SJ HUH could have had a fruitful career in the diplomatic community, doing everything from spreading good will around the world to negotiating tense international crises.
His calm tone, affable personality and undergraduate degree in political science and diplomatic studies from a Korean university are certainly the sort of credentials that would merit his having the title “Ambassador” before his name. But Nissan Philippines Inc.’s (NPI) general manager for marketing, who was born in raised in Seoul, said he was more interested in meeting new people than politicking with them.
“I’ve been always fascinated by people who work globally,” Huh said. “Not necessarily living abroad, but getting to interact with people from different backgrounds. I like finding out something new from others. I always have a chance to learn from differences.”
Indeed, this motivation to go global pushed him to work in a multinational life-insurance company right out of college. Shortly after getting his master’s degree in management information systems in the United States, where he also learned English, a friend told him about a job opening in a premium car company.
“I did not actually plan to join the automotive industry,” he said. “I was OK to work for any company that operates globally so that I can get a chance to work in an environment where I could interact with people who are different from me or Koreans in general.”
The ‘import’ challenger
After a few years, Huh moved to Nissan in 2005 as a founding member of the carmaker’s South Korean operation. He said handling an “import” brand at the time was very difficult task because of the overwhelming dominance of Korean brands in the market.
“Import brands had like a 3.0-percent market share as a whole,” he said. “When I say import brands, it’s all of the brands you can think of other than Korean brands: Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, etc.”
Indeed, he said prior to opening Nissan dealerships, the Japanese carmaker had introduced its luxury Infiniti brand since the Korean companies weren’t selling anything in the up-market segment. Eventually, he said import brands became more popular, although the likes of Kia, Hyundai, Renault-Samsung and other Korean brands still account for 85 percent of the South Korean car market.
‘A truly global company’
Since then, Huh has stayed with the company, getting the chance to work abroad to handle the product offerings for the company’s Australian and New Zealand markets before coming to the Philippines.
“The reason why I joined Nissan and stuck to it for over 11 years is because I think it is a truly global company,” he said. “My boss, Toti [NPI president Anthony Zara], is Filipino. His boss is Japanese and, along the way, his boss’ boss is Carlos Ghosn. I found this very fascinating.”
Huh said he especially likes how this “melting pot” of cultures and nationalities not only means anyone can go up the company ranks based exclusively on performance and results, but also that Nissan doesn’t take things for granted.
“If you are homogenous, everyone is coming from same background and thinking of the same thing,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good because it’s more efficient than having to go through different discussions. But the loophole of that is you don’t really think twice or think out of the box.”
NPI was established in September 2013 as a joint venture of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. in Japan, Universal Motors Corporation and Yulon Philippines Investment Co. Ltd., starting operations in March 2014. Before this, the company’s passenger vehicle and commercial vehicle dealers had been handled by two different groups.
“As we consolidate three companies together and make one voice, I think that’s very important so that people don’t get confused,” he said.
Huh said the previous arrangement meant Nissan buyers were unsure of which dealer to go to since some only sold passenger cars while others only sold commercial vehicles. But now, he said anyone can walk into a Nissan showroom and ask for all the products that he or she likes.
In addition, Huh said the company’s marketing strategy of aligning with Nissan globally while giving it a Filipino flavor has given it a more cohesive brand image.
“If you have seen our creative material and advertisements, it’s aligned with Nissan’s global look and feel,” he said. “However, we understand that each market has a different sort of taste, so when it comes to communicating, we reflect the local flavor so that people can easily buy it.”
As a result of this new voice, he said the company garnered a 60-percent increase in unit sales in 2015 from 2014.
“I’ve heard about Nissan being noticed and people are saying, ‘Nissan is back,’” he said. “As you know, Nissan in the Philippines used to be the No. 2 or No. 3 brand back in 1980s and the 1990s. But since then, we have been a bit of has-been brand, so now it’s time that we shout out loud that, ‘Hey! Nissan has a very attractive offer that people can consider.’”
This year, Huh said the company is aiming to continue that momentum, although he said a 30 to 40 percent gain would be more feasible.
Huh said the company plans to do this by offering new and refreshed models that reflect the company’s tagline: Innovation that excites. He said this mantra led NPI to introduce the updated Almera late last year, the Juke crossover and, later this year, the much-awaited GT-R supercar (which Huh talks about in the sidebar below).
Likewise, Huh said these innovations extend to customers’ experience with the brand, such as holding local rounds of the GT Academy. “Instead of giving away a VIP ticket to the paddock, we searched for a talent coming from online gaming and trained them to become a real race driver,” he said.
Huh said another innovation is NPI’s online car parts and accessories shop.
“One of the concerns was, ‘Oh. Parts are not available. Parts are expensive,’” he said. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we just make it online, available anytime? You can just go there anytime you like and then it can be delivered for free.’”
Huh said he considers the Philippine market an exciting place – compared to the more mature Korean, Australian and New Zealand markets – and remains bullish on Nissan’s growth here. But one segment he said he’s looking at closely is the mid-sized sport-utility vehicle (SUV) market.
“If there is an opportunity, definitely, we would like to raise our hands high enough to introduce it,” he said. “When we talked to several customers, we found that whether you need seven seats or not doesn’t really matter. Having space they can use however they please is a freedom for them, along with having no fear whatsoever of the weather conditions.”
Considering he was able to help bring in an off-the-wall crossover and one of the most legendary vehicles that Japan has ever made, it shouldn’t be a surprise if Fast Times gets a call from him to attend the launch of a seven-seat Nissan SUV.