When the Chinese electric-car manufacturer BYD announced its decision to locate its North American headquarters here in Los Angeles, the win was a significant milestone in our city’s progress. It speaks volumes about L.A.’s ability to recast itself as a cutting-edge, 21st century economy by attracting one of the world’s leaders in clean technology and “green” jobs.
Also, it shows how much is possible when we pull together – and pool our resources for the good of our city’s future, using our heads instead of wallets.
Keep in mind that BYD is more than electric vehicles. The Chinese giant, with a work force of more than 150,000, started out 15 years ago as a lone factory producing rechargeable batteries. Today, it controls more than half of the world’s mobile-phone battery market, in addition to manufacturing solar panels and mobile phone components. Along the way, it’s earned the confidence of some of the world’s leading business visionaries. Warren Buffett is an investor, and Daimler AG, the world’s second largest maker of luxury cars, recently signed an agreement to sell vehicles under a jointly owned new brand. Bloomberg Businessweek recently deemed BYD the eighth most innovative company in the world – ahead of Ford, Volkswagen and BMW. Fast Company magazine ranked BYD as the 16th most innovative company in the world – the only automaker to crack the top 50 on the list.
Los Angeles definitely is in good company. We are also in for more economic expansion than you may realize. At least 1,000 jobs will be created due to BYD’s arrival – a green-tech multiplier effect. Figure it this way: A BYD employee sells solar panels; union workers will have to install them; still more workers – technicians – will have to measure and gauge them. Once EVs start moving through the Port of Los Angeles, longshoremen, railroad workers and truck drivers will be in greater demand. As sales of BYD products grow, success will beget success. Other green-tech firms will see that BYD made the right choice, and so they too will decide to come to Los Angeles. Before you know it, our city will make others green with envy when we’re home to tens of thousands of well-paying jobs.
So how did we get this done? After all, it’s not as if this one overseas manufacturer spun the globe and stuck its finger on Southern California. Credit begins at City Hall, where different departments did what we always hope of government: They thought outside the box. We created a reduction in import tariffs for zero-emission vehicles at the Port of Los Angeles – the first city in the United States to do so. The city expedited building and planning permits to get BYD’s new headquarters up and running quickly. At the same time, the Department of Water and Power came up with a program whereby customers who buy an EV will have a guarantee of a charging station installed in their home in seven days. Meanwhile, City Hall and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers worked out a plan – BYD providing the tools, IBEW the training – to establish a protocol for installing solar panels.
And we added one sweetener: A BYD electric sedan will be prominently displayed at LAX, catching the eye of the more than 60 million annual visitors to our region.
There is one other takeaway from our BYD experience, and that is the importance of showing the rest of the world the unity and commitment from L.A.’s vast array of talented civic, industry, labor and academic leaders.
I’ll give you an example of this teamwork, from a dinner held for Stella Li, BYD’s senior vice president, who will be moving here to oversee its operations. She heard firsthand what L.A. has to offer from a great civic leader, former Mayor Richard Riordan. Industry and investment leaders weighed in as well, with insight provided by Greg Penske, director of Penske Motor Group; Chuck Davis, chief executive of Fandango; Kirk Hartman, chief investment officer at Wells Capital Management; Bill Elkus, founder of Clearstone Venture Partners; and Ronald Olson and Kenneth Doran, managing partners, respectively, of powerhouse legal firms Munger Tolles & Olson and Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, and Kim Craft, senior leader of IBEW, talked about the nexus between government, industry and labor. James Ellis, dean of the USC Marshall School of Business, and Jeanne Huybrechts, head of Harvard-Westlake School, spoke of L.A.’s wellspring of world-class schools and universities.
The point of mentioning all these names is this: Los Angeles has far more to offer than beautiful weather and beautiful people. Our diversity, our imaginative spirit and our intellectual capital are unparalleled. In the final analysis, we succeeded in convincing our guest – and her company – that no other city in America possesses as much drive and commitment to the ideal of winning the competition of this global economy.
Remember this date: April 30, 2010. It was a rarity for Los Angeles – an overseas giant establishing its base here in our city and investing in our future. Years from now, it may be remembered as one of the turning points of our economic transformation.
A Chinese proverb tells us: “You must persevere to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.” The lesson conferred by our BYD win is that perseverance pays off, and unity and creativity will continue to pay great dividends for our city.
Austin Beutner is first deputy mayor and chief executive for economic and business policy for the city of Los Angeles.
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