In a country in which state-owned institutions receive significant advantages, Li Shufu is something of an iconoclast. Against the odds, he has not only founded a privately owned vehicle company - now one of China's top 10 carmakers - but also a private university to help build his dream of a car kingdom. Li's vision is to develop Geely Automobile into China's Rolls-Royce, and Beijing Geely University, which he founded nine years ago, is one of the vehicles to achieve his dream. He believes the university's graduates will provide the lifeblood of his car business. As chairman of the university, he is often on campus, and staffers say he visits it whenever he can. 'He is concerned about the development of the college,' said Wang Shuyi, founder and director of the university's vehicle school. 'His instruction is clear - design a car that belongs to China.' Wang said the college is fulfilling Li's wish, showing awards for prototype models 'Geely Star' in a racing-car design competition and solar energy-petrol hybrid 'Noah' in a hi-tech car competition. 'You see, we've only had six years of history since the automobile college started in 2003, and already we've built our own cars,' he said. It is always difficult starting a private enterprise on the mainland, which is dominated by state-backed corporations and educational institutions that generally do not require private investment. But throughout his career, Li has had a persistent focus on the private sector - from his first venture in refrigerator components to motorcycle and car manufacturing, to the university - because he believes it offers him the flexibility to get what he wants. Beijing Geely University, located on the city's outskirts in the Changping district, has 15 schools, covering business, the arts, media, sociology, biotechnology and vehicles. It aims to compete with the mainland's other private universities. Wang said the university's vehicle school is unique because of its comprehensive training. Other state institutions, such as Tsinghua University in Beijing and Tongji University in Shanghai, have vehicle colleges with long histories, but they mainly focus on engineering. The Geely school offers extensive courses in engineering, manufacturing, business and design. It also distinguishes itself from the others by training female models for car shows. The course, which can only be found at Geely University, teaches young women how to dress, wear make-up and pose with cars. Intent on competing with the other private universities, Geely's vehicle college is expected to expand its student body to 10,000 from 4,500 and its faculty to 300 from 128. 'Our students can now fully master car manufacturing, including design,' said Wang, adding that his students had recently won an award for their 'green' car prototypes. The school has six streams - car manufacturing, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, car business, metal processing and practical training. 'In the coming five years, the automobile school will focus on efficient traffic control systems, smart cars, alternative-energy vehicles and computerised transportation management,' said Wang. Students from the college are sent to Geely for internships during the summer, and the best of them are hired when they graduate. Li, son of a farmer in Zhejiang province, started his business life in 1984 using a 2,000 yuan (HK$2,270) loan from his father to set up a factory to make refrigeration components. But he was closed down in 1989 when the central government began to regulate the industry, allowing only designated factories to make refrigerators and parts. In 1994, Li switched to motorcycles, turning around a bankrupt state-owned motorcycle factory in Hangzhou and expanding into the country's fourth-largest privately owned company. By the late 1990s, he was making vehicles with the goal, he said, 'to make cars which the poor can afford'. They might have been affordable, but they did not always win praise. Li brought Geely's four-door CK sedan to the Detroit Auto Show in 2006, where it was panned for its stark, low-tech look and widely criticised for being unsafe after videos of its crash tests were posted on YouTube. Geely has since gained a better reputation. The company now has a market capitalisation of HK$30 billion. Its net profit surged 145 per cent to 595.91 million yuan in the first six months of this year. Revenue shot up 88 times to 5.95 billion yuan. It sold 246,500 cars in the first 10 months, putting it on track to eclipse its full-year target of 250,000 sales. But it has since run into more criticism with its recent efforts to go upmarket. After unveiling its Geely GE luxury car at the Shanghai Auto Show earlier this year, Rolls-Royce said it might take legal action because of the similarities between the GE and the Rolls-Royce Phantom. Geely has had a tough time competing with state-backed carmakers such as Jilin-based First Auto Work Group, Shanghai-based SAIC Motor Corp and Hebei's Dongfeng Motor Group. State-backed carmakers find it comparatively easy to get funding as well as approval for overseas acquisitions and domestic expansions. To deal with this handicap, Li bought out a listed shell property company in the 1990s, which provided a fund-raising channel via the Hong Kong stock market. Geely, which expects to sell 250,000 vehicles this year, up 22 per cent from last year, aims to sell two million cars annually by 2015. In order to attain that goal, Li and his staff believe that Chinese carmakers should follow the operating model of Japan's Toyota Motor Corp. 'We need to roll out different new models frequently as a way to support high sales volumes, just like Toyota,' said Frank Zhao, the director of Zhejiang Geely Automotive Research and Development Centre. Geely is also looking at overseas acquisition opportunities as a short-cut to hasten its technological development. In March, the firm agreed to pay up to A$58 million (HK$417.72 million) to acquire Australian automatic transmission supplier Drivetrain System International - a component supplier to Ford Motor. In 2007, it bought a 23 per cent stake in Manganese Bronze, the maker of London's black cabs. Geely has also said it is bidding US$1.8 billion for Ford's Volvo passenger car unit with the backing of at least three Chinese banks.