Alittle-known but fast-growing Chinese maker of batteries for electric vehicles now has more billionaires on Forbes’ list than just about any other public company. A whopping nine billionaires have fortunes of $1 billion or more based on their stakes in Contemporary Amperex Technology (known as CATL). Shares of the firm, which supplies batteries to automakers including BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz, have soared over 150% in the past year as demand for electric vehicles has heated up. CATL’s founder and chairman, 52-year-old Robin Zeng, is now the 47th-richest person in the world, worth $32.5 billion, more than triple the $9.7 billion fortune he sported in March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic crashed the market. Zeng owns around 25% of the company.
Other CATL executives have attained seriously large fortunes as well. Co-vice chairs Huang Shilin and Li Ping boast net worths of $14.7 billion and $6.6 billion, respectively; early investor Pei Zhenhua, who purchased a stake in 2015, is worth an estimated $8.5 billion. Zhao Fenggang (worth $2.4 billion), Wu Kai ($2.3 billion), Wu Yingming ($1.9 billion), Chen Qiongxiang ($1.8 billion) and Chen Yuantai ($1.3 billion) leapt onto the billionaires list for the first time in 2021. Four of the five hold various management roles at CATL, while Chen Qiongxiang is an early investor.
Robin Zeng, a former engineer at an electronic components manufacturer, first got into the business by starting a lithium-ion battery producer called Amperex Technology Limited (ATL), in 1999. (It’s not clear where he got the capital to launch ATL.) The company specialized in making rechargeable batteries for consumer electronics like cellphones and laptops, and reportedly supplied batteries to Apple’s iPods, iPads and Macbooks. Zeng set up CATL in 2011 as a spinoff of ATL to focus on automotive batteries. It landed a partnership to supply batteries to BMW a year later.
As China has increasingly turned its attention to developing clean energy industries, CATL enjoyed a helping hand from the government. Starting in 2015, the Chinese government maintained a list of recommended battery suppliers, which included more than 50 domestic firms—while foreign heavyweights like LG and Samsung were excluded. Automakers that used the recommended battery suppliers for their electric vehicles qualified for government subsidies, paving way for the rise of firms like CATL. The list was scrapped in 2019, a year after CATL debuted on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. The company attributes its success to its “strategic direction, continuous investment in R&D, reliable products and services, as well as the capability to integrate the industry chain,” a representative from CATL said in a statement.
Taking advantage of China’s growing affluence—it’s now the world’s largest automotive and electric vehicle market—CATL aggressively expanded its manufacturing and research and development capabilities. In 2018, of all new passenger electric vehicles sold worldwide, 13% of total battery capacity was supplied by CATL, according to research and advisory firm Adamas Intelligence. In 2020, CATL had 22% of the market, as it quadrupled its total battery capacity installed in new electric cars. Only LG Energy Solutions, with 28% of the market, is bigger, according to Adamas Intelligence. IHS Markit estimates that nearly 2.5 million electric vehicles were sold globally in 2020.
Its lead in its home country is even bigger. In 2020, CATL produced 46% of the battery capacity deployed in new electric vehicles in China, compared to 26% in 2018, per Adamas Intelligence. CATL’s domestic rival, Warren Buffett-backed car and battery maker BYD, is a distant second with 16% of the market. CATL’s revenue grew 10% to $7.8 billion in 2020, while its net income increased 22% to roughly $860 million. The company trades at a multiple of 16 times trailing revenues, while Tesla trades at a multiple of 25 times trailing revenues.
“2020 was a great year for CATL. It deployed nearly 50% more battery capacity onto the road globally than the year prior,” says Alla Kolesnikova, head of data and analytics at Adamas Intelligence. “We believe 2021 will be the year CATL begins its rise as a global brand via a growing list of supply agreements with foreign automakers, and through rising global sales of China-made EVs containing CATL cells.”
Investor enthusiasm for greener cars has reached a fever pitch. IHS Markit estimates that global sales of EVs will rise by 70% in 2021 to over 4 million cars. Tesla’s share price has more than quadrupled in the past year, and even EV makers with no cars on the road, like U.K. firm Arrival and California’s Fisker Inc., have fetched multibillion-dollar valuations on public markets, making their founders billionaires. With China starting to liberalize its market to encourage more competition and wean off some of its subsidies, CATL has increasingly looked outwards for growth.
CATL, which became a supplier to Tesla’s Shanghai Gigafactory in early 2020, plans to open its first overseas plant in Germany later this year. Its presence in Europe is growing, as it increases sales of its batteries to European carmakers and China starts to export CATL-equipped EVs abroad. “In the long term, CATL will keep targeting the goal of realizing fossil fuel replacement in stationary and mobile energy systems with highly efficient electrical power systems that are generated through advanced batteries and renewable energy,” said the CATL representative.
“While CATL’s dominance in China often gets a lot of attention, what’s lesser known is that CATL went from having virtually no presence in Europe as of January 2020 to being [the] fourth-most-deployed cell supplier in the region by 2020 year-end,” says analyst Kolesnikova.
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