March 15, 2023 – Redge
Willy Tee Ten on sober starts, the lessons of luxury, and the un-buyability of a priceless legacy.
To Afford a Car
Of automobiles, amid the myriad of makes and models that ply Manila’s streets and highways, many can trace their origins to a dealership owned by the Autohub Group, a 24-year old conglomerate under the stewardship of Engr. Willy Q. Tee Ten.
“My father wanted a one-stop-shop,” explains his son, Wayne, “he wanted to be able to go ‘I have a (Ford) Expedition for sale,’ and when the other guy said ‘Oh but I was thinking of the (Nissan) Patrol,’ my father could say ‘I have that too!’”
But while it was Willy Tee Ten’s dream to sell to everyone— from those who choose to roll in Fords or Minis, to those who can afford a Rolls-Royce or Lotus— he began selling by convincing someone who didn’t initially like automobiles…himself.
“Many assume that I probably like cars from the start. Unfortunately, no,” laughs the De La Salle University alumnus,
“I started in the alcohol industry, and after leaving (my first job), I found myself in Germany and Scotland, where they make good whiskeys,” recounts the top 2 spot placer during the 1985 National Chemical Engineering Licensure Exam. “I was looking at distilleries, yun yung alam ko eh.”
Perhaps it was fate, but the would-be distiller would hear that an iconic car marque was looking for dealers. And despite having no background in the automotive industry, Sir Willy applied on his own merits, and was eventually chosen by the Ford Group during their late 90’s re-entry into the Philippine market.
“I remember my first ever dealership,” Sir Willy says wistfully, “it was no bigger than this office (about the size of an average studio condo).” Given that the area was dusty from still being under construction, he had partitioned a part with heavy duty plastic, much like those found in walk-in freezers. Through the makeshift barrier one could just make out the blurry outline of a huge pick-up truck. “It was a Ford F-150,” he recalls, “and I’ll never forget my first sale…since it was the only car I had!” He recounts a customer calling ahead before walking-in…and driving out. “Technically we were supposed to open in February of 1999, but I sold that (F-150) in December of 1998.”
To wit, Sir Willy had sold out his stock even before he officially opened.
As Autohub celebrates a quarter of a century in business next year, the group looks back at its growth. It has expanded from one brand to over a dozen, accumulating marques as revered as Roll-Royce, MINI, Lotus, and Pagani, as ubiquitous as Ford, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Geely and Kia, and even the very best of two-wheeled locomotion in the form of Vespa and Triumph. The conglomerate’s performance earning the trust of manufacturers as well as customers.
“I really wanted to sell cars to people who needed cars, but weren’t exactly (fanatics),” Sir Willy reveals, “because in the Philippines, next to food, clothing, and shelter, transportation is a necessity. (So) I went into it not in the sense na ‘oh after 5 years ok na ako.’ No. I went into it thinking long-term.”
Lessons in Luxury
A close employee reveals that Sir Willy is the kind of boss who, like a seasoned racer, will “push someone to the brink so they can know their limits. He demands no less from others as he does himself - whether it involves clocking in long hours at work, or juggling multiple tasks at once,” says the long-time Autohub partner.
At the same time, Sir Willy is also someone who lavishes those around him with appropriate compensation, as well as lessons that take them farther in life. Indeed any Autohub employee (current or former) is said to have a high market value, having gone through Engr. Tee Ten’s training.
Among his 10 “Wills of Fortune” include: having no regrets and learning from failure (he cites losing the BMW brand but earning the MINI marque), building long-lasting relationships (akin to working with Nissan during tough times, and attaining the exclusive GT-R dealership), as well as learning to say “thank you,” and “sorry.”
“Everyone, even big businessmen, make mistakes. Sometimes, expensive mistakes,” says the industry icon, briefly recalling Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter.
Sir Willy says that if he could meet his two-decade younger self, he would caution that version to take everything with a grain of salt. “Most people have good intentions, but some do not. Ung iba akala mo sobrang sincere but once you follow their advice…patay, mali.”
Aside from this, Sir Willy has three mantras that he abides by.
“The third is hard work.” His son Wayne shares that his father has “4 hours of sleep…on a good day.”
“I don’t know,” the elder Tee Ten quips, “some people are born with a silver spoon, but while God was making me, it’s as if He pointed and said ‘ah eto kailangan tong magtrabaho habang buhay (oh, this one has to work all his life).’”
Not that Sir Willy is complaining. Indeed, he’s never envisioned himself doing nothing. “I’d rather hear my kids tell me ‘Dad, slow down,’ instead of ‘hey dad, why don’t you get up and do something?’”
Secondly, Sir Willy believes in the need to work smarter. “It’s so important to be efficient and more productive.” One of his 10 “Wills of Fortune” espouses energy management. “Tumatanda na tayo, kaya let’s focus on our priorities.” He cites proper delegation of duties so that “everyone plays within their strengths.”
Though while working both hard and smart are tools to achieve a goal, Sir Willy believes that as much as possible, his number one advice for success is to dream BIG, and be unique.
“You have to offer a novel idea— an out-of-the-box concept, or a courageous action that others couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Something! It is important so people will remember you, support you, and patronize you.”
While Sir Willy’s penchant for thinking outside the box has often brought his name to the headlines. In a certain instance, it’s also saved his entire company’s bottomline.
“We released the Autohub App in 2019,” says WQT, “the idea that in maybe five years the group would go fully digital with the slogan ‘Service Appointments Made Easy.’”
No one suspected that the app, the first of its kind in the Philippine market, would be a conglomerate lifesaver. As Covid struck the country, customers who desperately needed car service would be paralyzed at home— except for Autohub’s clients. “Without the app, I don’t think we would be able to survive the pandemic,” he says.
Currently sitting as the British Chamber of Commerce’s automotive co-chairman and Philippine Automotive Dealers’ Association president, Sir Willy cites that Autohub has a long history of going the extra mile for customers— especially in tough times. He cites the group’s two-free nationwide towing service per year for customers (a tie-up with the Automobile Association of the Philippines) and their Premium Protection Program (Autohub’s extended warranty plan).
In good times, the company is also there.
Perhaps the most iconic event in the local auto industry is Engr. Tee Ten’s much-anticipated annual sports event: the 10 10 10 Golf Tournament. The fun-focused charity competition, which held its 10th (and penultimate) instance last year, has given proceeds to Gawad Kalikasan and The Davao Children’s Cancer Fund, as well as memorable stories to scores of players in the past decade.
“10 10 10 was something unique, and hard to copy,” shares WQT, “I had a participant once worry that what if others copy it, and I said that would be flattering!”
Now past middle-age however, Sir Willy concerns himself with something truly un-copiable— his legacy.
The Next Generation
In terms of cars, there will always be a better model, but everyone will always remember the classic. This is perhaps how Sir Willy intends himself to be remembered. “I want to be remembered (by my children) as a role-model. Nothing super-specific. Everyone is made up of good and bad.
Having weathered the calamity that was Covid, the legendary figure in the automotive industry has a more realistic approach to life. “I feel it made everyone realize that we have to be prepared. That not everything is assured hence, the need to have a lot of contingency plans.”
Ultimately, and sooner rather than much later, those plans will depend on Sir Willy’s son, Wayne.
The 6’3 basketball enthusiast currently works various tasks at the Autohub Group alongside forays into vlogging and podcasting (“Dashboard Confessionals”). Wayne mentions how he is learning from the executives around him, especially his father. And while not being a car fanatic, he’s come to appreciate the industry— expressing strong opinions on the widespread parallel importation of high-end cars, and hopes (like his father), that the looming 25% additional tax does not come into fruition.
Sir Willy “hopes Wayne can take advantage of the opportunity working with me as I share my experience with him. I believe the experiences, suggestions, and tips I impart with him are simply irreplaceable. I want him to be a better version of me.”
Metaphorically standing on the shoulder of a giant, Wayne is keenly aware that the near future will require him to decide on importing new brands, preparing for shifts towards electric vehicles, the need for more novel marketing strategies, as well as the streamlining of business processes and maintaining the vast network of connections his father has forged.
Whether the younger Tee Ten has the drive to continue his father’s legacy and steers Autohub Group in the right direction remains to be seen. If son is anything like father, car buyers in the Philippines have something to look forward to, namely, the ride of a lifetime.
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