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The tricky process of bringing back a previously damaged car brand

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Don’t Drink And Write

On my automotive website (visor.ph), I recently told the story of a Pampanga-based businessman who is currently in the process of bringing Abarth and Alfa Romeo to the Philippine market. Allen Ong, who now also owns Foton Pampanga, sat down with me for an exclusive interview back in January. He did admit to me that he had not secured any official agreement with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), the parent company of the European brands he was targeting, and that he was doing most of the work on his own.

In my mind, I thought: “Okay, so you’re nothing more than a gray-market importer. That’s it.”

My suspicious self was so unimpressed that I didn’t write the story — until last weekend, when Mr. Ong contacted me again and asked help in publicizing the Facebook page “Alfa Romeo Philippines.” And this time, he said, he already has a showroom location (Ortigas Avenue in San Juan) and that construction will commence in June.

Fair enough. It sounded like a substantial enough story. So I wrote it, together with Mr. Ong’s admission that he had no official distributorship or dealership ties with FCA, but that he would receive support in terms of parts supply and warranty.

The following day, I got a call from FCA Asia-Pacific Managing Director Mike Tsesmelis, denying that they have a formal agreement with Mr. Ong for the parts supply and the warranty of the cars he intends to sell. So I got back to the Filipino businessman and informed him of FCA’s objection to his claim.

What ensued was a long thread of back-and-forth that can be summarized like this: Mr. Ong’s supplier (and thus FCA contact) apparently is from Europe, not the company’s regional office in China, which explains why Mr. Tsesmelis isn’t aware of the “negotiations.” Mr. Ong, however, was evasive whenever I asked for the name of any specific FCA or Alfa Romeo executive he was dealing with. He even mentioned a non-disclosure agreement and expressed concern that his contact might be taken to task by FCA bosses if this issue ever got out of hand.

Initially, I was like: “Nah, dude, you don’t know anyone from FCA or Alfa Romeo. You’re likely just sourcing your cars and parts from a foreign dealer, so you can’t mislead your customers by saying that this qualifies as official FCA or Alfa Romeo support.”

But then he kept saying that if he didn’t have an official contact, it would be virtually impossible for him to get the cars and the original parts at the price rates he will sell them for. This from someone who had once also looked into the possibility of importing and distributing Lotus and McLaren vehicles.

In fact, in our previous correspondence, Mr. Ong even asserted that Alfa Romeo actually required that they first approve his showroom design before he could proceed with its construction.

“The difference between me and a gray-market importer is that the gray market can’t support its cars with parts and warranty because it’s difficult to get them,” he pointed out. “And I wouldn’t be pushing through with this if I knew I couldn’t get parts and warranty, because I don’t want to get embarrassed. And it would ruin the brand again, which is what they [Alfa Romeo] are afraid of.”

You will recall that Alfa Romeo was once sold in the country by a distributor called Auto Prominence, which also imported and sold Proton, Volkswagen and Audi back in the 1990s. The mishandling of the brand resulted in a number of angry customer complaints and legal claims, a scenario that definitely spooked the Italian marque.

And so, after trying to digest every single thing that Mr. Ong shared with me, I have arrived at a conclusion.

I believe the guy truly has ties with someone from Alfa Romeo, who may or may not be acting in an official capacity. My theory is that Alfa Romeo just happens to have a cavalier attitude toward our market after its past experience, and who can blame them? They’re quite possibly approaching this whole affair as: “Okay, we have a persistent entrepreneur who wants to sell our cars in the Philippines. Let him. Why not? That would be several units off our crowded lot. But we can’t officially associate ourselves with him, because we’re not sure if he’ll turn out to be a legitimate distributor or another scammer out to just take his customers’ money without providing after-sales support. Because if the latter happens, our brand will be forever doomed in that part of the planet. That would be an absolute PR nightmare in this era of Mark Zuckerberg. So just tell him we’ll give him easy access to our parts bin, and also help him with warranty. But nothing more and nobody has to know.”

Again, that’s just a conjecture.

For now, whether Mr. Ong likes it or not, he’s just an independent importer who’s technically “auditioning” for the part. Unfortunately for him, other Filipino businessmen before him did a terrible job of representing Alfa Romeo in our market. Hence, there is no trust to speak of — he will have to earn this from scratch. The good news is that he seems to have a real chance to do exactly that, but it won’t be easy. Best of luck to him and his team.