Now 30 years old, Toyota PHL is stronger than ever

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I dare you to truly wrap your head around this math: Two out of five brand-new cars that Filipinos buy today are from Toyota Motor Philippines (TMP). That’s 40%. An eye-popping number especially when you consider that more than 35 automotive brands — from the mass-market to the luxury — do business in the country.

Last year, when the whole industry sold a record-setting 470,000 vehicles, Toyota was responsible for 182,657 units (183,908 if you include Lexus). The second-ranked brand was Mitsubishi, with 73,590 sold passenger cars. Another amazing fact: Toyota posted more sales in 2017 than the next four automakers combined (a total of 179,649 units for Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Ford and Honda). If that’s not your definition of absolute supremacy, you should get yourself a new dictionary.

Today, the first of August, TMP will formally celebrate its 30th anniversary — three decades of sheer domination, three decades of enduring relationship with the Filipino motorist. It’s a milestone so important to the company that no less than President Rodrigo R. Duterte is expected to grace the occasion. As I now rummage through my room in search of a suitable outfit to wear to the event, I can’t help but wonder: Just how did we become Toyota country? How did a brand with a not-so-flattering reputation in our territory in the 1960s become our automatic first choice when purchasing a new vehicle?

The basketball fanatic in me wants to believe Toyota’s current popularity is still the result of Robert Jaworski’s and Francis Arnaiz’s exploits on the basketball court back in the 1970s. But that notion can’t be any more absurd. As we did with Ford, we almost completely forgot about Toyota not long after the car manufacturer had left the country in the middle of all the political turmoil in the early 1980s. The truth was that we were just eager to embrace whoever was selling even a single decent automobile, like Nissan and Mitsubishi.

And then Toyota officially returned on August 3, 1988. I had just graduated from high school then. Little did I know that the one company destined to play a most prominent role in my career had arrived (or returned, whatever). In the thick of the action was a man named Vicente S. Socco. Tasked to help Toyota with its Philippine comeback, Mr. Socco drew both experience and inspiration from having been a young employee of Delta Motor Corp. in the 1970s. Though many people would remember him in his most visible post — as senior vice president for marketing — he should really be acknowledged for the more important (though less glamorous) things he did for TMP.

For instance, it was during his time when Toyota’s dealership network had a gentleman’s agreement barring principals from selling products of other car brands. Which forced dealers to focus on Toyota alone and to do really well in their business, as they had no other brands to fall back on. These days — even as countless other brands share overlapping dealer networks — Toyota remains exclusive. It’s almost like an upper-crust fraternity that everybody wants to join but almost nobody else qualifies for.

He has long moved on from TMP — he’s now the executive vice-president of Lexus Asia — but Mr. Socco remains the perfect person to ask about what makes Toyota extremely successful in the Philippines.

“TMP is a truly customer-centric organization,” Mr. Socco told me. “They walk the talk. It’s a passion and a culture. TMP also works as a team. No silo mentality. Each member and each business unit works not only to meet their respective goals, but also the shared goals of the company and its stakeholders. Even the dealers and the suppliers are embraced as an organic part of the organization and not as separate business enterprises. It is about the power of all.”

He also mentioned something about product quality, but let’s be real: Most modern cars now are just as good as — and in some cases even better than — Toyota vehicles. What I can agree with the Singapore-based Filipino executive is the prevailing culture of customer service at TMP. The company and its dealers seem to really aim to please. I’m sure they don’t always get it right, but how come Toyota has never really had a customer-related scandal in our market? To think they sell the most number of cars, which means they run the most risk of screwing up as far as after-sales service is concerned.

But Toyota in our market seems to always do just enough to satisfy its clients — enough to make them come back. For three decades and counting.

Tonight, as TMP toasts its 30-year reign in the country at Grand Hyatt Manila, thousands of content car owners will be cruising peacefully outside, worry-free and with every intent to make Toyota their next vehicle.