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Ma. Fe Perez-Agudo takes on a new challenge of growing a new China brand 

Her name spells out her steely character in two scientific letters: Fe.

And in many, many ways, Ma. Fe Perez-Agudo has lived her life true to that name. Fe, which in chemistry is the symbol for iron, the element of strength, and in Spanish means “faith (in God’s purpose)”—these were what her parents wished of their daughter even from a young age.

Perez-Agudo’s biggest push had been from her father Emilio and mother Fidela.  Emilio was a textile mechanic of an American sewing machine firm. Fidela, who didn’t finish high school, had her hands full raising all of 10 children.

“I got my inner strength and tenacity from my mother. I got my wisdom from my father,” she once told Inquirer Motoring in an interview more than a decade ago. Through hard study and what Agudo attributes as good brain genetics, she and many of her siblings were able to get scholarships from various schools, and all became successful in their own fields.

Perez-Agudo recounted then that before passing away, her father once asked her: “Do you want to be a tiger in a small kingdom or just one of the animals in a big forest?” At the time, she was about to give up a lucrative career in real estate to join Hyundai, an erstwhile unknown Korean automotive brand. With her father’s last cryptic query embedded in her mind, Fe joined the automotive industry in 2001. Almost immediately, she was faced with two seemingly insurmountable odds, both hurled onto her by public perception: That she joined a weak Korean brand, and that she was a member of the weaker sex.

We now know how she turned these perceptions on their heads in the course of a decade.

Perez-Agudo, the president and CEO of Hyundai Asia Resources Inc (Hari) and current president of the Alliance of Vehicle Importers and Distributors (Avid), related her past as an inspiration to women who were then venturing into a male-dominated industry. A turning point in her career happened in South Korea just as she was starting out with Hari. When she was first introduced to the top management of Hyundai, one of the big bosses there asked her, “What do you know about cars?”

“It was a question that would probably send one running back to the Philippines, but as I stood my ground, I looked him in the eye and replied, in a very business-like tone, ‘What do you know about the Philippine market?’ Since then, I’ve been able to mark my territory; I was representing the Philippines, after all, a country known to have many heroes who do not flinch in front of combative elements,” Perez-Agudo pointed out.

The tiger in Agudo eventually played a substantial part in the remarkable transformation of Hyundai in the Philippines. Hari has grown to become a major automotive player.

And now, a decade later, it seems Perez-Agudo is on the verge of repeating “herstory”. After making Hyundai a household name in the Philippines, she now takes under her wing another unknown brand, albeit a powerhouse in China, which she has confidently expressed she would see into full bloom in local shores.

The Changan logo

Perez-Agudo made sure she herself answered the questions thrown in by motoring media during the Changan Motor Philippines Inc (CMPI) virtual launch of five of its vehicles on Nov 11. In her added capacity as CMPI president and CEO, she declared: “Today marks an important step towards change—future-forward mobility designed for the next normal. We cannot stay in hiding forever. We cannot let our fears conquer us. We must get on with our lives, and move forward. And that requires safe, technology-driven mobility options to drive us to a better future. That future is here: That winning combination of intelligent driving, trend-setting vehicle design, extensive safety features, and outstanding engine performance.”

Perez-Agudo then enumerated the brand’s formidable credentials: “Changan Automobile is one of China’s top-ranking auto brands, one of the ‘Big Four’ Chinese automakers, boasting of a 158-year tradition in manufacturing excellence, 37 years in auto manufacturing with a strong presence in South America, the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia, annual production capacity of over 4 million units, global sales of 1.3 million vehicles in 2019 alone, 33 vehicle and engine plants, and the first Chinese auto brand to roll out electric vehicles for volume production, selling 90,000 EVs only a year after the launch of its $15-billion Shangri-La Plant.”

The initial five models Changan PH is bringing in are, from left, CS35 Plus,
CS75 Plus, Eado EV460, Alsvin and CS95

Perez-Agudo was like the proud mother introducing her shy but overachieving kids to the world: The Alsvin Subcompact sedan, the Subcompact SUV CS35 Plus, the Compact SUV CS75 Plus, the 7-seater mid-size SUV CS95, and the Eado EV460 full-electric vehicle.

“To date, there are 19 million Changan customers around the world. Nineteen million customers can’t be wrong: The characters ‘Chang’ and ‘An’ put together mean ‘lasting safety’. In Pilipino: pang-matagalan! For 10 years and counting, its research and development (R&D) capabilities consistently rank first in China’s highly competitive auto industry. With 5 percent of its sales revenue invested every year on R&D, Changan today has grown its global R&D network with a staff of 80,000 from 18 countries.

“I have been in this industry long enough to spot a promising brand, challenger brand. You know me as a firm ‘brand loyalist’ and not easily persuaded. You also know that I am not new to building an unknown brand into a household name. But my skepticism turned to the joy of discovery when I did a test-drive of Changan models. Yes, Changan’s claims are true. I did not look for it, yet it found me in the person of Changan representatives who flew to the Philippines to meet with me, with a product that promises to excite the Filipino market, at this most unexpected time in our history.”

Perez-Agudo revealed what she called Changan’s “two magic weapons”: The Changan Automobile Product Development System (CA-PDS) and Changan Automobile Test and Verification System (CA-TVS). The CA-PDS covers the product life cycle and accurately guides the product development team to meet customer demands, while CA-TVS ensures durability and performance by subjecting every new model to more than 12,400 tests in 16 areas, including parts verification, system matching, and complete vehicle level, totaling 4 million km of punishing driving conditions. Product testing takes place at the sprawling Chongqing R&D base which houses the Changan Automobile Comprehensive Test Field, which claims to be among the most accurate of its kind in Asia.

Asked why she and Changan decided to introduce the brand in the middle of a pandemic, she answered: “It was a very tough decision for Changan and CMPI to really come to a conclusion. We’ve started to shift from being brave to being courageous. And I could only say that I have trust in the Philippine market, and CMPI’s entrepreneurial mindset can contribute to the automotive industry’s recovery. When you make that humble contribution, what is good for the auto industry would simply mean it’s good for the economy, and is good for the country. With that trust in the Philippine market, we trust also that the local market will respond positively to the entry of Changan and we know that the increased competition will bring wider benefits to the consumers. But I believe that consumers deserve to have more choices, better options, and when you offer this kind of products that will generate interest and demand, that will set the course for recovery.”

Nevertheless, Perez-Agudo acknowledges that 2021 will be difficult, given the lingering effects of the pandemic.

“CMPI was born with this mandate: We are believers of game-changing possibilities. Our vision was the drive for five strategies which would lead us to a 5-percent market share in 2025. This will be the backbone of our sales forecast.

“We would like to see ourselves more courageous. CMPI’s strong, spirited and skilled dealerships found in the network and its passionate and gutsy workforce would make Changan a potent challenger in the market segment in this coming period.”

By the time all five Changan models get to be publicly introduced this Nov. 26, expect all 32 Changan dealers across the country to have available units, according to CMPI. Furthermore, CMPI said that seven more dealerships will sprout next year, upping the dealership total to 39 by the end of 2021.

Indeed, Changan’s entry has been executed with laser-focused stealth not unlike that of a stalking tiger. We didn’t see this coming.

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