Function before fashion
WHILE the sales of high-end vehicles like SUVs and top-of-the line sedans have climbed dramatically in the past years, there are still are car owners who are more than willing to spend tons of cash just make their ride look different. Or very, very different.
And among the many ways to improve a car’s looks and even performance is to upgrade its rims and tires, which can be worth the price if a vehicle owner chooses the right brand and gets value for money.
In the local motoring scene, one of the personalities who has successfully established a reputation for providing the best when it comes to aftermarket rims and tires is Samuel Liuson, president of Wheel Gallery Inc.
It was in 2002 when Liuson started introducing quality rims and tires into the country.
“Actually, matagal na uso yung pagbibihis ng kotse [dressing up a vehicle has been an in thing for many years],” he said.
“We started in 2002, however, I was in the automotive wheel industry even before that. I was with manufacturing then, we had a small wheel [rim]manufacturing company called Silverwind,” Liuson added.
But when tariffs on various products were reduced because of the Asean Free Trade Area and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, it became hard for Silverwind to compete with the larger firms. So in 2002, Liuson started bringing in imported labels of quality alloy rims for the automotive aftermarket segment in the Philippines. It was also a matter of time that the “bling bling” craze would become popular among SUV owners in the Philippines.
“That time , mostly we were bringing in wheels from 14 [inches]to 18 [inches]. But by 2005, that ‘bling bling’ craze in America started so we started bringing in the 20-inch rims for SUVs which a lot of people thought were crazy,” Liuson said with a tinge of laughter.
He added Wheel Gallery also brought in 26-inch rims for SUVs until the “bling bling” craze died down in 2008 when the Global Financial Crisis struck. At the height of the “bling bling” craze in the United States, there were vehicle owners who patronized 30-inch rims that Liuson, however, did not find appropriate for the Philippine market.
He said market preference for aftermarket rims eventually shifted to matte black rims.
“The market shifted still to 20-inch [rims], but we noticed matte black started to catch attention. We were perhaps the first to bring in matte black when nobody thought it would sell and [competitors said]it looked boring at first. But what it did was it gave vehicles a different character altogether,” he added.
Matte black aftermarket rims not only appealed to SUV owners but also to owners of passenger cars, including those who were into performance tuning of engines.
“Before, what was more popular with automotive or sedans were silver [rims]. They have a term for it, they call it hypersilver,” Liuson said, explaining hypersilver was sandwiched between regular silver and regular chrome when it came to luster.
Along with matte black, also popular today in the aftermarket are matte gunmetal-colored rims.
“As you notice, silver [rims]is not common anymore,” he added.
Today, Wheel Gallery also offers aftermarket tires that compliment its various brand offerings of alloy rims. Among the brands under Wheel Gallery are Concept One from Taiwan, Black Rhino from the United States, and BBS, Carlsson, Kelleners Sport and TSW from Germany. For tires, it has been marketing Nitto and is aggressively pushing Saffiro also for the mainstream tire market in the Philippines.
LIKE MEN’S FASHION
But unlike other businessmen who simply look for a cheap supplier of automotive products from countries like China, Liuson has developed a keen eye for automotive trends.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that our market is actually men’s fashion. A lot of traders merely think that it is about trading, that if you can find a supplier in China and bring your products in, then you’re okay. It’s not like that. You have to know the fashion. It’s no different from clothes, shoes and fashion accessories,” he said.
“If you don’t have an eye for it [trends], you can bring in all sorts of stuff that the market doesn’t want. And when you do that, you get stuck with so much inventory,” Liuson added.
So far, Wheel Gallery got it right when it comes to satisfying the tastes of Filipino motorists who have money to spend for aftermarket rims and tires.
“By God’s grace, we brought in the stuff that the market liked,” Liuson said.
To make sure he gets updates on present and future trends on aftermarket automotive products, Liuson attends the SEMA Show in the United States which is “the premier automotive specialty products trade event in the world” according to its website www.semashow.com. It is held annually in Las Vegas.
He also attends the annual Tokyo Auto Salon which features customized cars, mostly Japanese, and a host of aftermarket automotive products.
“But everything that you see there [at those events]is not going to click here. It’s something like going to a fashion show. If you are into wardrobe, you go to Milan [Italy] or to places where they come up with the latest trends. And then knowing the market locally, you can pick up on some trends [from there],” Liuson said.
When it comes to getting supplies, Wheel Gallery has also remained faithful on ConceptOne aftermarket rims that are made in Taiwan, which Liuson said has graduated from manufacturing products for the brands of other countries to successfully developing its own brands that churn out quality products.
“We have different suppliers [but]we started mostly with Taiwanese suppliers because they are also the suppliers of the US market. You will be surprised that when we started [in 2002], 70 percent of stuff you see in US magazines [on aftermarket products]come from Taiwan,” he said, adding that while wheel technology is not “rocket science,” Taiwan has made great improvements on the quality of the metals and alloys it produces.
“I think Taiwan has shed its old identity of being a copy cat and [manufacturer of]low quality [products],” he added.
Today, ConceptOne has become one of the most popular brands in the Philippines for aftermarket rims. Wheel Gallery has also expanded its lineup of brands to include those from Germany, and also tires from Saffiro.
SPECIALIZATION, QUALITY ARE KEYS
However, even with more people buying brand new cars and having more disposable income, Liuson has resisted the temptation to expand the types of aftermarket products Wheel Gallery offers. Up to this day, Wheel Gallery sells mostly aftermarket rims and tires.
“One thing that the last two or three major [economic]crises taught us was specialization. So many companies even the big ones, the big guys, folded up because they diversified too much. They moved out of their core competence into unknown territory. And when the crisis hits, they became insolvent,” he said.
“Like I know of a few companies that were good in manufacturing, and because they had excess money they went into real estate [development]. So when money went there, and when the economy dies they cannot sell the properties [developed]. And you don’t have money to put back into the business. So everything goes down the drain. What we managed to do is to focus on our core competence, which is wheels and now we are doing aftermarket tires,” Liuson added.
Focusing on a few products lines should be complimented by making sure the products offered are of good or exceptional quality, which is one attribute Wheel Gallery is known for. To Liuson, buying cheap products from other parts of the globe, including China, cannot guarantee the reputation of a business.
“Another thing that you always have to look at is quality. Your supplier may be bit more expensive than others, but if they have that quality, then you don’t have to look behind your back when it comes to selling because you are assured of quality,” he said.
Liuson also believes that in this age where social media has become very influential, businesses cannot afford to offer products with questionable quality.
“And all the advertising in the world cannot work if your product is defective. You can do only so much window dressing. When people use your products and they are not happy, word goes around especially with social media,” Liuson explained.
However, just because Wheel Gallery offers the best in quality, that does not mean it only caters to motorists who have tons of cash to spend on aftermarket rims and tires that can cost as much as P200,000 per set.
Liuson said while Wheel Gallery still offers packages of rims and tires that can cost as much as that, it also caters to vehicle owners who are also budget conscious. He added because manufacturers have achieved economies of scale, the prices of aftermarket rims and tires have come down, allowing more motorists to buy such products for their beloved ride.
“For example, a package of size 15 [inch]rims and tires probably are around P30,000, and then we have package of 20-inch [rims and tires]for SUVs for [about]P60,000,” he said.
The tires for the P60,000 package for SUVs are from Saffiro, which has its headquarters in Los Angeles in the United States. Upgrading to Nitto tires will bump up the price of the package by tens of thousands of pesos more.
For the more expensive package for SUVs, Wheel Gallery can offer 20-inch Black Rhino rims shod with Nitto tires that can cost from P90,000 upwards. Besides making a vehicle have a distinctive look, Liuson said Nitto tires can last up to 100,000 kilometers.
The customers of Wheel Gallery are actually mixed, or a combination of vehicle owners who just got their car out of the showroom and those who wait for a few months or even years before slapping on aftermarket rims and tires on their ride.
“It depends on whether ready you are ready to buy [aftermarket rims and wheels]. Some people are more wary about factory warranty before they change [the rims and tires]. But some don’t care. Some like me, I first try out my car stock [without modifications]for a few months to make sure there are no factory defects before I change. Because sometimes there are factory defects [in a brand new vehicle]that they [owners]might point to your accessory as the culprit,” he said.
But when a vehicle owner gets a new set of rims with matching tires appropriate for their vehicle, whether the vehicle is brand new or a few months old, it can turn out to be a safe investment.
Liuson explained it is not true that an upgrade in the size of a vehicle’s rims would wreck its suspension system.
“You have to remember that the suspension of your vehicle is built to carry the load [of a vehicle]of 1.5 to 3 tons. The added weight on the tires and wheels are negligible,” he said.
“If you go from 16 [inches]to 17 [inches], the tire’s overall diameter should not change. So it does not interfere with the factory clearance,” Liuson added.
That means Wheel Gallery will not sell or even recommend a package that can result to potential problems for a vehicle.
“Basically, what we don’t do is we sell products that do not fit your vehicle. We don’t want to sell a package that will cause problems to customers,” Liuson said.
Thus motorist potentially mess up with their vehicle if they install tires that are larger in diameter compared to the original factory setting.
However, there are benefits of installing wider rims and tires on a vehicle like improved traction for the tires and even better braking behavior, because wider tires provide a bigger “footprint” or patch on the road.
There are also those who swear that bigger rims with tires that are less thick than the factory standard provide better handling at the corners.
“If you’re into racing, those little differences matter. But if you are a regular cityfolk [driver, it won’t matter],” Liuson said.
If it is true that aftermarket rims and tires can compromise the safety of vehicles and its occupants, for sure Wheel Gallery would not be doing brisk business up to this day. In fact, it also wholesales the brands under its wings to distributors located in various parts of the Philippines.
Liuson added the worldwide automotive aftermarket industry continues to thrive, which clearly demonstrate that products to “dress up” a vehicle’s appearance like rims and tires are safe investments. It’s also a matter of prioritizing function over looks.
“If you put fashion ahead of function, it’s not going to last. [It should be] function before fashion,” Liuson said.