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Chinese Electric Vehicle Firm BYD Opens Its U.S. Headquarters in Downtown L.A.

By Eric Richardson
Published: Monday, October 24, 2011, at 01:14PM
BYD Grand Opening Eric Richardson / blogdowntown

Attendees inspect a BYD e6 electric vehicle during the grand opening of the company's US headquarters at 1800 S. Figueroa.



Chinese technology firm BYD opened its U.S. headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles this morning, showing off an electric bus and electric crossover SUV that the company hopes to sell here. Those involved with the deal, though, stressed that the opening represented much more than just another car brand on Auto Row.

Mayor Xu Qin of Shenzhen, China, joined Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the event. Villaraigosa stressed the importance of the deal in creating a stronger bond between the two cities.

"We see ourself as uniquely positioned to rise with the Pacific Rim," the Mayor said. "The growth in stature and importance of cities like Shenzhen is important to Los Angeles. We believe that we will ride that wave with them."

Both the opening of the new headquarters and BYD's entrance into the U.S. auto market have been slower than anticipated when the company's decision to locate in L.A. was announced in April of 2010.

The company has ambitious plans to bring electric vehicles like its e6 sports utility crossover to the public, but for the moment its efforts are focused on its electric buses. A BYD eBUS-12 will soon start shuttling passengers at LAX to Hertz' rental car facilities, and the company this summer demoed the unit for Metro in hopes of landing a deal to provide zero emission vehicles to the agency.

The Figueroa headquarters will house engineers and marketing efforts focused on bringing the company's products to the U.S. market. It is expected to create roughly 150 jobs when fully staffed.

Much of the media attention given to BYD is due to an investment by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. At Monday's opening, Berkshire vice-chairman Charlie Munger downplayed concerns that a limited market for electric vehicles would lead to issues for BYD.

"BYD's main activities when we invested were not vehicles at all," Munger noted. "The original strength was in the lithium battery, and they've just gone from strength to strength in that department. Now you've got LED lighting, like in this building. It's just a huge technical leader across a great range of disciplines."

While BYD's focus is on new technology, its new headquarters is neither a new building nor new to auto uses. Built in 1918 to house the White Auto Company, the building at 1800 S. Figueroa still shows a handful of historic features such as decorative columns topped by winged wheels among its new interior and LEDs.

A Huyndai dealership in the 1980's, the structure had more recently been used as storage for the Shammas Group, owner of seven auto dealerships on the Figueroa Corridor.

The company was on the verge of putting the structure to a different auto use.

"Kia was going to come in and take the building," noted Darryl Holter, chief executive for the Shammas Group. "I was almost ready to sign the deal with Kia when the Mayor and [then-Deputy Mayor] Austin [Beutner] called me and talked to me about BYD coming in."

Holter decided that the BYD deal made sense, both on a practical level—"running a Kia dealership is one thing, and having a tenant who just pays rent is another," Holter noted—but also on a strategic level for the Figueroa Corridor.

"It's important to me that they put their North American headquarters here," Holter said. "I think it's the first national headquarters for a foreign firm that we've ever had ... at least in terms of the Figueroa Corridor."

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