From Car Wash to Bike King

General Director of Al Naboodah International Vietnam, the principal dealer of big engine bikes such as Harley Davidson and Triumph in Vietnam.

By Molly Headley 

On your linkedin profile, you mention you got your start at 16-years-old washing cars for a car dealership. This is a common job for a teenager in America, yet, it isn’t so common to go from there to being the General Director of the #1 importer/retailer of major motorcycle brands in Vietnam. Is this the direction that you always saw your life going or did you have a different life plan before?

(Laughing) No, I wanted to be in the CIA or the FBI or the Secret Service at that age. I’ve had a job since I was in 6th grade. I started off doing the paper route thing. In those days, in the 80s, lots of kids were off delivering the newspaper. I’d deliver the paper at 3pm after school. But then the paper I was working for decided to do a 7am morning delivery. I had basketball practice at 7, so I had to quit.

The whole reason I took that job was because I wanted Nikes and my mom said, “Hey, you want Nikes? You’d better go get a job!”

But what kind of a job could I get at that age? I was 12 years old! After that, I started cleaning a butcher shop and later, I started washing cars after school and through the summers. I went to college and continued to work at the dealership. I was really fortunate to have a boss who saw something in me. He would move me around. I worked in parts for awhile and then he said “ok, you’re going to go to service now”. This is the 36th year that I’ve worked in a service setting.

Do you have a life or business philosophy that has helped you rise to the top?

I was fortunate to have really good parents who didn’t give us anything we didn’t earn. We had to earn what we wanted one way or another. I pulled weeds and mowed the lawn or whatever I could to earn some money. My parents didn’t make it easy for us.

This is the problem that I’m seeing going forward. Now, so many parents try to make it as easy as possible for their kids and it doesn’t help them at all. I’ll give you a quick example. When I was a kid and playing sports, if I had a problem my dad would say “Hey don’t talk to me about it. Talk to your coach.” And I’d go talk to my coach. Now, the parents are at the school complaining to the athletic director and no one puts it back in the hands of the kids. Sports can actually teach kids how to deal with their future boss, their co-workers or teammates.

What would be your advice to that younger generation? How would you help them mitigate this difference in parenting culture?

The simple advice is that “No one’s coming to save you. No one’s coming to help you. Whatever is to be is up to you”.

That’s how it works. If you’re going to be successful and want to make something of yourself, you have to put in the effort. To be the best in the world at anything, people have to put in a minimum of 10,000 hours.

The Vietnamese have traditionally driven small engine motorbikes and scooters, which are practical for the traffic situations in the major cities. What do you think is the draw for big engine bikes in Vietnam?

In the US, where I sold motorcycles for a long time, 97% of the population has zero interest [in buying a motorcycle]. They’ve never ridden anything on two wheels, besides a bicycle. In Vietnam, 97% of the population grew up on two wheels. It’s a two-wheel culture.

Vietnamese aspire to have something bigger, something better, something cool … and that lies right in with what we have. Granted almost 100% of our clients who are buying Harley-Davidsons and Triumphs already have a car. The big motorcycle isn’t going to be their main mode of transportation to work. They don’t want to leave it outside of their office with the security guard. It tends to be something they want to show other people. Some of them might just ride it to the coffee shop, but others want to feel that freedom you can have on the big road with the bike. It feels good to have the power when you need it. Granted, if you’re in HCMC all day, you’ll barely ride over 45 km per hour. But if you have the opportunity to go to the coast and get out of town on the weekends, it’s amazing. In the North, there are so many nice riding roads with great scenery.

I assume HCMC and Hanoi are probably your largest markets?

Yes, HCMC is the largest by a long shot and then after that Hanoi and Danang.

Who are your target clients?

For Vietnam, each brand has a slightly different demographic. For Harley, it’s about 99% males; compared to America where we might have had around 10% female buyers. The Harley brand’s customers are a bit older – close to 50. The Triumph brand is younger with a median age of about 35. Then for KTM and Husqvarna bikes, we have a whole spectrum. We have buyers from 18 to 70 years old. They’re a lower price point and have [a power output] as low as 200cc, so they’re not much bigger than a scooter.

Vietnam is the world’s fourth-largest market for motorcycles, behind China, India and Indonesia. Where do you see the motorbike industry heading in Vietnam? Will it eventually catch up to these neighbouring countries? Or is there a foreseeable market cap?

I think we’re at the scooter cap already. 99% of the bikes on the road are scooters, with almost 3 million scooters purchased per year. In contrast, there are about 9000 motorcycles sold from 200 cc to 2500 cc. The bigger bike market is pretty small compared to scooters. The two-wheel market is huge and Honda flat dominates that.

I see the market getting bigger on the bigger bikes but it will take a revolution in the banking industry to make that happen. It’s incredibly difficult to get a loan. In America, maybe 90% of my customers would finance. Here, I don’t think even 9% of my customers finance.

In America, Harley Davidson and Triumph bikes have a certain mystique that basically sells the bikes—they’re tough, “bad-ass”, and just considered really good machines. Their image is wrapped up in pop culture references and history. Do you have the same luxury of built-in marketing in Vietnam? If not, what are your sales points for the Vietnamese market?

In America, we had a Harley dealership and in the same complex we had Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki bikes. We had customers who would come in, buy a Honda and then two weeks later they’d come back and say, “Oh, I need to trade it for the Harley.” You’d get to talking to them and they’d say that everywhere they went–at the grocery store, at the mall, everywhere–people would walk up and say “Is that a Harley?”

Eventually, they got sick of replying “No, it’s a Honda.” So they’d come back to the dealership and trade it in for the Harley.

Here, in Vietnam, the majority of people don’t know the brand. But the people who are interested, our clientele, know it very well. It’s similar to our clients in the USA, they want to express themselves. They want that personal freedom. They want to be able to customise their bike to make it exactly how they want. People who want a Harley are going to lean towards that lifestyle. They’re going to dress the Harley way and make it their own.

I had a customer in America, who I’ll never forget. He came into the dealership maybe 5-6 times before he bought his bike. Everytime he came in he was dressed exactly the same way. He’d wear these purple sweatpants with a Scooby-Doo t-shirt and tennis shoes. He finally bought his bike. We saw him about a week later. Suddenly, he was an American bad-ass. He’d gotten the jeans, the belt with the chain, the boots … It was a complete transformation. That’s kind of what happens. I see it here too.

The majority of our marketing is digital but we also focus on events. We have dealership events, charity events, and tours. We also organise riding events for our customers to join. They don’t have to think about anything. The hotel is organised for them. The food is prepared. They just get in the group and ride; they enjoy motorcycling and being around other bikers.

My philosophy is that if it won’t sell us a bike then I won’t do it. I won’t just throw money at something for branding. It needs to add to the customer experience. My number one salesman is the customer who influences his friends to come and buy something. We inspire the customers to use their bikes and to have fun with them. Then their friends think “wow, he went on a cool ride to Phan Thiet this weekend, and we didn’t do anything!” That’s how it all fits together.

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