Chinese cars didn't have a great start in the Philippines, that much is clear.
Much of the negative reputation can be credited to the Chery QQ. It wasn't the model itself but the way the brand was handled in the country, particularly with aftersales. We can't really stress how bad the taste was left in the mouth for many Filipino motorists and early corporate adopters of low-cost, four-wheeled mobility.
Surprising it was not when Chery pulled out, not just once but twice from our market. Many of the early Chinese brands in the market faded out too, with a few exceptions. And these exceptions were the ones who focused on improved offerings, different market strategies, and a serious improvement in aftersales support.
Because of these reforms the market has started to respond more favorably and more openly to some Chinese auto brands despite the politics of our sea to the west. Change is indeed possible; remember, Korean cars weren't as good before either.
One brand that is seeking re-acceptance into the market is Geely.
About a decade ago, Geely entered the Philippines via another distributor; the same company handles brands like Mercedes-Benz, Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge. We saw it as an odd fit: how will a company -one that finds repeated success with luxury and premium automobiles- fare when it comes to a little Chinese hatchback affectionately dubbed as "Panda"?
The LC "Panda" was cute, but it smelled and drove like a 'China car', and it came as no surprise that it didn't really do so well. No surprises then, that Geely's first effort in the market didn't last for long.
Now Geely is ready to re-enter the Philippine market. They've got a new partner: Sojitz G Auto Philippines, a company that is strongly backed by Japanese corporation Sojitz.
Will Geely succeed with Sojitz?
Geely's history is very unusual, and that may give us an indicator of their potential. They actually didn't start with cars: when Geely was first founded by Li Shufu in 1986 using borrowed money, they started making refrigerators. Success in that business led him to acquire a failing state-owned firm to build motorcycles. A few years after, Li would roll out his first vehicle from the Geely’s first production facility in Linhai on August 8, 1998.
In 2001, Geely became China’s first private carmaker after it obtains an official state license to produce vehicles. After years of making small cars, Geely began its transformation to becoming a global automotive player. And they did it without state funding unlike well-known Chinese automotive giants such as BAIC and SAIC.
They started to acquire well known regional and global automotive brands. Volvo is now owned by Geely. Malaysia's Proton now belongs to Geely. Benelli Motorcycles and London Cab are in their porfolio now too. But perhaps the most interesting brand in their fold is Lotus. Yes, the British sportscar brand. Geely was building an empire.
Perhaps the old saying is true, big things start from something small.
Just having us read about the success story apparently isn’t enough, Geely wanted us to see for ourselves how far they’ve come. And they opened their manufacturing plants, their research and development centers, and brand experience facilities to us.
China may be the base, specifically in Hangzhou in eastern China, but Geely has R&D centers and design centers spread across key cities across the world. No, these are not copies in any way shape or form; the company prides itself when it comes to innovation in design and a drive to continuously improve its products.
With its army of 20,000 innovators and designers, Geely also holds an ever-increasing number of patents and complete intellectual property rights.
We were able to get a peek into their facility in Ningbo, and yeah, it's huge. The sheer size of the facility easily dwarfs the many big manufacturing facilities in the Philippines, and it's easily bigger than the factories we've seen in Japan and Korea.
What got to us more is the level of technology. Many have joked that Chinese cars are built on "sweatshop-style" assembly lines, but no. Geely's factory is absolutely state of the art with its robotics, precision, and overall efficiency.
Aside from assembling their cars in state-of-the-art and highly-automated modular factories, Geely also builds its own engines, dual-clutch transmissions, and other key components. We also got a peek into Yiwu; their powertrain factory. Here they make gearboxes that can supposedly outlast German-made units.
Incidentally, our visit to the Geely experience center also coincided with the day they built their first car – August 8. What can be more "Chinese" than starting production on 8-8, right?
To sum our immersion into the company and brand that is Geely in three words - insightful, informative, and inspiring. It will be very interesting to see Geely return in our market.
Geely's first debut into the Philippine market nearly a decade ago may not have been a successful one, as it was distributed by companies who were not in the business of selling cheap cars. It was a joint-venture between CATS Motors and Solid Group; distributors of premium automobiles and consumer electronics, respectively. There is, however, one thing to note: unlike with Chery, there were no angry customers with pitchforks, only ones that happily caught the Panda hatchback at Php100,000 off retail.
Geely's return promises to be a proper entry with a Japanese company that aims to distribute it well. And with the new Coolray, newly appointed distributor Sojitz G Auto Philippines hopes their new compact crossover SUV will shine a new light on the Geely brand for Filipino car buyers.