Interview by Kap Maceda Aguila

AS THE LUXURY division of the country’s perennial automotive leader, it’s understandable to say that a lot has always been riding on the shoulders of Lexus from the get go.

When it opened its one-of-a-kind showroom at the Bonifacio Global City in Taguig back in 2009, Lexus served notice even then that it was determined to make waves and it didn’t have modest ambitions. The futuristic-looking three-level structure it calls home was master-planned by noted Japanese designer Yugi Hirata with Recio and Casas, and remains to this day a paradigm for other dealerships. And you could also say it’s a model of productivity because, well, Lexus BGC is the only Lexus facility in the country to this day — when the brand never falls out of the top three luxury auto marques here. “I speak for Lexus Manila, the sole dealer of Lexus vehicles in the country. We are grateful for the trust that customers have,” said Lexus Manila President Raymond T. Rodriguez.

To be fair, Lexus is able to tap into the considerable network of Toyota via accredited Lexus service centers: Toyota La Union, Toyota San Fernando, Toyota Santa Rosa, Toyota Mandaue-South, and Toyota Davao.

From five models (IS, ES, GS, LX, and LS) in 2009, Lexus today offers 11 (SUVs: UX, NX, RX, GX, LX; sedans: IS, ES, LS; performance: RC/RC-F, LC/LC CV; and MPV: LM), “It’s a testament to the vision of both Dr. George (Ty, chairman emeritus of GT Holdings), Alfred, and our partners in Mitsui,” said Mr. Rodriquez in a previous interview.

Part of the Lexus experience is making its customer experience personalized, embodied in the Japanese concept of omotenashi (the act of providing detailed service in a variety of ways to allow guests to spend a relaxing and memorable time by putting customers first). Of course, there’s an inherent challenge to that amid the pandemic.

How is Lexus Manila (which operates the dealership) doing amid the pandemic? Here are excerpts from our exclusive interview with Mr. Rodriguez.

VELOCITY: How did the pandemic affect Lexus Manila sales and even after-sales? Can you describe how business was during the early months of the pandemic?

RAYMOND RODRIGUEZ: Year 2020 was very difficult for everyone but our dealership managed to register sales of 474 units. We had some months in the first semester that had no operations due to the ECQ lockdown. That was from mid-March to the end of April. Our sales during the first five months were down by 43% versus 2019. Likewise, we received less units for service in our workshop and performance declined by as much as 37%.

Gradually, we were able to slowly recover, especially toward the second semester. Sales growth improved to -24% and after-sales by -23% by yearend. Despite the decline in sales during ECQ/GCQ in 2020, Lexus’ market share increased by 2%, to corner 25% of the luxury car market. One of the challenges we experienced is keeping our relationships with our valued customers, including the would-be customers, personable, during the pandemic. Lexus takes pride in exceptional customer service. So amid the unfavorable situation, we conducted webinars, video calls, and sent messages, etc.

We also came up with the Lexus Remote, the Lexus Remote Guest Experience, and ramped up other digital channels for us to reach out to our customers despite the quarantine situations.

To further enhance the hospitality that Lexus extends to its customers, the brand is offering a unique way of showcasing its products where customers who want to get to know the Lexus lineup of vehicles intimately can do so from the comfort and security of their own homes. It’s a series of guided 360-degree walkthrough videos which will make users feel the same experience as they would when in the Lexus Manila showroom, inside of the vehicle, and with a sales consultant by their side.

What are your projections for 2021? Other industry executives have already imagined this to be a recovery year for the industry. What do you think?

Being the only dealer in the country, with the support of Lexus Philippines, we at Lexus Manila are optimistic that we can sell more than 500 units before the year ends. In line with this we also expect our after-sales business to grow as they have been coming back to our dealership primarily for the periodic maintenance services. Of course, we want to keep our customers satisfied no matter where they are in our country — we have select Lexus accredited service centers nationwide, thanks to our partner Toyota dealers.

What are the things that can help this recovery along, and what can derail it?

It’s about keeping in touch with our customers. At Lexus, we believe that luxury is personal — so every touch point should be personalized for us to maintain strong ties with our Lexus clientele. What can derail it is the increasing concern on the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19 and the measures that will be taken, like ECQs.

It seems that the pandemic seems to be accelerating the pace of EV adoption. Quite a number of brands have now brought in electrified models. To be fair though, Lexus has always been offering hybrid models. Can you tell us about this effort, and what kind of reception have you seen from buyers?

Since we started operations in 2009, we have sold close to 500 hybrid Lexus vehicles. We’re a pioneer when it comes to luxury hybrid vehicles. Although we do recognize the general interest toward electric vehicles. At least in the Philippines, there is still huge potential for hybrid technology because of the ease, convenience, and, more importantly, the driving performance of this type of vehicle.

We heard that the LM has also been doing well.

One-hundred percent true! It continues to be our best-selling model to date, accounting for more than 35% of our total sales. In my opinion, it is the only true luxury van in the market today.

What is your observation of the luxury market? How has the pandemic changed their spending habits?

Since the pandemic, leisure travel has definitely been reduced, so the luxury market has been more confined to limited areas for movement. We have observed that spending habits are still quite similar but are geared toward other investments such as vehicles (for safety and space during the pandemic), home improvement, and health. We can even assume that this trend will continue till next year.