Ken Ma has resigned as Vice President of Design for Chongqing Changan Automobile Co. after only a year. The former General Motors and SAIC designer's departure is a blow to the Chinese manufacturer's bid to design more distinctive cars to compete more effectively with foreign rivals in China and abroad.
Several people close to the company confirmed Ma's resignation and, while they could not specify why he decided to step down, they speculated Ma's departure might be connected with Changan Auto's recent financial difficulty.
State-owned Changan Auto hired Ma in late 2010 the Chinese-born designer, who led the design of several SAIC vehicles under the brand names of Roewe and MG before joining the Chongqing manufacturer as global design chief. He reported directly to Changan Auto Chairman Xu Liupin on all design matters.
He was a high-profile appointment for Changan Auto and was charged to modernize the company's design by bringing his extensive knowledge and expertise. Ma was also given the task of establishing a major design center in Beijing that would be free from the influence of engineers at the company's HQ in Chongqing.
Many of China's domestic carmakers – whether state-owned or privately run – have struggled to establish distinctive design languages. Being both risk-averse and time- and cost-sensitive, many products are often deemed too derivative of vehicles from their Western or Japanese counterparts.
At this stage it is unclear what Ma plans to do next, but the people familiar with the matter said he was weighing several options.
Graduating from Beijing's Tsinghua University in 1990 with a degree in design, Ma continued his studies at Ohio State University. After obtaining a degree in design management from Ohio State, he joined GM, eventually being promoted to design director at the technical center GM runs with SAIC in Shanghai.
During his tenure at the SAIC-GM technical center, Ma helped design the Buick Regal sedan and Buick GL8 minivan for the Chinese market. He then returned to the U.S., where he worked for Mitsubishi and Honda, eventually coming back to China to join SAIC and lead the Chinese auto maker's vehicle design team in Shanghai.
At SAIC, Ma oversaw the development of Roewe and MG vehicles, which SAIC developed using some of the technology it purchased from the now-defunct MG Rover Group Ltd. in 2005. Mr. Ma worked at SAIC until late 2010 when he jumped ship to Changan.