First Automobile goes from a small used car dealer to forging a distributorship with one of the world’s biggest automobile brands.
When Martin Ong first set up his used car business in 2000, trading five to 10 cars a month, little did he imagine that it would one day join forces with one of the biggest automotive brands in the world. While not an immediately recognizable name among those for whom a car is nothing more than a means to get one from point A to point B, the prestigious BRABUS brand is known among the most discerning of petrolheads for its high-end, high-performance tuning services for Mercedes-Benz.
Besides being a tuner, it is also a car manufacturer—in a momentous collaboration with Autovox, First Automobile launched Singapore’s first Brabus car showroom at its location in Changi North on Nov. 2. Through this distributorship, First Automobile will be the exclusive retailer for BRABUS cars in Singapore, while Autovox will oversee the distribution of the parts and accessories.
A press conference presided over by Gerald Wu, First Automobile’s managing director, Detlef Schedel and Christoph Dietze from BraBus’ exports department and Brinal Chua, managing director of Autovox, preceded the unveiling of the four Brabus cars. In a marriage of aerodynamic design and sporty aesthetics, the cars exude a presence that spells prestige and power.
The genesis of First Automobile was somewhat a leap of faith for the 37-year old Ong, whose area of business was previously in seafood wholesale. Fueled by an interest in cars, the ability to identify the potential in the used car market (the sector saw rapid expansion between 2000 to 2004 due to changes in market regulations) and the determination to act on his instincts, the company was birthed in 2000.
Business was brisk for the first three years, but the first major point of expansion happened in 2004, when the company expanded into the export business, exporting used cars into 13 countries including Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago as well as the Fiji Islands. It was no easy task establishing new markets in these countries; the demand was there, but the trick was in navigating the crime-riddled environment (he has witnessed street robberies taking place, and met with closed restaurant fronts for fear of violence) and choosing the right people to work with. The meticulous groundwork and extensive research paid off—every year for the next four years, it sold almost 1,000 cars.
In 2007, mutual acquaintances linked him up with Wu, 31, who already had considerable car dealership experience under his belt. With a desire to redirect the company’s focus back on local soil, a new business division was created, and the company moved into the parallel import sector, introducing the sales of new high-end continental cars including Audi, Ferrari, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Volkswagen.
Meanwhile, always a step ahead of the market, Ong foresaw a shrinkage in the local supply of used cars for export in 2006—due to the increase of Certificate Of Entitlement prices, car owners became more adverse to trading in their cars. The company then approached IE Singapore, a government agency tasked to develop the country’s external economy, and were linked up with one of China’s largest automotive companies, the Tianjin Haowu Electromechanical & Auto Trade Co. Ltd. The collaboration ushered in a new milestone for First Automobile—with the setup of a RMB$5 million global automobile trading center, it was able to run its export business on a bigger scale, buying in cars from Japan, South Korea and USA, and reselling them in a global market.
For those looking to do business in China, Ong advises, “Go through the proper channels. Singapore has good government agencies which can help establish platforms, making it a lot easier to get things done.”
|PHOTOS COURTESY OF FIRST AUTOMOBILE|
BUILDING A SOLID BRAND
One of the biggest problems the parallel import industry suffers from is trust, the commodity upon which all lasting customer relations are built. Says Wu, “The main perception about parallel importers is that the prices are good, but there’s always a risk of being cheated.” Additionally, customers frequently face problems with car servicing as it is not a norm for parallel importers to have their own workshops.
In a move to assure customers that it is neither a fly by night outfit nor one intent on merely closing a deal, First Automobile set up an after sales workshop to cater to the servicing needs of its customers. “It’s fully equipped with skilled technicians and cutting edge diagnostics equipment—it’s so essential that we’re able to help our customers troubleshoot their cars,” says Wu.
“The foundation must be right—integrity is key, and so is being a good paymaster. Everything must be done on time,” surmises Ong. Asserting that it has never been a one-man show but a team effort, he adds, “In building up a team, especially when you have capable people on board, you have to remember that they all have their own mindsets and opinions. As a leader, sometimes you need to listen to everyone’s opinions before making the final decision. You will also need to take time to explain to them why certain things have to be done in a certain way.”
Ong’s final words of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, or anybody with big dreams, for that matter, is to be prepared for challenges. “You must be ready for tough decisions; things will not come easy. The bigger the projects you want to take up, the bigger the challenges that will come your way.”
Log on to www.firstautomobile.com.sg for more information.