SOUTHFIELD, MI – Geely Automobile Co.’s plan to sell vehicles in the U.S. market is moving ahead quickly, the company’s sole U.S. official says.

John Harmer, vice president and chief operating officer-Geely U.S.A. Inc., says he is interviewing candidates for a variety of management positions with the upstart Chinese auto maker, which plans to begin selling cars in the U.S. in fall 2008.

“There are five categories in which we want to (place these) people: public relations; component suppliers; dealer network; dealer financing; and regulatory, which is my responsibility,” Harmer tells Ward's following a Society of Automotive Analysts meeting here.

“All of (the candidates) have extensive automotive backgrounds.”

Those seeking a position with Geely say they “want to get in on the ground floor,” he says. “They’ve lived through the Japanese and the Korean experience, and they see China as a repeat of that.”

Harmer anticipates that in three months time Geely will have a U.S. staff of eight-10 people, which will grow to 40-50 employees in a year’s time.

Geely still is debating where to locate its U.S. headquarters. Harmer lives in Salt Lake City but says that is not a feasible location. More likely is a Southern California base of operations, or possibly Detroit.

“The Detroit Chamber of Commerce has been very persuasive,” he says of efforts to woo Geely’s headquarters to the Big Three’s home turf.

Harmer says the Detroit area does have the advantage of having a large population with the same socioeconomic background Geely’s cars (expected to be priced to dealers at about $7,500) will target.

Another notable development since January, when Geely became the first Chinese auto maker to display at the Detroit auto show, is the hiring of a public relations firm to craft a campaign informing Americans about Geely and its intention to sell in the U.S.

Following the auto show, Geely commissioned a study of the public’s reaction to media reports concerning the auto maker.

One-quarter of consumer responses indicated Americans were highly skeptical of the quality of Chinese products, Harmer says, adding, “The PR issue is an enormously serious one.”

“This study made it very clear to us that this issue of Chinese quality, Chinese reliability, is an issue we can’t wait until the car is on the showroom floor to try to deal with,” he continues. “We can’t assume the car will speak for itself by virtue of its quality. We’ve got to engage in a very proactive campaign before then.”

Harmer says a 90-second TV “infomercial” will be aired to show the testing of Geely vehicles in the U.S. Additionally, Geely expects to use early road-test information by automotive magazines in its own advertising.

Geely is not the only Chinese auto maker interested in selling in the U.S. Chery Automobile Co. Ltd. last year stated intentions to begin selling here in 2007, via a venture headed by Malcolm Bricklin’s Visionary Vehicles LLC.

Harmer says Geely is not so concerned with being first to the U.S. market, as it is with “being worthy.” The Chinese central government “is not going to be embarrassed by a Chinese car sent to the U.S.,” he says.

Following Geely’s Detroit debut, Harmer says he was inundated with e-mails from U.S. auto dealers interested in selling Geely cars, noting he has heard from more than 200 “high-quality” dealers.

Geely also was contacted by a company that said it was “an existing mega-retailer,” which he doesn’t name, that wants to get into automotive retailing and could handle distribution, sales, service and aftermarket functions.

“We don’t feel particularly interested in being the pioneer in that process,” he says of the option.

Meanwhile, Geely is close to making a decision on its ports of entry on the East and West Coasts, after which it will establish an infrastructure to support a regional dealer network. The last step will be to sign dealers, Harmer says.

He emphasizes Geely vehicles will be “very, very basic automobiles,” equipped with power windows, air conditioning and a single-disc CD player.

The vehicles will utilize some U.S. content, he says, and the auto maker is approaching more local suppliers. One of the cars to be sold here, the 7151 CK sedan, has a windshield supplied by a U.S. firm.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com