Former Toyota PH marketing boss looks back on company\'s history

On the occasion of Japanese carmaker\'s 25th anniversary in PH
by Vernon B. Sarne | Jul 30, 2013

\"Toyota

On August 3rd, 2013, Toyota Motor Philippines, the undisputed No. 1 car company in the country, is marking its 25th anniversary (although the big celebration will happen two days earlier). We\'re expecting a lot of noise from the Japanese automaker in the coming days, weeks, even months. Make no mistake about it: This is a huge milestone for them, and they will spare nothing to let us know about it.

We expect, for starters, to be supplied with a press release detailing the company\'s history, and you, too, should expect to read this in the motoring section of your favorite broadsheet. But we\'re having none of that corporate publicity. Instead, we turn to the one man who is most qualified to talk about Toyota Motor Philippines.

We\'re referring to Singapore-based Filipino executive Vince Socco, now the executive vice president of Toyota Motor Asia Pacific. He\'s the highest-ranking Pinoy in the Toyota universe, and he\'s the carmaker\'s chief offensive weapon in the region. Frankly speaking, if the other brands hope to have a fighting chance against Toyota, all they have to do is pirate this guy--assuming they can. But they can\'t, because Socco breathes and bleeds Toyota.

A product of the University of the Philippines, Socco joined Delta Motor Corporation as a marketing assistant in 1979. Delta Motor, owned by the Silverios, was the precursor of Toyota Motor Philippines. Its most popular legacy, perhaps, is forming a professional basketball team that had the likes of Robert Jaworski, Francis Arnaiz and Ramon Fernandez. In 1984, when Socco was already a marketing services officer, Delta Motor had to close up shop due to the unstable political climate prevalent at the time.

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But Vince remained in the employ of Toyota Motor Corporation, serving as the marketing and general affairs manager of its Manila representative office.

In 1988, Toyota formally came back to the Philippines, and Socco was the main pioneer in the new company\'s establishment. He was vehicle sales manager from 1988 to 1994, first vice president for marketing from 1994 to 1995, and finally senior vice president for marketing from 1995 to 2001. And then he joined Toyota Motor Asia Pacific--but not before almost getting poached by Ford, which aggressively went after him when he left TMP (we can now only guess what might have happened had he become Ford Philippines\' president).

At TMAP, Vince was general manager for marketing services from 2001 to 2005, vice president for marketing planning from 2005 to 2007, and then senior vice president from 2007 to 2012. He was appointed executive vice president in April 2012.

In light of Toyota Motor Philippines\' 25th anniversary, we asked Vince Socco to look back on the company\'s history.

What were you doing before Toyota came back to the Philippines?

I was also working with Toyota. After Delta Motor Corporation--the first distributor of Toyota in the Philippines--ceased operations, I joined the Toyota representative office in Manila. We were charged with taking care of the after-sales service needs of our customers. We could not simply leave our customers to fend for themselves; it was incumbent on us to take care of them in the intervening period before a new distributor could be established. It was the right thing to do.

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How did you learn about the comeback?

I was invited to join the start-up management team for Toyota Motor Philippines when negotiations for its establishment were concluded in 1988. It was a day I had been looking forward to for over three years. Despite all the political and economic turmoil that the Philippines was experiencing in the years following the closure of Delta Motor, I always believed that it was not so much if Toyota would return, as when. When the invitation came, I signed up without a second thought.

What were the biggest challenges that Toyota initially faced when it returned to the country?

The biggest challenge was, of course, getting the start-up team together. After all, without people--the right people--there was nothing that we could get done. Although a few of us who were invited to join the team had previously worked with Delta Motor, that experience was not the overriding consideration. It was more important to recruit team members who shared the basic values of Toyota and who were committed to our mission of providing the best-quality cars and best-quality sales experience to our customers. Senior management was deeply involved in the process. In fact, our president at the time interviewed each and every potential candidate to confirm the fit with our company philosophy. Some said it was an excessive process; we believed it was about being thorough and doing things right from the start.

Another challenge was obtaining the necessary government approvals to start up our business and operations. Considering the fluidity of social and political circumstances at the time, this was not an easy task. The new government of President Cory Aquino was trying its best to establish a clear economic agenda. But in those times, there was a lot of going to and fro. Eventually, persistence and an unwavering commitment from both Toyota and our local partner, Metrobank, won the day.

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Next, of course, was getting ourselves started. That involved getting the factory back in running order and up to Toyota quality standards. It was a tall order considering that the Bicutan facility had been mothballed for almost five years. Literally, buckets of sweat had to be shed, swarms of rodents and insects had to be eliminated, and great care had to be exercised in handling hazardous equipment that were left in total disrepair. All this with no electricity and water on-site.

Then we also had to ramp up our hiring to establish our organization. And, of course, we had to establish our dealer network. All in a short time. Toyota Motor Philippines started business in August 1988, and we had planned to commence our assembly and commercial operations by March 1989. These were the exceptional challenges we faced at the onset of Toyota\'s comeback.

What were the first cars that Toyota brought in upon its return to the Philippines?

When we opened for business in 1988, we only had the Corolla, the Crown and the Liteace. Eventually, we got the Corona and, ultimately, the return of the famed workhorse utility vehicle, the Tamaraw FX, in 1991.

What was the very first Toyota dealership? And how did you pick the dealers?

The first dealers to open their doors to the public in March 1989 were Toyota Bel-Air (now known as Toyota Makati) and Toyota Quezon Avenue. These were followed by Toyota Shaw in April and then Toyota Alabang in September. In the recruitment of dealers, we had to be very firm in our selection process to maintain the integrity of our process and avoid compromising our Toyota standards. Capability, sincerity and good moral character were our basic criteria. Previous experience in the automotive industry was not a prerequisite. We looked for candidates who exhibited a clear and unshakable sense of ownership, entrepreneurship and personal involvement in the business.

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It was an intensive process that involved interviewing with a panel chaired by no less than our then president, Mr. Masao Mitake. There were hundreds of unsolicited applications. We intentionally avoided advertising for interested parties because we felt that those that were deeply passionate about obtaining a Toyota dealership would find us on their own initiative.

How long did it take Toyota to be the No. 1 car brand in the local market by virtue of sales?

We started sales in 1989. By 1990, we took leadership in the market. It was a significant milestone that rocked our world and a post we kept for eight consecutive years until 1997. In fact, in June 1990, we hit an all-time record share of 49.1% in a single month--a record that stands to this day. We had no illusions about getting back into pole position for at least three years. It was a completely humbling experience then when we convincingly won back the vote of the Philippine motoring public with only nine months under our belt. It was pure inspiration for the team.

What was the one vehicle model that, in your opinion, truly cemented Toyota\'s reputation in the Philippine market as the No. 1 car company?

The Tamaraw FX, no doubt. Although the Corolla 16-valve was all the rave at our launch, it was the Tamaraw FX that brought Toyota back in a real big way. It opened the door--or the garage--of many Filipino families to Toyota. The Tamaraw had been the erstwhile king of Philippine roads until Delta ceased operations. So, when we brought it back in 1991 in its basic form, it was welcomed back with much affection. And when we introduced the wagon version in 1993--on the back of our hugely successful Darna launch campaign--sales went through the roof. After the Tamaraw FX, there was no turning back; Toyota was here to stay. The \"FX\" suffix found its way into the colloquial Tagalog language to mean a form of public transport from point to point. And FX depots sprouted throughout the metropolitan area. It was our defining moment. To this day, many Tamaraw FX vehicles still roam the streets of the Philippines. Of course, its successor, the Innova, has continued to remain as the most popular minivan in the market today.

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And how did Toyota\'s sales performance in the Philippines compare with those in other markets in the region?

Toyota Motor Philippines sold 9,434 units in its first 10 months in 1989. That compared with Thailand\'s and Indonesia\'s sales of around 50,000 units each in that year. In 1990, in TMP\'s first full year, Toyota sales practically doubled to 19,500 units, and in 1992, the Philippines outsold Malaysia to become the third largest market in the ASEAN. TMP sales continued to grow year after year until its peak of 41,500 units in 1996, by which time Toyota sales in Thailand and Indonesia had soared to almost 170,000 and 100,000 units, respectively.

Then the Asian financial crisis happened. Unfortunately, while Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia recovered to pre-crisis levels in five years\' time, the Philippines continued to languish. It took 11 years, until 2007, before Toyota could break past its 1996 record. Since 2007, however, Toyota Motor Philippines has set consecutive new sales records every year, hitting over 65,000 units last year. In comparison, Thailand sales exceeded 500,000, Indonesia exceeded 400,000, and Malaysia broke the 100,000-unit mark.

This year, as TMP celebrates its 25th anniversary, Toyota sales are on track for yet another all-time high of over 70,000 units. This brings it closer to Malaysia and on track to break 100,000 units sooner than later.

When Toyota came back, was putting together another professional basketball team ever a consideration?

No. There was so much on our plate. Although we were acutely aware of the popularity of basketball among Filipinos and their fondness for the former Toyota team, we simply had other more compelling priorities at the time.

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What do you feel whenever you see high-ranking executives of competing brands today who used to work for Toyota Motor Philippines? The joke is that many of the current industry bosses graduated from \"Toyota University,\" and that they learned personally from Professor Vince Socco.

I am always thrilled to meet any of our former team members--those who moved on to other auto companies, but more so those that still remain with Toyota Motor Philippines. I never placed any limits to what our people could achieve, and I am delighted that many of them have achieved much success, in Toyota or wherever their paths have led. My simplest joy is to know that we were once able to work together and, hopefully, that I was able to help in my own small way in setting them on their life journey. In fact, I also learned a lot from my team members. I am convinced that I am a better person for having worked with them. When we meet, we never fail to talk about our times together at Toyota--both happy and not-so-happy moments. It\'s all part of who we are today.

How does Toyota maintain market leadership not just in the Philippines, but in practically the whole world?

I believe that our growth through the years--in the Philippines and around the world--is a result of our ability as an organization to keep true to who we are. We have been accused of building conservatively styled vehicles, of being too slow to innovate, of not having enough dash and flair. I say, \"sticks and stones.\" We listen to the one voice that really matter--our customer. The vehicles we build, the services we provide--we do so by deeply and sincerely understanding what our customers need. In our world, the customer is our true north. To do good by them is what allows us to grow with them.

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\"Customer first\" is not just a catchphrase for us--it is a truism. And each of our members embraces and acts on this truth. Consistently. We aim to build ever-better cars. Cars with a solid heritage and reputation for quality, durability and reliability. We seek to provide an ever-better purchase and ownership experience, one customer at a time.

Toyota has been the No. 1 car brand in the Philippines for so long. What\'s the next big thing for the company?

As trite as it may sound, it will be more of the same! The same in the sense that we will forever hold true to our vision of building ever-better cars and an ever-better purchase and ownership experience. The same in the sense that we will remain committed to not only building the best-quality cars but also in helping to build a nation. The same in the sense that we will always aim to exceed expectations and be rewarded with a smile.

With Toyota\'s 76 years of experience as an automotive manufacturer, and Toyota Motor Philippines\' own 25 years behind us, the future can only be better and brighter and more exciting. We are focused on leading the way to the future of mobility by enriching lives around the world with the safest and most responsible ways of moving people. We aim to dial up the fun-to-drive factor not only in our cars but in life itself--to explore the joys of mobility and discovery and adventure. The 86. The all-new Vios. Our Toyota SURE Advantage. The Vios one-make race. The new amazing automobiles from Lexus. Our pioneering and leading innovations in hybrids. Breakthroughs in alternative fuel technology.

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Yes, tomorrow will be a better day.

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