Sheer chance led Harold Koh to the motor industry, but as he tells SAMUEL EE, he has not regretted a moment since
Hooked on the auto business Harold Koh is the managing director of General Motors Overseas Distribution Corporation

FOR someone who is in charge of six markets and has been involved in the car business for two decades, it may be a surprise to learn that Harold Koh slipped into the fast lane of the automotive sector purely by chance.

Today, he is the managing director of General Motors Overseas Distribution Corporation, which is the importer and distributor of Opel and Chevrolet. But when he first returned after four years in the United States with an MBA in finance and banking, the last place he had expected to work in was the regional office of a German car manufacturer.

It was 1986 and Singapore was in the throes of a recession. Mr Koh had left New York hoping to join a bank here but jobs were scarce. He first spent a few months with a reinsurance firm but soon chanced upon an advertisement by BMW Asia.

'I never thought that I would work for a car company, but I did,' he recalls with a laugh. 'But from then on, I got hooked and I have stayed in auto ever since.'

It helped, too, that his first job was challenging enough to kindle a lifelong interest in the business. At the Munich-based premium carmaker, he was tasked with market planning and sales administration for the whole of the Asian market. It was also where he logged up many fond memories.

'I learned a lot when I was at BMW,' he says. 'It was the place where I began market analysis. I got excited when I studied how BMW grew its market share and built its brand. I suppose you could say my passion for cars began with BMW.'

But after five years, he decided to leave for authorised Toyota distributor Borneo Motors.

'At BMW, I was promoted three times and my job scope kept getting expanded but I was still doing basically the same thing. There was no opportunity at that time to do line management. I needed a new challenge.'

Borneo's marketing position offered just that, with Mr Koh becoming a marketing manager and gaining valuable branding, product portfolio and market communication experience. 'From a distribution company's operational point of view, I learned a lot and I enjoyed myself very much,' he says.

But after two years, he was headhunted by the Volkswagen Group to be its area sales manager for the East Asian market.

It turned out to be a timely move because it coincided with a rekindled desire to go back to a regional job. 'At that time, I still enjoyed travelling for business,' he says with a wistful smile. 'I was meeting new people and growing the business and I believe that to this day, VW has not beaten the record I achieved of selling more than 8,000 units a year in Taiwan.'

Mr Koh says he hit that peak in 1995, one year after taking over the job and about 2,000 in annual sales.

But he says his three-and-a-half-year stint with VW was only a precursor to the most challenging phase of his career. He went on to join GM Asia in July 1997 - just as the region began to sink into a financial crisis.

'Thank goodness my passion for finance never died,' he recalls. 'I was the financial manager for special projects. I studied financial modelling and worked on various GM investment projects in the Asia-Pacific.'

One of these projects was the revitalisation of GM's Thailand manufacturing plant during the Asian financial crisis and the procurement of new product investments.

A year later, he was promoted to head of GM Philippines, also to 'fix the operations' there. Four years after, he took his family - his wife and two young children - to GM Indonesia, where as president-director, he managed the distribution company and assembly operations.

He returned to Singapore in August 2005 to take over GM Overseas Distribution Corporation.

Described by a former colleague as meticulous when it comes to planning and execution, Mr Koh is also said to be a natural in the car business. 'He is able to communicate with people at all levels,' said the person. 'And he always appears cheerful and approachable. But don't let that fool you. He goes after what he wants and he usually gets it.'

That last sentence is probably characteristic of the way Mr Koh shook up the Chevrolet business when he returned to Singapore in late 2005 and immediately set up a second dealership.

Starsauto was the first dealer to market Chevrolet here when it was appointed in September 2003. From virtually zero, Starsauto grew Chevrolet's market share in two years to 2 per cent and entered the top 10 most popular makes here by end-2005. In March 2006, however, GMODC picked Alpine Motors to be the second Chevrolet dealer here. Mr Koh had made no bones about it and said that 'the appointment of additional dealers is consistent with our long-term strategy to strengthen our network in the region'.

'A second Singapore dealer is vital as the Chevrolet range gets wider,' he said then.

The move wasn't surprising, given that the brand with the gold bow-tie is the driver of GM's global sales and Asia is the struggling giant's most profitable market.

Little wonder then that so much in resources is being poured into Chevrolet, with GM investing more than $2.5 million a year for the next few years on promoting the brand. Since then, Chevy has grown 28 per cent in terms of sales volume, and Mr Koh has since expanded into three overseas territories - Pakistan, Tahiti and New Caledonia - with Mongolia and a few other Pacific islands to come this year.

'The challenge of building a brand comes with the satisfaction of knowing that you have put so many units of that brand on the road. It is easier to sell an established brand. But for a brand that is growing, it is more difficult.'

He says he wants to turn Chevrolet into a major brand, one of the mainstream marques like Toyota. 'We are not here to be happy with just a few units,' he declares. 'We are here to serve the customer with volume.'

Twenty years on, it is clear that Mr Koh's enthusiasm and passion for his job are still evident.

'The automotive industry here is very competitive. It's all about positioning your brand correctly and customer service. It's fun and fulfilling, especially when you have new products coming onstream. In 10 years with GM, I've had four exciting jobs. What more can I ask for?'