MANY would think that to have the privilege of selling hallowed automotive marques like Jaguar, Land Rover, Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin, you would have to be an individual of such clout that your face would be on the covers of major business magazines at least twice a year.
Indeed, Wellington “Willie” Soong – the man who has that very privilege in the Philippines – is often portrayed and perceived as some larger-than-life figure in the motoring industry. But in reality, he would be the first to vehemently deny such a notion.
“At the end of a long and tiring day, when I can spend a quiet afternoon just flashing back through my life, I still until today cannot describe the gratefulness to have the distinction of being able to represent five super-premium luxury brands,” he said. “And when I internalize this, at the end of the day, I’m just Willie Soong. I’ll never pretend to be what I am not.”
Hot rods and drag races
Soong said his passion for cars and motors started when he was a teenager in the mid-1950s, during the heyday of the hot rod and Philippine motoring legends like the late Dodjie Laurel, who he said was among a generation of drivers that were part of the “Camwreckers” group. Soong also said he dabbled into drag racing himself, although on his own modest terms.
“That’s all we could do: drag race a quarter-mile,” he said. “Back then, we just owned family cars and took them racing, which they now call stock-car racing. But it was that experience of the smell of rubber, fuel and exhaust, the sounds, the cheering that last a lifetime.”
Sharp entrepreneurial acuity
After high school, Soong said he enrolled in the University of the Philippines to study medicine, then shifting to business administration. After graduating from UP, he said he started working as an entrepreneur in 1960, focusing on brands related to technology.
“My parents were involved in transportation and import trading,” he said. “We operated a taxi fleet for 10 years and this gave me exposure to business. But I was always fascinated with technology, specifically audio, and that gave me the opportunity to start representing Bose speakers in 1968.”
After that, Soong said he expanded his business in 1972, by then called Electrosystems, to include professional audio, systems integration and building automation. Through his company’s corporate clients, he said his business then forayed into modular office-furniture systems in 1978.
“And today, we represent probably one of the most well-known brands in modular office-furniture systems called Steelcase,” he said. “And the mantra that I was looking at with our group was – we provided technology and space for the most efficient office environment. I’m very conscious about the function of space.”
In addition, Soong said his company has also been handling yacht brands as a result of his involvement with the high-end luxury car market.
“It is a real market,” he said. “I have developed a regional network of yachting, in which we do charters and brokerage. We have a network that expands from Hong Kong into Thailand, Jakarta and the Philippines, and it’s still evolving.”
Becoming keeper of the ‘leaping cat’
Soong’s talent as an entrepreneur, which had been honed over the past three decades, is what led him to start distributing luxury cars in 1997 after a two-year journey.
“The interest in the distribution of Jaguar was a result of keen observation of certain signals that I was reading that were beginning to intrigue and challenge me,” he said. “These weren’t things you could quantify, but I kept crossing paths with Jaguar wherever I went and I was just saying: ‘Is something being told to me?’ So I decided to find out.”
Soong said it all started with a face-to-face meeting with the British brand’s regional head in Singapore. After several other meetings, he said he eventually talked to the company’s executives at the Jaguar headquarters in Coventry, England.
One thing leads to another
After bagging Jaguar, Soong said the process of getting the other brands came smoothly.
“We got Land Rover since it was owned by the same corporate group and the company was comfortable working with us because of our reputation in the market,” he said. “With our success with the first two, Maserati was very interested to work with us. And with Maserati being associated with Ferrari, I eventually met the Ferrari group in China.”
Soong said his love of British car brands – exemplified with his ownership of nine Jaguars before 1997 – made handling Aston Martin a natural choice. “And when I met with them, I was welcomed in a very nice way because they knew of our track record,” he said.
Aston Martin is being handled by his son, Marc, and Marc Tagle, whose family has been distributing and marketing Bridgestone tires in the country for decades.
Soong said the secret to getting the opportunity to handle all these brands is building a relationship based on transparency, trust, reputation and integrity. Soong also said he and these five brands are very similar because they have a strong motoring heritage, a passion for performance and excellence, and a reputation of integrity and reliability.
“I will never sell or represent a product or a brand that I do not believe in,” he said. “That’s very fundamental for me. I have to like the product, believe in the product and trust the product. That’s when I can sell it.”
Leave it in shuffle
While most businessmen would detail elaborate timelines of their next acquisitions or their outlook on the future, Soong takes a more philosophical approach.
“I find it boring if I know what is next, to the point that it is shown in my appreciation of music,” he said. “I completely dislike listening to a record or a cassette tape since I already know what the next song will be, but with today’s music technology like the iPod or Spotify, I always put it into shuffle. Not knowing the expected and expecting the unexpected, for me, makes life interesting and the challenge more exciting.”