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Driving design across two industries


Few people are in a better position to compare the Western and Chinese auto industries than Gordon Cook.

In 2009, after working for Ford for 30 years at its UK research and development center, the chance to work in China offered a new lease of life and a series of fresh challenges for the experienced engineer.

"The Western automobile industry is well developed and mature, yet the fast developing Chinese automobile industry, which is relatively less developed, attracted me very much," he says. "I wanted to change my life path and immerse it with the development of this country."

For Cook, the Chongqing Changan Global Automobile Institute, the R&D center run by the Changan motor company in its home city, is living up to the kind of promise it held for him when he first moved here.

"It was enthusiasm that brought me to China to work for the Changan Group, not the financial stimulus," says 61-year-old Cook. "The word 'change' can summarize my experience and observation of the Chinese automobile industry since then."

First, he was amazed to find that Changan had R&D centers in the US (Detroit), Europe and other countries and regions, but found that its global R&D system gave the company a big advantage.

"The global research institution can integrate the resources across the world and introduce some advanced technologies and experience overseas into China," says Cook.

After graduating from Manchester University, majoring in mechanic and nuclear engineering, in 1974, his career with Ford involved work in several different positions ranging from his early days in the engine development center through to vehicle engineering for small platform cars and finally launching new car models in Asia.

He took the opportunity to realize his ambitions of working in China when Ford reduced the number of employees, including R&D staff, in 2008 during the global auto industry recession. It was a time when Changan was hiring more experts from overseas.

As Changan's foreign expert in its vehicle integration department, Cook has in his few years with the company seen significant change.

"Our latest new cars have great design style and the driving quality is much improved," he says. "I am sure this will attract more customers and we will be able expand our international markets."

The logic today is to produce good-looking cars with good quality and at affordable prices, he adds.

"The general public usually holds the stereotypical view that Chinese automobiles are out of date in design and competitive only in their low price," he says. "Changan has been making a lot of efforts to get rid of this prejudice."

It is largely due to the influence of foreign experts such as Cook that Changan's automobiles are now of good quality and attractive looking, says Zhu Huarong, vice -president of Changan Automobile Co Ltd.

"Experts from different countries contribute a lot to the growth of Changan R&D strength," says Zhu. "What attract us is the foreign experts' rich experience in the auto industry and their ideas for innovation. We can provide them with the best platform to bring their innovation into full play."

Cook says he was excited to join Changan as it was transforming the way it designs and develops new cars.

"I can enjoy greater freedom to realize my design ideas in this fast developing company than in other established Western automobile brands."

Changan gained sales revenue of about 100 billion yuan ($ 16.04 billion dollars, 12.16 billion euros) in 2012, a 4 percent year-on-year increase. About two thirds of the car sold in 2012 were the group's own brands - a remarkable turnaround from several years ago.

The increased investment by Changan in the skills of its R&D engineers is the major reason for the transformation, says Cook.

There have also been phenomenal changes in the Chinese automobile industry in general, he says, making it "more competitive and challenging".

Since he came to Chongqing nearly four years ago, it has become more and more difficult for him to get parking spots as the traffic has become more congested.

"China enjoys its huge domestic market as a whole, yet it is impossible for the nation to have the road infrastructure for every family to own a car," he says. "Chinese customers will become increasingly demanding in their expectations of their new cars and this is our challenge to meet their future needs.

"Western China and overseas markets offer us new opportunities and these will surely be the driving power for the Chinese automakers."

He says he is eager to see some Changan products sold in Europe.

"A lot of my friends are amazed by the automobiles for Changan, even though they just get glimpses from the product catalogue. They always ask me where to buy the cars."

Their views were different when he left UK to work in China.

"When I took the position, lots of my friends said I was taking an adventure," he says. "To many people's minds, the Chinese automobile industry is rather backward, mainly famous for lower prices and medium quality. But I am confident that domestic brands will experience fast growth and enjoy long-term success."

He says China has many advantages in the automobile industry as "it is learning quickly from other nations and invests a lot in R&D". But brand building poses a challenge for Chinese automakers.

"Branding requires time and patience. It can take dozens of years to catch up with the foreign big names."( From China Daily)


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