50 years in the motor business

As a professed car lover, I was rapt to land a position with UK Motors in Brisbane in 1967 during a working holiday to Australia.

It was an interesting and educational position. Mini Coopers and MGBs were highly sought after and yes, we sold and repaired Morris 1100s, 1800s P76s and a steady trickle of Rollers.

It was intriguing to see makes and models I hadn’t seen in New Zealand, signalling the advent of the Japanese car revolution, which was the beginning of the end for the British motor industry. The quirky looking, shovel-nosed Toyota Corona, sporty looking Datsun SSS and Skyline GT models, and the stylish Isuzu Bellett.

When I returned home 18 months later, new cars were very scarce. You needed overseas funds or a very good trade-in to purchase a new Holden or Vauxhall, and used examples sold well above the list price.

Fast forward 30 years to 1997. As a branch manager & dealer principal with Holden, Honda, Mazda and Mitsubishi brands, I was fortunate to be involved in the New Zealand launch of a new Korean brand called Kia. How that came about is quite a story.

Out of the blue, I had a call from the importer of the little-known jeep-type vehicle called the Kia Sportage. He asked me if I would mind driving one for a couple of days and give him an opinion on how I thought it would go in the Kiwi market.

I was slightly familiar with the other Korean brand, Hyundai, but frankly considered them to be cheap and cheerful back then and not a serious threat to the Japanese brands.

Déjà vu. Boy, how that has changed. Long story short, I set up the first solus Kia dealership - Colin Bower Kia on Auckland’s North Shore.

I rode the ups and downs of the fledgling franchise until the Korean financial meltdown put paid to the importer. The Korean situation was finally worked through with buyouts and amalgamations, but by then I had decided to sell out to Daewoo Direct.

The Kia factory team took me on as New Zealand national sales and marketing manager. The next three years was a struggle to set up retail sites and launch the steadily growing Kia range to a cautious, and value-conscious, New Zealand public.

I had a couple of trips to the factory in Seoul during this time to see and get an understanding of the direction and determination of Kia’s management and came away convinced they had something special.

We were given a glimpse of the future and were excited by the new Sorento and Sportage models being developed with input from the top European design studios. They were the match of anything on the world market, but incorporating that inbred toughness unique to Hyundai and Kia.

It has been intriguing to watch the Korean brands go from strength to strength, much like the Japanese brands did in the seventies and eighties. I predict that is not going to slow down in my lifetime.


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