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BRIAN NEILL
Herald Staff Writer
SARASOTA - Bill Fisher says a speeding train is headed for the United States' auto market.

The train is China, and Fisher hopes to be blowing the whistle as it reaches the border.

The Sarasota resident has embarked on a mission to be the first to import cars manufactured in China for sale at American dealerships.

He says he has a $500 million commitment from an investment firm that also has pledged $4 billion in reserve backing if the project's scope merits it.

Fisher declines, however, to name the investor.

Although he thinks it will be at least four years until he can import a line of cars that meet the safety, pollution-control and comfort requirements of the U.S. market, Fisher is confident his company will be able to offer a car that can give low-priced consumer vehicles a run for their money.

"This is not about trying to get cars here from China so much as getting the right car here from China," Fisher said from his home office. "We want a company that has a long-term view - somebody that can be the next Toyota, really, in the United States."

The 53-year-old former Marine, who says he stays in shape by running four miles every day in the noon sun, has a long history with China and its people.

He spent 21 years as the former vice president of business development for Fornix, a Hong Kong-based trading company. Fisher also met officials from a number of Chinese auto manufacturers through his association with Malcolm Bricklin.

Bricklin, the famed automobile importer who brought the Yugo to the U.S. and the self-named Bricklin SV-1 - known for its upward-opening, gull-wing doors - is head of Visionary Vehicles, a New York company that also plans to import Chinese vehicles.

Fisher and Bricklin worked together on the Visionary Vehicles venture until late last year when Fisher left and formed his own company, AmAsia International in January.

Now, Fisher and Bricklin are competitors. But each has his own opinion as to what degree.

Wendi Tush, spokesperson for Visionary Vehicles, said Bricklin did not want to be quoted in a story with Fisher.

"We're bringing cars in, and Bill's talking about bringing cars in," Tush said. "We don't want to be compared with some sort of a pipe dream."

Tush said Visionary Vehicles has partnered with Chery Automobile Co. to begin importing cars to the U.S. by the end of 2008.

"In order to meet the safety standards and everything we want to do for the American market, we don't expect seeing the first car coming into the American market until 2008," Tush said. "But we've got some beautiful cars. These are going to be luxury cars. We like to say, Lexus-quality vehicles at Toyota prices."

Visionary Vehicles has $200 million in escrow, which Chery is matching, Tush said.

Fisher downplayed Visionary Vehicle's criticisms of his efforts.

"It's easy to see how they might feel that way since they are not privy to any of my planning or any of the things that have taken place with my company up until now, including the funding, which exceeds what they have," Fisher said. "They're coming to market, let's make no mistake about it. What I'm saying is, let's see what happens long term. Mine's no more a pipe dream than theirs was. I think time will be the arbiter, and I have nothing negative to say about them."

Fisher said he has had discussions with Chery officials but is no longer considering those vehicles for importing.

He also has spoken with representatives of China auto manufacturer Geely Automobile Holdings Group, whose cars hold promise. But Fisher said it will take more time for those vehicles to overcome safety and pollution-control challenges to be ready for the U.S. market.

The Geely's engine is also not powerful enough for U.S. consumers, Fisher said.

"Typically, you're looking at cars with 65 horsepower, 85 horsepower. They don't even put out 100 horsepower. They're just not ready for prime time, as I put it," Fisher said. "Can they get there? Yes, they can. This is a very viable company and the owner is a very dynamic guy. But they need the guidance of somebody from this country to help them understand our requirements."

There's a third player in China whom Fisher declines to name, but plans to meet with in the near future, he said.

Fisher grew up in Detroit and describes himself as an automotive junkie. When neighborhood dealerships got their new models in, Fisher said he was 10 years old "waiting at the doors to go in."

Fisher's father also patented a remote, rear-view mirror adjuster common on many vehicles today.

"It's (the automobile) just an innate part of my life," Fisher said. "It's something I really have a passion for."

Industry experts agree that it's only a matter of time before U.S. consumers have a variety of choices of Chinese-made cars.

But analysts say it will still be several years before Chinese manufacturers can ramp up production enough to meet demands outside their own borders.

Fisher believes a manufacturer would have to produce as many as 700,000 cars a year to meet that demand.

Last year, Chery and Geely each produced fewer than 200,000 cars, according to Automotive News, an industry trade magazine.

But Fisher expects the Chinese to work hard to meet the demands of an ever-evolving global economy.

And with some autoworkers in this country making $63 an hour or more, it will be difficult for American car manufacturers to remain competitive with Chinese companies who pay their workers an hourly wage of $2, Fisher said.

"We have to be more competitive in the world, and we're not going to do it with a guy who gets paid $63 an hour to put a dipstick in a car," Fisher said. "The Chinese are coming. It's coming like a freight train. You either get on the train or get out of the way, because it's not going to be stopped."

http://www.bradenton.com/mld/bradenton/business/15246343.htm
 

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it will be difficult for American car manufacturers to remain competitive with Chinese companies who pay their workers an hourly wage of $2, Fisher said.
But Chinese will be going up against latest Japanese and Korean transplants with 100+ cars/worker efficiency, not GM and Ford.
 
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