Industry > Milestone

30 years ago, Toyota commenced its Philippine journey

The story of how an automaker captured a car-loving nation

Ground-breaking ceremony for Toyota’s Santa Rosa manufacturing facility in Laguna. PHOTO FROM VINCE S. SOCCO

First things first: Happy 30th anniversary to Toyota Motor Philippines. I am almost certain that the story of Toyota in our market will be the subject of news and feature articles and social media in the next few days. Maybe even the next few weeks. And rightfully so, as there’s a lot to tell and be thankful for.

Indeed, the tale of the tape speaks volumes.

Toyota Motor Philippines was established on August 3, 1988. It is a joint venture among Toyota Motor Corporation, Metropolitan Bank Trust Co. Ltd. and Mitsui & Co. Ltd. The majority partner is Metrobank, although a strong joint-venture spirit is what has guided the business over its three decades of operation.

Roll-off events for the Corolla (1989) and the Liteace (1990). You probably owned one. PHOTOS FROM VINCE S. SOCCO

From its start of sales in 1989 through June of this year, TMP sold an accumulated total of over 1.5 million Toyota vehicles. In its first year, sales totaled a humble 9,500 units; last year, TMP sold just under 184,000 units (including Lexus cars). Surely, that is a lot of happy Filipino motorists. The initial product suite included the Crown, the Liteace and the Corolla 16-Valve. Eventually, the lineup grew to include the Tamaraw FX, the Corona, the Camry, the Hiace, the Echo, the Echo Verso, the Vios, the Innova, the Hilux, the Fortuner and, in more recent years, the Prius, the Avanza, the Wigo, the Alphard and the full Lexus stable. A vehicle for every need and household.

Roll-off events for the Corona (1991) and the Tamaraw FX (1991), way before the Innova. PHOTOS FROM VINCE S. SOCCO

In 1989, the company started with four dealers in Metro Manila. Today, there are 67 Toyota centers all over the country, including one home for Lexus in Manila. In terms of the number of associates, TMP now counts close to 2,000 gainfully employed team members in its ranks. If you include those in the dealers, suppliers and affiliated businesses, this number rises manyfold.

TMP’s offices were initially housed at the Metrobank main building in Makati, while its facilities in Bicutan were being completed. It was taking over the former car assembly factory of Delta Motor Corporation, which had been mothballed from 1984 to 1988.

First TMP boss Masao Mitake with Eiji Toyoda. PHOTO FROM VINCE S. SOCCO

The story of TMP cannot be told without mentioning the very first president of the company: Masao Mitake. He was a sempai (teacher or master) of sorts to me. I first met him when I started my Toyota career with Delta Motor. Mr. Mitake was country manager for the Philippines at the Toyota headquarters in Tokyo. He taught me the rudiments of the auto business and the “Toyota Way.” To say that he was strict would be an understatement. He was a disciplinarian, and he had a very principled, no-nonsense approach to management. No compromise. In fact, one of his favorite comments that I remember to this day is that we should never take shortcuts and that we should always stick to the “royal road”—the long and arduous (but eventually rewarding and right) way—of doing things. The only way, really. He was a most appropriate leader for the startup of such a major venture.

TMP staff during their earliest days in Bicutan. PHOTO FROM VINCE S. SOCCO

In preparing for TMP’s start of operations, the pioneer team (the faces of Nenette, Jerry, Peter, Flor, Afin, Rey, Charlie, Onna, Bless, Lito, David, Gelly and Alex readily come to mind) was having some very long days. We were running 24/7 even before the term got coined. We had to get the factory up and running. We had to hire team members for all the different functions—production, sales, finance, purchasing, HR. We had to appoint dealers. Our mortal selves were beaten to a pulp, but the passion to be part of history and to live the dream of bringing Toyota to the Philippines saw us to bed and woke us up every day. No matter how little, if any, sleep we were getting, we were recharged and always ready to go.

We launched our commercial operations in 1989. The promise was simple: “The Will to Serve.” Our mission statements were equally succinct: “Number One Quality in Every Aspect” and “Number One Customer Satisfaction.” We committed not only to build the best-quality cars but also to help build a nation. To this day, I am certain that this pledge continues to fill the hearts and minds of TMP team members.

Tree-planting activity at the Santa Rosa base. PHOTO FROM VINCE S. SOCCO

The rock bed of TMP was undoubtedly its people, starting with the founding chairman, Dr. George S.K. Ty. He had the vision and the courage to accept the offer of partnership from Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda to build the future of Toyota in the Philippines at a time when political and economic uncertainties plagued the country. Each person who applied for a position in the company had to be interviewed by the president himself—every single one, from the management team to the factory line workers. We did not recruit dealer-partners. We evaluated only applicants who submitted letters of interest out of their own volition, who found us because of their strong desire to join us. Prospective dealers were evaluated not so much for their finances or their experience or their property. They went through a rigorous interview process headed by the president, and then were qualified for what was determined to be their eagerness (and promise) to personally be involved in the day-to-day operations of the business. We did not need “investors”—we needed honest-to-goodness customer service providers. The selection of people to join Team Toyota Philippines was extremely stringent. We had to get it right from the start. We knew that without the right people, we would put our vision in peril.

TMP is a pioneer of car manufacturing here. PHOTO FROM VINCE S. SOCCO

Production started with simple semi-knocked-down kits, but within a short time, we transitioned to completely-knocked-down operations, building a network of world-class component suppliers along the way. Quality was paramount. Every Saturday, cars would be randomly picked from the stockyard and lined up for the sales and marketing team, together with the dealers, to inspect. Suppliers were very carefully supervised and evaluated on their quality and timeliness. As sales grew, production operations eventually expanded and fully relocated to a totally new factory on a 70-hectare property in Santa Rosa, Laguna.

Our very first dealers were Toyota Bel-Air (now operating as Toyota Makati) and Toyota Quezon Avenue. Getting them ready to open their doors on March 3, 1989, was a feat of marvel in itself. We had to get this herculean task of inaugurating a dealer done in only three short months. Construction was completed almost literally just in time for the ribbon-cutting. I recall doing site inspections with our dealer-partner at midnight or even in the early morning. Then there were staffing, getting business permits, setting up systems, sales and product training, stocking of spare parts, technician education, and so forth. How we ever got it done was a testament to our sheer will to serve.

Inauguration of Toyota Alabang in 1989. PHOTO FROM VINCE S. SOCCO

It was an exhausting but ultimately inspiring first few years. We were rewarded by the acceptance and loyalty of Filipino motorists throughout the country. The dream became a reality, one happy Toyota customer at a time. History was being made.

Setting up a venture as big as Toyota was an opportunity of a lifetime for me. There was no way I would have passed up the chance. Two things drove me. First was the impact that the closure of Delta Motor Corporation (the erstwhile distributor of Toyota from 1961 to 1984) had on me. Delta was my first full-time job after graduation. I was hired as a marketing assistant with a salary of P900. I was proud to be a part of what was then one of the biggest Filipino-owned business conglomerates. The Toyota Division was over 3,000 strong, including an assembly and engine plant. We had our own basketball team and were building our own commercial jeep (the Mini Cruiser) that was supplied to the Philippine Armed Forces and even exported to Italy, the Middle East and others. I was devastated when it had to shut its operations in 1984 due to insurmountable financial difficulties. As a fairly new graduate, I could not fathom how such an “empire” could collapse and cause so many people to lose their jobs, so many affiliated companies (suppliers, dealers) to stop doing business and so many Toyota owners to become orphaned. I was shattered. I told myself that this was not right, and that tomorrow would be a better day.

TMP’s first-anniversary celebration in 1989. PHOTO FROM VINCE S. SOCCO

Second was the prospect of building what I could easily see would be one of the most significant business corporations in the country. You don’t get a chance to be a “founding member” of such an organization every day. The idea of it all was intoxicating. I wanted in.

It was a heady, strenuous, challenging and extremely demanding journey. Many times along the way, I was ready to throw in the towel. But all I had to do was lift my head from whatever I was doing and look ahead. Suddenly, everything was good again. Ultimately, it was the best thing that happened in my life.

Top TMP officers on the occasion of the company’s fifth anniversary in 1993. PHOTO FROM VINCE S. SOCCO

I have given 34 years of my life to Toyota—from Delta Motor to Toyota Motor Philippines to Toyota Motor Asia Pacific. I recall thinking when I first joined Toyota that I would stay five years and move on to conquer the world. I succeeded in the latter, arguably. But even as I failed to leave Toyota, I will never be able to wipe the smile off my face. This has been the longest five years of my life. And it has absolutely been the most fun I could ever have imagined or hoped for. I have so many people to be thankful to for making my journey so rewarding: shareholders, associates at Toyota, fellow team members at TMP, dealers, suppliers, the media, local communities, government, friends, family and, most important of all, the 1.5 million Toyota and Lexus customers who placed their trust in the brand.

Vince S. Socco

Vince is the chairman of GT Capital Auto Dealership Holdings, a post he accepted after his retirement from Toyota Motor Asia-Pacific. His career began in 1979 with Delta Motor Corporation (Toyota). He mentors everyone—in real life and through his ‘Navigator’ column.