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February 28, 2011

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Car designer shares vision of innovation hub

IN August 2007, Ma Zhengkun, then 39, gave up 15 years of an affluent life in the United States to return to Shanghai as car design director at SAIC Motor Passenger Vehicle Co.

His job was to oversee the creation of new concept cars like the YeZ (meaning "a leaf"). Its model was recently displayed at the World Expo 2010 Shanghai.

Ma headed up the company's Ruima Car Design Studio, where the dreams of wannabe young car designers are nurtured and the global talents in the field are coaxed on board.

He left Shanghai Automobile Industry Corporation recently and now is the assistant to the president of Chang'an Automobile Group.

His efforts are part of Jiading District's goal to build itself into a car design hub.

Zhang Heng, who has been Ma's colleague for three years at SAIC, described Ma as a very capable, talented and ambitious person.

"He has changed the company's accepted concepts about car design and established a new vision," Zhang said.

Before his return to China, Ma worked for General Motors and the North America Technology Research Center of Honda Motor Co.

His superb working conditions and good pay in the US were the envy of many. But Ma was restless.

"Since China is currently the world's largest auto market, a car designer can find a lot of innovation opportunities here," he explained. "Additionally, my Chinese background can help me design cars catering to the taste of Chinese consumers."

Ma is a native of Beijing, but his professional ambitions lay in Shanghai. He spent two years at the Pan-Asia Automotive Technology Center of Shanghai General Motors, where he increased the staff from 15 to 50 and generated innovative ideas that caught the industry's attention.

Today the center employs more than 130 designers, and is the largest facility of its kind in China.

Ma clearly has the pulse of the domestic automobile industry, but he laments the fact that car design is a lagging sector in it. He's out to change all that.

When he returned to China, he went to work at SAIC in a small 12-square-meter office at Jinqiao in the Pudong New Area. There were only nine staff in his department and no serious design facilities.

In early 2008, Ma and his team moved into new quarters in the SAIC Engineering Research Institute in Anting Town, Jiading District. The site provided all the amenities he needed to start serious work on design and he set out to recruit the best staff he could from everywhere in the world.

Ma attended each of the interviews with about 200 candidates. Of those, 70 people have been hired, eight from abroad, and most of them are graduates of Coventry University, which is located near the headquarters of the Rover Group in the UK.

"We recruited many veteran car designers from the UK, Germany and Japan," Ma said, with some pride.

His team includes creative designers, clay model makers, graphic designers, color designers and digital designers. He has established a standard design process based on the advanced GM mode, covering market surveys, graphic design, three-dimensional sculpting, model making, test driving and project management.

Since its inception, the domestic automobile industry has shown reluctance to invest large sums of money in design, fearing perhaps that the best and brightest talent would be quickly lured away to jobs overseas.

"As long as we provide a wide stage for talented designers to showcase their expertise, there is no need to worry about a brain drain," Ma explained.

In the past two years, SAIC has rolled out a series of its own design brands, including Roewe 350, Roewe 550 and the newly revamped Roewe 750.

Its MG series sedans proved to be popular. The design and test drives of new cars are under way, targeting consumers from the low end to the high.

Ma believes in the dream of Jiading as a car design hub.

The district already has built up a wealth of experience in automobile production and assembly, equal to that anywhere in China. But automotive design remains in its infancy.

However, the completion of the Shanghai Automotive Wind Tunnel Center will help a lot in this area.

"Shanghai used to be a capital of innovative design," Ma said. "We can harness that spirit for the car industry."

He was instrumental in efforts to get the Pininfarina Group, famous for its Ferrari racing series, to sign a contract last year locating its China automotive research and development center at the Shanghai International Automotive Town's Research and Development Center.

Ma said his inspiration for design comes from reading and observation. Every time he goes on a trip, Ma opens his eyes to the world around him. He takes in the architecture and observes the clothing, watches, motorbikes, shoes and cell phones of people around him.

He studies the way products are designed and assembled. During the three-day Mid-Autumn Festival last year, he twice visited the World Expo Shanghai to witness innovations on display.

Ma is also an amateur photographer. After trips, he loves to share the stories behind each of his photos with his colleagues. On his annual trip to California, Ma spends more than half of his time in book stores and libraries, reading auto, art and management periodicals.

He said he could have more time to spend with his wife and son, who both support his zeal for work. His son is proud to tell classmates that Roewe or MG cars running on the streets were designed by his father.

Like father, like son? Perhaps. His son is showing great aptitude at school for design-related studies.


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