Tesla’s biggest rival mourns death of early backer Charlie Munger—‘unwavering support and guidance instrumental in shaping BYD’

Charlie Munger already had a lifetime of investing behind him when he called BYD his best financial decision ever—high praise coming from a legend. 

On Tuesday, the Chinese electric vehicle company returned the compliment by paying its dues to the native Nebraskan. Berkshire Hathaway’s legendary vice chairman, who passed away Nov. 28 just weeks short of his 100th birthday, was its earliest major backer and a vocal admirer of founder Wang Chuanfu.

“[Munger] was a visionary who believed in the potential of electric vehicles and renewable energy long before they became global imperatives,” said BYD Americas president, Stella Li, in a statement. “Charlie’s unwavering support and guidance were instrumental in shaping BYD into the global clean energy leader it is today.”

Known for his humble beginnings, grounded personality and disdain of vanity, Munger was blown away after meeting Chuanfu, who overcame a childhood of extreme poverty in China to train as a chemist before founding Build Your Dreams.

Calling the entrepreneur part Thomas Edison, part General Electric CEO Jack Welch, Munger convinced partner Warren Buffett they should invest some $230 million in the Chinese EV company.

Taking a risk

It was a substantial sum for an unproven technology back in 2008. Back then the market was still dubious of EVs: Tesla had only just started building its first car, the Roadster—and the Model S was still four years away.

It wasn’t until the pandemic that it became clear to Wall Street that the technology would not be going away, nor would new EV brands be driven out out of business by larger established companies like Volkswagen. 

Even if Berkshire has since wound down much of its stake, the deal demonstrated incredible foresight on the part of Munger.

Thanks to Munger, BYD has risen from obscurity to become the fourth most valuable carmaker behind only Tesla, Toyota and Porsche.

On Weibo, China’s popular microblogging site, BYD thanked its first big backer, posting its “deepest respect to Mr Munger, whose wisdom and spirit will live on in our hearts.”

Earlier this week BYD celebrated its six millionth car ever sold that was either fully or partially electric. It reached that milestone little more than three months after hitting the five million mark.

BYD has also eclipsed all brands to become China’s leading carmaker, a notable accomplishment in a country where established brands led by VW had long dominated the market. 

‘So far ahead of Tesla in China, it’s almost ridiculous’

Munger would likely have been pleased to see the BYD Seal, a competitor to the Tesla Model 3, poised to make waves in many major western markets.

The BYD investment flew in the face of Tesla bulls that have long hoped their conviction would be similarly validated through the purchase of a stake by Berkshire Hathaway. 

That this so far hasn’t come to pass may in part be due to Munger—the Omaha native didn’t bother disguising his reservations about Tesla’s CEO. To the very end, he never regretted his preference for Chuanfu over Musk. 

“BYD is so much ahead of Tesla in China, it’s almost ridiculous,” he said in February.

“I have never helped do anything at Berkshire that was as good as BYD and I only did it once,” the 99-year-old said in retrospect.

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