In January 2008, I was wearing a white polo barong and standing on a vacant lot inside Bonifacio Global City. I was also watching the top executives of Toyota Motor Philippines (TMP) ceremoniously break ground for what would be the site of the first Lexus showroom in the country. Eleven months later, I was driving the RX crossover to Napa Valley in California as the sole media invitee of Lexus Philippines to its first overseas press drive.
With me on that US trip was then Lexus Manila president Daniel M. Isla, who had been assigned to the prestigious position after having served as TMP’s first vice president for marketing. We stayed in a Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco, and every morning, over breakfast, the two of us would talk about what lay ahead before us.
At the time, Mr. Isla was at the height of his corporate powers, having been entrusted a very important luxury brand by the market’s number one automaker. Even so, you could sense that he knew he didn’t have much time left to look after the marque. In fact, the most memorable topic he brought up at the time was retirement — understandable considering how TMP’s mandatory retirement age is 55. He talked about his desire to move to a more manageable condominium unit by the time he ended his career.
So here was a guy who had just been given the biggest break of his professional life, already looking ahead to when he would need to walk away from it all. This told me that Mr. Isla was a man who was fully aware of his timetables and deliverables. A man who had no interest in wasting a minute on inconsequential stuff. Every meeting, every event, every decision had to matter — everything had to have an impact. Exactly the kind of mindset needed from a leader tasked to build a brand.
In January 2009, the Lexus Manila dealership formally opened its doors to the market. It was — it still is — the most beautiful automotive showroom in the Philippines. I expected nothing less, especially after everything I had learned and read about the brand. But as polished Lexus is as a brand and as seamless the Toyota system is as a business process, I can honestly say Lexus scaled unprecedented heights in our market largely because of the singular moving force behind its local dealer, and that force was its universally loved president — he who was making every minute count, for he knew his time with the firm was limited.
DMI, as the executive is fondly called, grew up in the streets. He had proper college education and corporate training, but he mastered the art of leading, motivating and selling outside the rigorously structured setup of an organization. He read the Lexus playbook and chucked it out the window. He ran Lexus Manila his way. He simplified meetings, he installed regular fellowships among employees and customers, he drank with journalists, he personally appeased disgruntled clients, he fought with Japanese expats. He also peppered his speeches with Beatles lyrics. Workers freely went to him to unload about their troubles at home. In which other business entity could you approach the top official and rant about your personal problems? In which other luxury car dealer would the big boss share a smoke with a walk-in buyer?
This week, Lexus Philippines celebrates its 10th anniversary. It’s in the good and capable hands of current president Raymond T. Rodriguez. And the division continues to benefit from the Toyota Way. But let’s be clear about one thing: Lexus scored a number of milestones in the last decade mainly because Mr. Isla, now two years removed from the post he held with pride and care, knew his time would soon be up, and then decided to make every moment count.