Sunday, May 23, 2010

How to Succeed in Tech Without Really Trying

Okay, perhaps that isn't a completely fair characterization of BYD's business, but the Buffet factor looms large over BYD's shareholder returns since he invested.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek released its annual Tech 100 list, and look who's on top: BYD -- listed above such tech giants as Apple, Amazon and Google. And with revenue growth of 50 percent and shareholder return of an astounding 246 percent, it's no wonder that BYD tops the list. Apple, Amazon and Google, while performing well, can only dream of such growth in their much larger revenue bases.

So BusinessWeek's list would then appear to be biased in favor of smaller companies. Still, we shouldn't be surprised to see a company known for the world's first production plug-in hybrid (the F3DM) and an electric car that can go 190 miles on a charge (the E6) find a spot at the top of the list. Given the world's passionate search for alternatives to the internal combustion engine, cars such as these must be flying off the lots, right?

According to BusinessWeek's list, BYD had revenue of $5.8 billion in 2009. According to BYD's 2009 Annual Report, 53 percent of that revenue came from automobiles (the other 47 percent from the manufacture of batteries and mobile phone handsets). So BYD must have sold over $3 billion worth of "new energy vehicles", right?

Not even close.

So far, the F3DM plug-in hybrid has been used extensively by taxi and government fleets in BYD's native Shenzhen, but just last week, BYD revealed that so far, only 13 F3DMs have been bought by individual consumers in China. That's 13. Not 13 million or even 13,000. Just 13.

In all fairness, Chinese consumers are probably waiting around for the government to announce how much its subsidies will be for "new energy vehicles" before they start to buy the F3DM en masse.

What about the E6 electric car? So far, about 40 of these have gone into service as taxis in Shenzhen, but none have been sold to consumers. (Though BYD plans to introduce the E6 in the US later this year.)

So where did BYD's $3.1 billion in revenue from automobile sales come from? Traditional gasoline powered cars. BYD's F3 -- the gasoline powered version of the F3DM -- was the single best selling sedan in China last year.

The company at the top of BusinessWeek's Tech 100 list still makes the bulk of its revenue from selling very old, very polluting technology. Its other two revenue sources, handsets and batteries, are really nothing unique. Dozens of other companies from Nokia to Motorola to Samsung crank out the same thing at much higher volumes.

While BYD's revenue and profit growth are real, how can we justify their 246 percent shareholder return in 2009? Two words: Warren Buffet.

When someone with the stature of Warren Buffet buys a stock, this is a clear signal to the markets that the underlying company is worth a serious look. In the case of BYD, Warren Buffet and his team have evaluated the technology of BYD and see tremendous future value, so while that value has yet to materialize in terms of actual customers buying actual high-tech cars, BYD's stock is a bet on that future.

Unfortunately, given the 246 percent return over the past year, we can probably assume that much of BYD's future possibilities are already baked in to the stock price. If you aren't already on board, it's probably too late.

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