By Phuong Nguyen and Kevin Krolicki
(Reuters) - Vietnam's VinFast is shifting its legal and financial headquarters to Singapore as the fledgling electric vehicle (EV) maker readies for a potential public listing and the first production run of cars for U.S. and European markets, its chief executive told Reuters.
The three-year-old unit of conglomerate Vingroup JSC will start building its VF8 sport utility vehicle (SUV) next week, its own EV batteries in August, and a $4 billion U.S. factory by summer-end, Le Thi Thu Thuy said in an interview.
VinFast has filed for an initial public offering (IPO) in the United States through a Singapore-based holding company - though market conditions might push the deal into 2023, Vingroup Chairman Pham Nhat Vuong said earlier this month.
Thuy declined to comment about the IPO when asked, but said the company's EV expansion plans were not contingent on the listing. "Like any big corporate, we always consider all potential financing transactions," Thuy said.
The CEO said she planned to spend more time in Singapore, where VinFast is buying a building, turning its holding company into an operating hub that would include an office and housing for staff and executives.
"We feel that Singapore is a jurisdiction that will give investors more confidence," Thuy said. "We put ourselves in the shoes of the investors."
While Thuy did not elaborate further, Singapore is widely seen as the most developed market in Southeast Asia, with a strong regulatory framework, mature financial services sector and access to arbitration.
Parent Vingroup is Vietnam's largest listed company by market capitalisation, with businesses in retail, real estate and resorts. It created VinFast in 2019 to build conventional petrol-powered cars before switching exclusively to EVs in 2021.
Though the market is crowded with established automakers vying with a range of startups, Vingroup in May still said it saw a global EV shortage which it deemed a "golden chance".
With a local line-up of just one small EV, the e34, VinFast has invested heavily to develop models for overseas.
Alongside its VF8, it has also been developing the larger VF9, though that was delayed by about a month because of the impact of COVID-19 containment measures in Shanghai on suppliers, Thuy said.
"We will deliver cars to the international market by the end of the year," Thuy said, starting with the VF8. "All of our effort is on the start of production for the VF8."
VinFast is particularly betting on the U.S. market, where it hopes to sell the two SUVs with prices from about $41,000 with a battery leasing plan. It aims to open its first showrooms in California by early July, including a flagship site in Santa Monica, Thuy said.
The automaker also plans to build a plant in North Carolina where it is seeking government financing, with construction starting by summer-end and production beginning in 2024.
VinFast's first VF8 models will be powered by batteries from South Korea's Samsung SDI Co Ltd, but the automaker has been developing its own batteries as a hedge against future shortages, Thuy said.
VinFast will start making the batteries in August and expects to have the capacity to produce about 3,000 vehicles with its own batteries by year-end, she said.
Through April, the company had sold 9,155 cars in its home market, mostly the internal-combustion models it is phasing out. It has sold 996 EVs since launching the e34 in Vietnam.
The company is also in the process of expanding its existing plant in Haiphong, Vietnam and expects to be able to produce 820,000 vehicles annually there by 2025, Thuy said. The company will retain its operational headquarters in Vietnam, a spokesman said.
(Company corrects to say Singapore will be its legal and financial headquarters while Vietnam remains its operational headquarters.)
(Reporting by Phuong Nguyen and Kevin Krolicki; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Jan Harvey)