China EV maker’s founder reportedly sipped battery fluid to impress a Warren Buffett scout

The BYD Seagull. Aly Song/Reuters
  • BYD, Tesla’s biggest electric vehicle rival in China, is quickly gaining on Elon Musk.
  • Its founder, Wang Chuanfu, once drank battery fluid to impress big-name investors, the Wall Street Journal reported. 
  • BYD is on track to tie Tesla in EV sales this year.

The founder of Chinese automaker BYD, Tesla’s biggest global EV rival, once drank battery fluid in front of a big-name investor to show just how serious he was about his company, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

Electric-car giant BYD first launched as a battery maker but has since grown to become arguably the most impressive and quick-moving EV manufacturer in China.

Wang Chuanfu founded BYD in 1995, and alongside business partner Stella Li, the company is now on track to potentially best Tesla as the world’s top seller of electric vehicles. It sold more than 431,000 EVs in Q3, putting it second to Tesla’s 435,000 sales — but both companies are targeting 1.8 million EV sales by the end of the year.

David Sokol, at the time a lieutenant of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, noticed BYD’s momentum and visited the company in Shenzhen as early as 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal.

There, the two BYD executives told Sokol about the company’s competitive advantages, eventual global expansion plans, and clean battery tech.

Wang then took a sip from a glass of BYD’s battery fluid, a person familiar told the paper, as a way to show his confidence in how green its in-house tech was to the former Berkshire Hathaway exec. A few months later, Berkshire bought a 10% stake in BYD for $232 million. That investment catapulted BYD’s trajectory as a mass-producer of vehicles powered by the very batteries it designed.

History in the making

Though BYD makes headlines for its success selling EVs, it actually started out by copying the likes of Japanese giants like Sony (though a BYD spokesperson denied this to the Wall Street Journal) making batteries. BYD soon signed big battery-buying customers like Motorola and Nokia. It bought a state-owned weapons maker’s car-manufacturing operations in 2002, and launched its first gas-powered car in 2005 — a vehicle almost identical to the Toyota Corolla

, the Journal reported.

Since then, BYD found strengths in its cost-cutting and therefore, cost-competitiveness as it diversified its product portfolio to plug-in hybrids and eventually, all-electric vehicles.

How it’s going

In recent months, as demand in China has waned, BYD has placed its eye on exports, expanding more into Europe and Southeast Asia. It made a huge show at the Munich auto show, and German automakers and others are increasingly concerned about the pace at which BYD and other Chinese players are moving. Many of these companies, but especially BYD, are likely to enter the American market, too, though that expansion will come with far more political barriers.

Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal reported that while Wang long said the company’s name didn’t stand for anything in particular, it now stands for “Build Your Dreams.” The Journal reported that executives said Wang once joked that BYD stood for “Bring Your Dollars.” Wang started BYD with a $300,000 loan from a relative — and at one point worried the firm might not make it.

BYD saw some hiccups as other Chinese EV makers entered the market and Tesla shored up its Chinese operations. In 2019, earnings dropped substantially amid increasing competition, but an all-new battery brought BYD back to life.

Though Berkshire’s share in the EV maker has shrunk over time, now at less than 4%, BYD’s overall success continues.

Today, it seems impossible the company will ever slow down.

Aside from BYD’s unique business achievements, its two head executives also have a noteworthy and fascinating dynamic, the Wall Street Journal reported.

For one, Wang is described as “Mr. Inside,” focused on product, while Li’s role as “Ms. Outside” has her focus on selling the company to partners. The two are also rumored to be romantic partners, though BYD declined to comment on their relationship to the Journal.