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Antonio “Toti” Zara takes on new role as president of Ayala Group’s mobility arm AC Motors

Many auto industry pundits were surprised last week when Antonio “Toti” Zara, a 30-year car wars veteran, was hired as president of AC Motors, the Ayala Group’s mobility arm. On the day the announcement was made, Zara, 54, was on his last day as general manager of GT Capital Auto Dealership Holdings of which Toyota Motor Philippines Corporation is a subsidiary.

            Toti Zara is remembered locally as the president of Nissan PH from 2014 to 2016, although the major part of his well-rounded career was spent with General Motors in South Korea, Japan and Indonesia. His last job before joining GT Capital was as president of Nissan Indonesia in 2016-2017.  When he was interviewed by PDI Motoring shortly after his return to Manila in 2014 to assume the presidency of Nissan, Zara said that he left General Motors because he wanted to come home for good.

            AC Motors, formerly known as AC Automotive, is the mobility arm of AC Industrials, Ayala’s wholly owned industrial technology unit.  Zara revealed that AC Motors, which today has over 100 owned and managed locations nationwide, is currently reorganizing itself into two distinct companies: automotive and motorcycle.

REORGANIZING.  Zara will lead the automotive group which today covers distribution operations for the Kia, Volkswagen and Maxus brands, their dealership operations, plus the largest dealership networks for the Honda and Isuzu brands.  A new company will be created to house the Kia brand under AC Motors, while Adventure Cycle PH, Inc. will be the motorcycle group under Dino Santos covering the joint venture export, domestic manufacturing and distribution of KTM.

            Zara posited that his joining the AC Motors team is part of the ongoing Ayala and AC Industrials-led drive to reorganize and boost AC Motors as it recovers and grows post-pandemic.  “AC Industrials is not only positioning ourselves to become a leading player in the automotive (four-wheel) segment, but also in the motorcycle (two-wheel) segment. One of the group’s learnings over the last few years is that the four-wheel and two-wheel businesses have unique needs and growth characteristics, and thus require distinct organizations, skill sets, and focus.”

            Toti Zara will report directly to Arthur Tan, chairman and CEO of AC Industrials, who will also continue to serve as the chairman and CEO of the various companies under the AC Motors umbrella.

            Asked why he decided to accept Ayala’s offer to head AC Motors, Zara replied: “I miss the action! I’m a car guy who enjoys building brands, working on cars, meeting customers and establishing dealer networks.  I’m very thankful for the opportunity and the privilege to have worked with such a distinguished GT Capital team for two years, but I’m like a player who wants to be in the game instead of coaching from the bench.  GT Capital, as you know, is a holding company and we were not directly involved in operations.”

REDEFINING. He believes he can contribute to AC Motors which has all the ingredients to be a more relevant player in the market. “I see the opportunity in Ayala to redefine how things are done in the industry,” he averred.  “The aim is to harness the strength of Ayala as a group and the brands we carry.  We will innovate and redefine processes because the Filipino consumer deserves better.  There is no reason why customer experience should be any less than our ASEAN neighbors.”

            In pursuit of a better customer experience amid the pandemic-mandated social-distancing environment, Zara agreed that there is a need to fast-track the digital transition of AC Motors.  Fortunately, the digitalization of operations began well before he came in, setting the foundation for enhancing digital marketing and sales initiatives:” Mega dealership structures may not be the best option in servicing our customers.  I will work with our team to begin our pivot towards this new marketplace.”

            He cautioned, however, that digital marketing is complex and ever-changing.  “We can’t simply allocate budget and spend it on banners or Facebook like in traditional media,” he contended.  “We need to go beyond simply buying digital media, setting up websites and virtual showrooms, and invest in a robust customer database system.  The digital space is very fragmented but at the same time allows us to be more targeted, provided we invest in the right tools and technology.  We also need to change the way we create content since we need to be more personalized.  The customer is now at the center and not our products or promotional messages.”

            Aside from Maxus which is an old British brand that was acquired by SAIC, China’s biggest state-owned car company, AC Motors sells other made-in-China models like the Kia Soluto, Kia Seltos and Kia Stonic.  A few years ago, Ayala replaced its German Volkswagen lineup with the Santana, Lamando and Lavida, cars produced in Volkswagen’s Shanghai hub.

LEVERAGING. “Whether built in China, Thailand, Indonesia or any other country is not relevant provided we meet the quality expectations of customers in terms of build quality and product features,” Zara claimed. “Chinese brands at lower price points and with aggressive marketing will carve out its niche.  I have no doubt industry growth will come from the first-time car buyers who will choose models in the more affordable segments.  We will certainly continue to leverage our opportunity to source China-built models while ensuring quality and customer experience.”

             He pointed out that free trade agreements (FTAs) have neutralized the local/regional assembly advantage of other brands: “The FTA with China is a good example which neutralized the ASEAN FTA, although Honda and Isuzu have a strong ASEAN manufacturing footprint. With an equal playing field in manufacturing, I bring a clear vision of how distribution and dealer networks will evolve in the coming years as we move towards connected cars and electric vehicles.”

            Since the unemployment rate, OFW remittances, consumer confidence and bank retail financing availability are not expected to recover this year, and economists say the government’s stimulus plans will need more time to take effect, Zara said that while he remains hopeful for an earlier recovery, “ I’d say 2022 is the most optimistic assumption we can make considering how the Philippines and other markets recovered from past crises.

            “Consumer confidence will improve with effective government stimulus plans which would then lead to recovery in the auto industry.  The best we can do is to build consumer confidence in the brands we sell.  This goes back to our breakthrough digital initiatives, stronger product offering, efficient dealer network and other new initiatives we will announce in the near future.”

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