itself had fallen foul to fire and war over the years, and had just finished its 3rd rebuild. Which included fitting air-conditioning and an elevator! Still amongst the modern, the enormous stones that made the foundations for the castle had markings made by the war lords who were responsible for bringing to the site, chiseled into them – one thing progress couldn’t replace!

Then onto the Toyota museum, somehow things got lost in translation – and we arrived at the wrong museum. You see when arranging to visit a museum in the name of a motor company, you don’t expect that there would be so many options! Toyota has at least 5 museums in this area. The one I wanted to visit was the car collection, which I was told included some rare British models. This one was the “Toyota commemorative museum of industry and technology”.
The building was the original starting point for the Toyoda family business (yes spelled correctly, the name was changed to Toyota for various reasons in later years – email me if you want to know the reasons!). The building housed some of Sakichi Toyodas early inventions, and a history of how the company came from humble beginnings to being the 2nd largest automotive company in the world. Two things struck me about the museum; the first was the story of Toyota itself. It seems that if it wasn’t for the Platt Brothers in the UK, the family may never have had the money to start their automotive business in the first place. You see Sakichi Toyota invented the automatic loom, sold the patent to the UK Company for a sum that in today’s money would be worth $25,000,000, and with that money started to develop their first vehicles.
The second thing that I found interesting was the building itself, built in 1918, it housed the first and most important manufacturing building in Japanese history. It had been turned into a beautiful museum, with state of the art displays mingled with precious collectables and important historic relics. All of this when half of Longbridge was being pulled down to make way for another retail park! Ok maybe Longbridge didn’t lead to the a global business on the scale of Toyota, but it did signify what was an incredible time in British history, from supporting the war efforts, to providing the backbone for a once great automotive nation, surely it deserves more that demolition?
NAC have preserved Lord Austin’s room, and are planning to provide a small museum containing some of the most important cars from MG’s history. But wouldn’t it be nice if the government, lottery or local council stepped in, and decided to preserve some of the original buildings to house a museum of local industrial history? Just a thought!

I got my wish, and the next stop on our tour was to the motor museum itself – and a surprise.
Security was high when we entered, and a small stage had been set up, with banners and smartly dressed people talking into earpieces, whilst camera crews jostled for places close to the upcoming event. Then walked in a crowd of grey suits, following the applause was an elderly, slightly balding man who walked up to take the microphone. We had stumbled on to the museums celebrations for it 4 millionth visitors, and the suit that had walked onto the stage was Katuaski Watanabe, President of the Toyota global empire. He was there to hand out gifts, flowers, and a framed certificate to what looked like a pre-selected family, and obviously make some short speeches. As he finished the official proceedings and moved to escape the crowds I mad a dash and shook his hand, and explained who I was. To my amazement he seemed genuinely interested in MG, and highlighted the fact that they had several important BMC vehicles in the collection, before I could respond he was whisked away by several aides towards the waiting press. Rather sad I know – but an unexpected highlight of the entire Japanese visit!
Amongst all of the cars on display, it was obvious that whomever had put the collection together had a passion for and a respect for the British Car Industry. Up the escalators, turn to the right, past the Toyoda AA (Toyota’s first car), the next car in the hall is an MG Midget TA built in 1937, in gleaming red, around the corner a Morris Eight Series 1 (1937), a Morris Oxford (1913), An Austin A50 (1960) and a 7 (1924), plus a further 7 British Brands. Maybe not the cream of British Engineering – but certainly some landmarks cars, that helped many of the brands become icons of motoring history.
The following day was a tour around one of Toyotas Production facility’s – “To see how a car is built”, then finishing off in another one of Toyota’s museums. Not a lot of secrets explained, but one thing was certain, Toyota were experts at organizing tours, looking after visitors and preserving what is important to them. I have to say that from a design and styling point of view I find it hard to have any passion for Toyota Vehicles (Although the 2000GT MF10 from 1960 was a beautiful car), but I have to admire the company for is achievements and relentless progression, even though the improvements to the Castle in Nakoya may not be in keeping with the history of the building, you have to admire their passion for continuous improvement – or Kaizen as the Japanese put it.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

The start of another adventure!

And so begins another journey, I catch the 8 pm train from Nanjing to Shanghai. A journey that would normally take 3-4 hours depending on how many stops the trains decided to make on the way! However this time the journey would be completed in less than 2 hours – all thanks to the new high speed “Bullet” train, which has just begun to carry passengers across the flat plains of the Jiangsu province. The train will eventually connect Shanghai to the capital Beijing, in less than 5 hours – a journey that would currently take you 10-12 hours by train, be impossible by car, and once you’ve braved the journeys to and from the airports, probably the same time it would take by air.

The trains themselves are a testament to the ever-increasing confidence of this new China. Not content with a bustling flight service they have been busy improving the rail and road networks between the incredibly large city’s that span the eastern coast of China. Spotlessly clean with more legroom than an upper class seat on a BA flight, they whisk you along at over 250 kph, you can sit there in all the splendor of 1st class train travel, and think that you were anywhere in the civilized world – and then someone opens to toilet door!

Whilst I have no desire to discuss what happens in the toilets in China, anyone who travels here will quickly find out for themselves that toilets in public areas are best left to the locals. The advice I give to all visitors is to ensure that wherever they are in the country, they now where the nearest decent hotel is located – and never be more than a brisk walk or 10 minute taxi ride away! The reason I mention it in this case, is mainly due to the fact that the train I am sitting on, isn’t any older than 2 months, and the levels of cleanliness would put the NHS to shame (although I’m not sure that’s such a good analogy these days!), so how could the toilets smell so foul? Well one thought is that all Chinese toilets don’t have a U Bend, I am not a plumber so the need for a U Bend, isn’t something I could argue for or against! The fact that they don’t have a pedestal, a lack of disinfectant, poor diets?, I am clutching at straws here! What I do know is that regardless of how new the toilets are, you will never need to learn the Chinese for “Could you please direct me to the bathroom?” as your nose will inform you of the direction to the nearest convenience from over 50 feet away. A pungent smell that attacks the hairs up your nose, and quickly creates pools of tears to well up in your eyes, one thing is for sure, you either get used to it, or train your body to become extremely regular.

Back to the reason for the journey, I’m traveling to Shanghai, in order to catch an early flight to Tokyo. This will be my first visit; to a place I have always wanted to travel to. Voted the most exciting city in the world for 3 of the last 3 years, I’m just praying that someone’s definition of exciting isn’t because you never know if your going to get hit by an earthquake, tsunami or volcano! As the largest city in the world (in terms of the shear number of people – 17.5 million at the last count) I can only imagine a crowded, incredibly busy, and horrendously noisy environment. However I somehow feel it will be far more sophisticated than many parts of China. After all Japan has led the way for all of the other far eastern Asian country’s to follow. Creating a vast economic wealth, and dominated most of the consumable products we have now come to reply on so much, including cars, computers, TV’s, DVD’s players and games consoles. Yes they may rely on China to make most of them – but everyone knows where the real power is held, especially in terms of research and development. It’s a country that has enormous financial strength, yet keeps a strong hand in the manufacturing pot at the same time – an economic model that seems to have past over the heads of those in power in the UK recently!

Unfortunately my reasons for visiting Japan, are “Top Secret”, or at least that’s what I have been told, leading to visions of self destructing agendas, and exchanges of micro-film in busy train stations. Alas I don’t think that the journey will be as exciting as my imagination would allow, but at least it gives me the opportunity to visit another great Asian country, and outside of work I have managed to plan a trip to the Toyota Museum in Nagoya. I read somewhere that they have some very good examples of MG’s, Morris’s and Austin’s stored next to the 70 years worth of Toyota’s best and worst creations. I am keen to understand what inspiration MG provided Toyota with over the years, they obviously have a fondness for them, to have put them in their museum – I wouldn’t expect a Toyota Camry or Picnic finding much room in a Jaguar or Ford museum! I should get my chance to ask the curators, as a friendly supplier has kindly arranged a guided tour with one of the “Senior” people from Toyota – its strange the doors, a friendly white face can open, or is it the MG brand association that helps? Either way when opportunities face you - grasp them with both hands, and wrap your legs tightly around them before they slip away! Other highlights for the trip, Well mount Fuji, appears pretty high, as does the Sony museum, Elvis impersonators in the Park, Japanese punks, and hopefully some great Sushi and chilled Sake. Yes I did say chilled – I know James Bond likes his at a constant 98.4 Fahrenheit, but I have to admit that its tastes much better chilled, either way it certainly makes the Karaoke sound much better.

Monday, 2 April 2007

First Day in the New Factory

This morning I took a different route to work, after I dropped my children at the Nanjing International School, I would normally head for the tunnel underneath Xuanwu Hu, Nanjings enormous lake complex that makes Nanjing such a favourite with Chinese tourists, the tunnel leads directly to NAC MG headquarters building. Today however, my route takes me to the first Bridge over the Yangtze River in Nanjing. The bridge is a historic and famous piece of pre-cultural revolution architecture, which spans China’s largest river the Yangtze. As always the bridge is extremely busy, with an unusual mixture of ancient buses and trucks next to gleaming black BMW’s and sparkling silver Audi’s, all trying to cross a bridge designed for only 20% of the current numbers of vehicles it struggles to cater for. But what makes the bridge special to the visitor is that the entrance and exit to the bridge contains some great communist architecture, showing evocative images of Moa’s China– it provides a great reminder as to the origins of a country that accelerates towards capitalism. The morning was special as today would be the day my department moved from the MG HQ in the centre of Nanjing, to our new facility in Pukou.

Pukou is a regional development district just outside Nanjing city, and already houses some well-known international companies, with Coca-Cola and Samsung probably being the most famous. A large area of wasteland has been transformed into an 800,000sq metre single story car factory. Equipped to build 250,000+ units a year.
The facility now home to a large proportion of the equipment from the Longbridge plant in Birmingham. An Engine, Transmission and Body Assembly building have been constructed to replicate the original facilities in England, whilst a purpose built Paint Shop and General Assembly buildings, complete the major structures on the site. With additional storage buildings, testing facilities and offices the whole development is on a massive scale. Millions of tonnes of earth have been removed, miles of steel erected and acres of concrete laid, all in preparation of housing one of China’s proudest acquisitions.

The first foundation stone for the buildings was laid on the 27th March 2006 and the grand opening ceremony will happen 12 months to the day on the 27th March 2007 –An extraordinary feet by any standard. To construct the buildings would be a mammoth challenge, to install, test and finally run all of the equipment needed to produce a ¼ million cars a year is simply staggering. The year that follows the opening will see an ambitious flow of new vehicles from the site, and will include a multitude of derivates from the original MG ZT, MG ZR and MGTF platforms built by MG-Rover. Vehicles all built to fuel the fastest car market in the world, and to meet NAC MG’s international export targets.

Preparations are well under way for the grand opening, which coincides with NAC’s 60th Birthday celebrations, and the launch of the new MG7 and MGTF models, that will role of the production line for the first time in March. The whole event will be spread over 2 days, and will be an incredible celebration that promises to be as large and as energetic as the task that was set out before us some 12 months ago. To complement the launch of our new vehicles, we have been around the world collecting some fine examples of historic MG’s, including a 1930’s MG M Type Midget, a 1937 MG SA, a 1947 MG TC and even a collections of MG A’s and MG B’s. Our initial collection will include some 13 historic cars plus some more of the modern vehicles built in recent years, right up to the latest vehicles built by us. We will use the vehicles to display the brand heritage and history around China.

I had visited the site many times before, thought-out the planning and building stages and even though I had been there every week for the past year, the shear pace at which it was being built and equipped still shocked me. Today was no different as I moved my entire department into their new home, I was amazed to see just how far work had progressed, and how work had now begun to “dress” the entire site up, with thousands of tree’s and plants being planted in preparation for the grand opening. I had my doubts that we would be ready in time, but if there is one thing I have learned from my time in China – that is to never question their ability to meet declared targets.

So after my first day as an official resident of the New Pukou factory, I find time on my long and arduous trip back to my home in the Eastern Suburbs of Nanjing, to gather my thoughts about MG’s future and the significance of moving to the new factory. I guess the easiest way to describe my feelings is by using the word mixed!
On one hand I can see that this is the largest ever investment into the Brand, and that MG has probably never had such an opportunity to reach its full untapped potential. The fact that I am right in the centre of everything happening, makes every hour of everyday incredibly challenging and almost unbelievably exciting, for this I am desperately optimistic about the future of MG.
Despite this I cant help feeling somewhat upset by it all. Even with the relocated equipment, and the familiar cars in various stages of build and development across the factory – this is no Longbridge. All the things that made Longbridge magical - the misshapen buildings, the strange roadways and one-way systems, the rail tracks, the tunnels and the bridges, the smell of Bacon from the canteen and the noise of laughter, singing and local songs on the dozens of radio’s scattered across the shop floor. These have all been replaced by geometrically perfect buildings, gleaming equipment, straight roads, designated parking, immaculately laid out production lines, piped Chinese music and the smell of fresh paint.
You can’t help feeling sad that it took A Chinese company with brave hearts and strong beliefs to invest in this project, and to see the potential that the MG brand had. Some of you may say that the Chinese also have deep enough pockets that have allowed them to make such a positive investment, but if I told you that they have invested a fraction of what BMW had left the infamous P4 when they acquired MG-Rover, then maybe this puts into perspective how previous opportunities had been missed?
I’m not sure what the likes of William Morris & Cecil Kimber, would make of it all, as founders of the company they started in the dawn of the first automotive explosion in Europe, they would now see that MG is ready to join in another automotive explosion – only this time 8000 miles away in China. Whatever the future holds, one thing is for sure another chapter in MG’s long history has just begun…