Danny “Sir John” Isla

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Danny “Sir John” Isla and his team has successfully made the Lexus a most respected and admired brand in the Philippine automotive scene.

Danny “Sir John” Isla and his team has successfully made the Lexus a most respected and admired brand in the Philippine automotive scene.

Finding peace of mind with Lexus
PEACE of mind. This is what the ambience of the Lexus Manila showroom at The Fort imparts to people who enter it. And the overall feel of the showroom is not that of a typical car dealership, which sometimes can be intimidating, especially those selling expensive brands.

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“This Lexus showroom is unique. I think this is the first Lexus facility that greets you with a huge garden once you enter it. What greets you first is the garden. So it gives you a feeling of calmness, not like the standard, industrialized or commercialized place,” said Danny “Sir John” Isla, president of Lexus Manila Inc.

Once a person sets foot inside the Lexus showroom, he or she is free to view the vehicles around without a sales person pestering him or her for a sale, which can truly be a turn-off, sometimes.

“It [the Lexus showroom atmosphere]puts you at ease right away. And that’s how we want the clients to feel whenever they come in. And of course, it depicts hospitality and it goes the same way with the people in the showroom who are trained to be hospitable,” Isla said.

No wonder, that there are a number of Lexus customers who spend time in the showroom just to sip coffee, or even hold small meetings if only to find some peace of mind.

And peace of mind is what Danny Isla may have found with Lexus, because he and his team has led the brand to become one of the most respected and admired in the Philippine automotive scene.

In fact, Isla’s leading Lexus to where it is right now can be described as legendary, because the brand was launched in 2009 or right after the global financial meltdown the same year. Launching a luxury car brand during financial crashes can sometimes amount to suicide.

But there is something about Lexus that makes its cars unique and sought after, like offering unparalleled smoothness and comfort.

“Before they [Toyota] were able to introduce the first [Lexus] model, it took them millions of kilometers of testing, and they dismantled a lot of different premium models to see where we can get a unique competitive edge in terms of technology, and smoothness and quietness of what a luxury car should be,” Isla said.

“Lexus started in the US, not in Japan. So when it was launched in the US in 1989, of course there were some kinks here and there. But the pursuit of perfection was from the very beginning,” he said, adding it took Toyota 10 years to plan and prepare for the brand or from 1979.

Part of the preparations for the Lexus brand was to immerse Toyota engineers in the lifestyle of the very rich who love luxury and the high life, like in Beverly Hills, California. Isla said by doing that, the engineers would experience the lifestyle of the very rich and use that to design Lexus vehicles.

“Selling a car is generic, everyone does that. But what we [Lexus] are more focused on is the experience. When we say experience, it’s the ownership experience. Once you own a Lexus, you should feel the luxuriousness,” he added.

THE CHOSEN ONE
But the day Isla was chosen by Toyota Motors Philippines Corp. (TMPC) to head Lexus was not exactly the most exciting day for him. For one, it was the height of the 2009 global financial meltdown, and the German luxury car brands had already established a solid footing and following in the Philippine car market.

“Of course, there was a lot of anxiety. There was an excitement, [but]you have this anxious feeling that you are unsure of what lies ahead,” Isla said.

He explained that prior to the entry of Lexus into the Philippine car market, the “top-of-mind” brands when it came to luxury vehicles were from Germany.

“Are we ready to compete with the legacy of the German brands?,” Isla said, adding that there were also questions if people were willing to buy expensive cars during financial meltdowns.

But without boasting on how he and the Lexus team in the Philippines achieved it, Isla said the brand was wholeheartedly accepted by luxury car buyers.

“But I am very thankful the market wholeheartedly accepted Lexus,” he said, adding the brand is now number one this year and has been hitting its sales targets since 2009.

Isla admitted, however, that the sole aim of Lexus since it was established in the Philippines in 2009 was to become a most respected and admired premium brand in the Philippine automotive scene.

“I think we were able to achieve that, because of the continuous increase in our sales. If you will notice, we are not much in above-the-line marketing, we don’t advertise as much as the other brands,” he said.

Isla said Lexus believes its clients can become the brand’s ambassadors, and proof of this is 30 percent of its clients are referrals from those who bought Lexus vehicles.

“We don’t have events, we don’t do that. What we do is personal relationship building with each client, one-on-one. And eventually, the customer becomes somewhat an ambassador of the Lexus brand, because he talks freely, beautifully about the brand, and convinces his peers ‘Buy a Lexus,” he added.

Lexus encourages existing clients to come to their office to have coffee, or have a small meeting at the showroom with their friends or associates. Every two months, Lexus also invites its clients over the previous two months to lunch over simple Bento boxes.

“And they get to exchange [ideas], no special agenda, just meeting each other. And only Lexus can do that, because Lexus has a one-price policy,” Isla said.

One of the things Isla learned from those meetings is most buyers of Lexus vehicles never had the brand on their original list when it came to buying a luxury car.

But in making their final decision, Isla said the would-be Lexus buyers would call up three of their friends who are into cars and all of them would say, “Try Lexus.”

BEST SELLERS
During the first few years of Lexus, the ES350 sedan and the RX350 SUV were the best sellers. As the years passed, the IS350 sedan become the top seller. Today, the NX200 turbo SUV is the top seller of Lexus in the Philippines. Meanwhile, the LS sedan has remained the flagship of the brand.

“The LS sedan, our flagship, is selling consistently as envisioned. One to two units a month, but there are certain spikes that we cannot understand. Sometimes we sell six [a month],” Isla said.

He said majority of Lexus clients were buyers of the German brands, and repeat buyers are not unusual.

“Many of them have tried [German brands], and it’s how you handle them that spells the difference in terms of after-sales,” Isla said.

“Now, we are swarmed with multiple Lexus clients. What I mean are multiple owners, they have bought three, they have bought four [Lexus vehicles],” he added.

Although Lexus is now on its seventh year, Isla said he still feels “new.” “Well, primarily because of the fact that we are still the youngest luxury brand in the scene. The German brands have been here for decades,” he added.

STARTING WITH TOYOTA
Before he was chosen to lead Lexus, Isla already made a name for himself at TMPC as vice president for vehicle sales. Prior to becoming part of the Toyota family, however, he sold second-hand cars during the time when brand-new cars were in short supply.

It was through the car financing industry that Isla was able to enter the second-hand car business.

“Automotive financing, that was the first job that I had. That’s with Jardine Manila Finance, then it changed to MB Finance,” he added.

Isla narrated he was encouraged to go into the second-hand car business because new cars were in short supply at that time, with the Mitsubishi Lancer being among the very few new vehicles the local car industry can offer.

He said selling second-hand cars was very lucrative until every “Tom, Dick and Harry” entered the business.

“The turnover was quite good, and the margins were really unbelievable,” Isla recalled, adding that was the time he was able to save money.

“[But] in 1988, when everybody was into buying and selling of cars already and every Tom, Dick and Harry was into it, it was so hard to get units. So the margins were getting thinner,” he added.

But in 1989, the Toyota brand was staging a much-awaited comeback on Philippine soil.

“Then I saw Toyota Alabang being constructed. [It was] near my place. So I asked questions, so I applied. I was applying for the sales manager position [but]I did not know the one talking to me was the sales manager,” Isla said with a hearty laugh.

Nonetheless, the future president of Lexus Manila became part of the sales force of Toyota Alabang, which was owned by Cesar Lee.

“I believe in Toyota,” Isla said.

But Isla said because the 1989 Toyota Corolla was very popular, he ended up being an “order taker” at Toyota Alabang.

“You were not selling. People line up [for the Corolla]. They wait for four months to six months for the Corolla,” Isla said.

Later a clash with the then general manager of Toyota Alabang and the lack of challenge in selling the Corolla resulted in Isla quitting the dealership.

“It was not challenging, so a few weeks later, I quit,” he added.

But Isla later got a call from Toyota Alabang and was informed that he was being sought back by no other than its owner, Cesar Lee.

Isla was then asked by Lee to narrate what happened between him and the then general  manager of Toyota Alabang.

“I told him, I cannot work in that kind of work place, where you will be shamed in front of many people,” he said.

Call it vindication, but Lee later ordered the former nemesis of Isla axed from Toyota Alabang, and made Isla a group manager.

Eventually, Isla climbed up the ladder with one promotion after another to become the executive vice president of Toyota Alabang.

Isla would later become part of the top management of TMPC, thanks in part to Vice Socco, the former marketing boss of TMPC, now general manager of Toyota Motor Asia Pacific (Japan) at Toyota Motor Corporation.

Isla narrated that before he left Toyota Alabang, he was in talks with another car company in the Philippines but chose to stick it out with Japan’s top automaker.

Now that he is with Lexus and at the peak of his career, Isla can narrate the numerous twists and turns of his colorful career in the Philippine automotive industry.

Given the rather competitive nature of the automotive industry, finding a prominent person who says he still values or even found peace of mind can be rather rare. But Isla said peace of mind is very important to him.

Walking around the showroom of Lexus, it looks like Isla also enjoys much of the peace of mind the lone leadership the brand has in the Philippines. Besides, Isla and his team at Lexus Manila have already made the brand a most respected and admired brand in the Philippines, and sales remain brisk.

Isla also does not look his age (which Fast Times will not rather disclose). Asked what is the secret to his looking younger than his actual age, Isla said “Nothing, just be happy…Peace of mind.”

“I’d rather have good sleep. I won’t do crazy things that will make me sleepless. I always pray for peace of mind,” he added.

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