A Case Of Double Vision

by Marc Almagro
Photography by Chino Sardea
Art Direction by VC Chong
Styling by Daryll Alexius Yeo
Assisted by Ivan Tan
Hair & Makeup by Jace Ang
15 Mar 2019

Inchcape Singapore Managing Director Jasmmine Wong has her eyes set on the future of the automotive industry, but it doesn’t mean she has lost sight of the opportunities and challenges that are right in front of her

“I never expected to be selling cars, or to be working in the car industry, but here I am,” Ms. Jasmmine Wong, managing director of Inchcape Singapore, says. Her remarkable energy and enthusiasm fill up the room where she is being prepped for her pictorial. “Don’t get me wrong – I love cars, it’s a passion that I share with my husband, and it helps me in my job, but that’s not the only thing that got me here.” Ms. Wong is the first female to lead Borneo Motors (Singapore) Pte Ltd, the authorized distributor and retailer of Toyota, Lexus and Hino in Singapore. Borneo Motors, in turn, is owned by London-based multinational automotive distribution, retail and services company, Inchcape plc.

Ms. Wong clearly brought with her a keen understanding of consumer behavior, albeit something that she honed while at Nestle. Selling a car and selling a chocolate drink, she explains, share more interesting commonalities than we realize – a lot of which are worked out inside the consumer’s minds. “But buying a car is a long-drawn out decision. The customer himself may not even realize the factors that have accrued over time and finally brought him to the point where he drives the car out of the showroom.

“What we do is to give them information to make a better decision. It may not be straightforward advertising, but planting key information that a customer can accumulate and use as he goes through multiple consumer touch points.” It may be subtly worked into a lifestyle scenario, such as taking the family out on a weekend to Sentosa, or a girlfriend to a fancy dinner, where the need for the right vehicle – a hatchback or a sedan – can be suggested. “When we do advertising, when we do communication, we try to put them in the right spots.” 

Since she came on board in the latter part of 2017, Ms. Wong has been busy trying to “digitalize the whole (customer) journey and opening up a lot of conversations. And I’m proud to say that Borneo Motors is now at the forefront in this area”.

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Authentic Leadership


“I believe that leadership has to be authentic; I don’t believe in changing the kind of person I am to lead an organization effectively. Regardless of the industry, people expect a leader to be fair, and able to think strategically into the future.” She doesn’t play the gender card either, insisting that “regardless of gender, you got to give a everyone a chance to be the best they can. As long as you have these fundamental principles, it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, you’ll get the support of the people.

The one thing Ms. Wong believes in, however, is diversity. Like herself, members of her management team come from industries far removed from automotive. “I always tell everybody, if you have the same kind of people, you will get the same kind of results. But if you have a diverse population, you will have surprises.”

Among the key changes she saw to when she assumed her position was encourage the influx of people from different industries. Today, she has people who hail from banks, breweries and FMCGs, from Walt Disney, Nespresso, and even Tesco.

“Whenever we interview for a position, even for a junior staff, I always tell them to ignore where they’re from and what relevant experience they have. Instead, I tell them to focus on attitude, creative flair, ability to bring innovation and determination to move forward. I make sure that they obtain as much guided direction as freedom to exercise creativity.”

As a leader, Ms. Wong focuses on the big picture, giving everyone a space to work their way towards the desired results. Managing by objectives has been working out well, she emphasizes, and has given everyone a chance to deliver their best performances.


Comparing Consumer Behavior

“I’m just as busy today as when I was at my previous job. I looked after three markets; I traveled all over Malaysia to sell multiple product brands in multi-million units. We obsessed over store presence, merchandizing, promotions; driving the demand was far more complex. The pace was also much faster because decisions were made on a daily basis and often on impulse. It was highly competitive with house brands and international brands going after the same market.” 

On the other hand, the customer’s decision to buy a car is reached after long deliberation, says Ms. Wong. “But we have to make more intense strategic decisions because each decision can mean millions of dollars. You buy the wrong car, the damage is pretty high. On top of that, a car is also about safety, about the consumer – there is a delicate aspect so you have to go through the details more intensely, and be more thoughtful.”

Although selling cars is a principal source of income for the company, after-sales service and accessories also contribute to it greatly. “Singaporeans love their cars; after they buy a car they don’t mind spending money on grooming it.” At Lexus, there is even a special sort of ritual – the Lexus breakfast – that most car owners look forward to.

“When you book a slot for car servicing, you can also book breakfast at the service center. I thought it was too fussy and tried to simplify it into a casual buffet, but I received feedback from customers who say that it’s a ‘Lexus ritual’ – like it was part of the culture. I reinstated it immediately after realizing what it meant for them.” It wasn’t the cost of the breakfast, which Lexus owners can doubtlessly afford, but its meaning that made the call necessary, Ms. Wong explains. “They felt that when they come to Lexus, Lexus will take care of all their needs.”


Along the way, Ms. Wong discovered, “customers would also spend money upgrading things, adding accessories and having a polish. We do this to ensure a seamless experience for our customers. When they need to change their car for a newer one, Lexus, with all the great experience they associate with it, will be foremost in their minds.” As Singaporeans buy cars less frequently, and as the car life span expands, after-sales service becomes important. “I’ll say it is the bedrock of my business.”

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Through Regulations, Compliance

Selling cars in Singapore is very challenging for complex reasons, particularly regulations that most laymen don’t understand, Ms. Wong explains. “Until I came to this industry, I had no clue how COE operated – although it’s crucial to car ownership. Most customers only want to know the final price and if they can afford it.”

On top of it, there are bank regulations on loans and car financing, and then there’s insurance. “When we conducted research on this, we found out that complex regulations added to the difficulty of deciding to buy a car.” Despite all these, Ms. Wong acknowledges that Singaporeans will always love cars. “Given the right time, price and model, there will be no shortage of buyers here.”

A deeply entrenched, long-term relationship with an OEM – Toyota Motors – helps Borneo Motors in this regard. “Whenever we face regulatory changes, we are able to introduce standard-compliant models to consumers.” This comes from working closely with Toyota Motors, a leader in emerging and clean technologies.

When the green movement turned into a major consumer issue, Toyota Motors was already there with its hybrid models for both Lexus and Toyota. “That helped a lot because hybrid car purchases are incentivized – there’s a potential rebate; it’s also clean technology that is good for everyone,” Ms. Wong adds. “Working with Toyota Motors means being able to discuss the regulatory requirements and having them work with us on building a car portfolio of the best models that we can bring in. As long as a car is regulations-compliant, and meets consumer needs, you can generally price it competitively, and sell it.”

Lexus All the Way

Lexus cars are generally easy to drive. “You don’t get into the car that is fronted by multiple gadgets, more than a third of which you never use anyway,” Ms. Wong quips. Japanese cars have this unique user-friendly touch that places emphasis on the small details that become part of the distinct aesthetic. “The core features of a Lexus remain ‘standard’ in most models, whereas in other car brands they will be classified as add-ons.

“Lexus is focused on two things: safety and comfort. Safety is non-negotiable. The safety features in Lexus, such as the Pre-Collision System, Automatic High-Beam System, Lane Departure Alert and Panoramic View Monitor, are standard. There’s an automatic brake that kicks in when the vehicle senses an obstacle in front of it. Lexus is also about comfort – the smoothness of the ride – and this goes all the way down to the silky engine, how the torque is applied, and how performance is delivered with comfort.”

Ms. Wong is keen on bringing people choices. “People have their own reasons for choosing a specific brand or model. They may have a big family so they need the space of the MPV or the SUV. As people progress, they can upgrade to a different model; we have a full SUV range, from UX to RX; if they want a sedan, we have the IS and ES all the way to the LS models – IS is for performance, but if they want a bigger one that’s a bit more luxurious, there’s the ES.”

The Lexus UX is a good example of helping people upgrade. “UX allows us to engage people who want to try the luxury features and feel in an entry-level model. It has been quite well-received since its recent launch because it allows people to enjoy the Lexus safety features, the easy drive, the quietness.”

Ms. Wong believes that having an extensive range of models ultimately helps branding. It is not merely a way of capturing a broader market. “Branding, more importantly, has to resonate with the target market, so when people make the choice, the branding has already done its part in assuring them that they are making the right one. A lot of people have forgotten that marketing a product is not just telling people about it, but starting a relationship with the consumer. That relationship starts from the day he touches the car to the day he drives it home.”



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Addressing Present Challenges

Ms. Wong keeps abreast of key developments that she thinks will have impact on the automotive industry. Borneo Motors has already made inroads into the PHV (private hire vehicle) sector, which supplies to the still-developing car-sharing and the fully entrenched taxi operations.

“We are one of the biggest suppliers to the PHV sector, which has standard and luxury segments; they’ve been buying cars from us to rent or lease out. Moving forward, this will be a big industry. More people feel burdened by car ownership, but don’t mind having one when they need it.”

Car consumption is declining; the TIV (total industry volume) is going down all the time. “Why? Because of the cyclical nature of the COE. However, I think we’re in the good spot because Toyota, being a market leader, tends to get the upper hand when this happens; we have a very prominent brand, so we will grow by gaining more market share, and becoming more relevant to the consumer,” Ms. Wong explains.

She adds that the sharing economy has space for further development. “In some parts of the US, there are apps you can use to pick up and drop off a car close to your current location – it’s almost like a car on demand. That may be harder and slower to launch here because we don’t have space for more parking lots, but I foresee a growing trend of consumers demanding a service like that.

“Perhaps we can allow people to experience different kinds of Lexus on a subscription model,” she explains. These are, at best, plans for the future. “Is it something new? I would say it’s not, because it already exists in the industry, but it allows us to use the Lexus brand and our portfolio if we enter that space.”


Future-Proofed Model

Future-proofing Borneo Motors will involve a number of things like strengthening the after-sales division, recycling pre-owned units, and positioning supply closer to demand. “Firstly, in a (cyclic) downturn, after-sales still enjoys the benefits from the upturn. Those who bought cars in the last few years are still continuing on the journey.

“Secondly, when demand for new cars dips, existing units are recycled. Borneo Motors has a used car division that caters to people who need a car only when they are in town but are looking at a lower cost commitment.

“Thirdly, we can get more involved in government initiatives, like working with Grab and taxi operators with our hybrid models, and by offering cost-efficient predictive maintenance.”

Owning a car seems to be a lower priority among millennials. They want to see the world and gain experience. They don’t want to be tied down by possessions, observes Ms. Wong, “That concerns me because my industry feeds on the needs of the generation, but what I notice is that they still need a car. They may not want the liability associated with owning a car, but they still need to travel. So car-sharing will be big for them.

“They will reach a point when a car becomes a necessity – when they have a family, kids, and elderly parents. It’s convenient to have a car and remain mobile. The type of car that will help them do what they like, and how to obtain such a car, will be their focus.

“But then again, it has always been like that, hasn’t it?” she asks with an assured grin.

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The Hierarchy

As managing director of Inchcape Singapore, Ms. Wong is responsible for all the businesses of Borneo Motors and Champion Motors. Borneo Motors represents Toyota, Lexus and Hino; Champion Motors represents Suzuki. Inchcape Singapore is a major subsidiary of Inchcape Global, making up a sizable chunk of income of the London Stock Exchange-listed multinational.

The heads of commercial vehicles from Toyota, Dyna, and Hino report to Ms. Wong, along with the heads of sales, operation and retail for both Leng Kee Road and Pandan Crescent showrooms. Other groups under her purview are the after-sales services division comprising workshops across Singapore, the key accounts division that conducts business with PHV operators such as Grab and ComfortDelGro, and finally, the admin and functional divisions.

Ms. Wong ensures that everyone gets time to sit with her as necessary. “For example, the key accounts division arranges my meetings with customers. These meetings require top-level, strategic management involvement.”

Although she has representatives, Ms. Wong is aware that these meetings are critical to business results. “I feel that as head of the organization, I should be present in these meetings with very important customers. Each time they buy over a thousand cars, it is my job to know the chairman or the CEO, so that we can understand each other’s business better.” It doesn’t always have to be formal and stuffy, “it can be a social or sporting event like golf, but the idea is to find time to ensure that the top managements are aligned with each other’s strategic direction.”

Ms. Wong also finds time to read feedback from customers on after-sales service. “I have to make sure that the customer is happy throughout the whole ownership lifecycle process; I have to understand how we can improve our services, while churning out as much business as possible.”


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