We want to change things up for a bit and instead of highlighting a car or a vehicle, we want to highlight a person behind it. In many cases, we usually see a select group of faces that represents a car brand, whether it is a senior executive or a KOL. Rarely do we see the people from behind the scenes who are represented by these front-lining executives or opinion leaders. One of the cogs that keeps this wheel running is Gary Yap, who is Deputy General Manager of the Product Marketing Department at PROTON.
Members of the motoring media would have met with him and spoken about many topics, but few in the general public would know what goes on behind the curtains in introducing a vehicle model or type. This is just a snippet into what someone like Gary is involved in within an automotive brand.
Q: What do you do in PROTON?
A: My primary role is to oversee new model introductions for PROTON, to market these vehicles ensuring sales sustenance throughout the model lifecycle. On a wider scale, to plan the future model line-up of Proton vehicles.
Q: Can you share with us a little bit of your working experience, prior to joining PROTON, and your
career progression that led to where you are today?
A: I graduated with a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom in 1999. Having had a keen interest in cars since a young age, my first job was as a R&D engineer at PROTON for 13 years which has very much provided the foundation for my career progression.
I left the company for 5 years and returned to PROTON in 2018 for a wider role in Product Marketing.
Q: You are currently working in Product Marketing Department, under a foreign boss, from China – a Chinese national. Can you share with us the experience of working under him?
A: The department is headed by Deputy Director, Zou Zhou from Geely. He is one of the most popular Chinese nationals working in PROTON, simply due to his down-to-earth nature, and his polite and caring attitude. Nevertheless, he sets high expectations for all of us – working on tight schedules and occasionally over the weekends to meet our deadlines. There is still much to learn, and to extract out of him.
Q: During the course of your work experience with him, what are the qualities he possesses that you find impressive?
A: At first instance in 2018, some of us were wary of his work experience given his young age of 33 years old. We Malaysians are familiar with the mindset of “I eat more salt than you eat rice”, giving credibility that experience only comes with age and seniority.
Nevertheless over time, we have to realise that the working pace and rate of exposure in China is very much accelerated compared to Malaysia. His qualities which we should emulate are to always look at the big picture, seek for a win-win situation, as well as his tremendous ability to multitask and be highly adaptive to continuous change.
Q: Can you share with us a little secret about him, perhaps?
A: Although him and I may share somewhat similar ancestry – I am of Chinese descent, but we were born in different countries and different cultures. I have to admit there are differences – hot and spicy food is not my favourite despite being a Malaysian, but he on the other hand, enjoys it. His favourite is spicy Sichuan mala. But to blend in with the rest of us, he is still trying to adapt his taste buds to our Malaysian curry. According to him there is too much coconut cream in the curry!
Personally for me, as a boss, Zou Zhou is very generous to insist on paying for all our meals. The trick is – never finish everything on your plate or else he will order more food thinking that you are still hungry. We are most fortunate, aren’t we?
Q: The team in Product Marketing are all guys. In your opinion, is there actually a particular reason for this set-up?
A: (brief laughter) There is no particular reason except for the fact that it so happens that the team are all guys. I firmly believe that successful candidates are recruited based on their qualifications and not gender. We wouldn’t mind if there are women colleagues in the future. They will most certainly add more zest to the department.
Q: Your department is multi-racial. In your opinion, is language a barrier for communication with the department head?
A: One of the strengths of Zou Zhou is his willingness to learn the English language and doesn’t mind being laughed at when he makes linguistic mistakes. In addition, he is also learning some basic Malay words, as well as common dialects for ease of interaction. Each time he encounters a new word, he will write it down in his notebook for memory.
Likewise, for myself, I initially had very poor command of the Mandarin language but in the past 2 years, I would say I have improved a lot, in my own opinion. Being able to speak different languages definitely helps. Not only does it make us understand others better, it is also an opportunity for our self-growth, aside from having the advantage in terms of business negotiations.
In the course of my work, I firmly believe that language is never a barrier for communication. Most important is mutual respect and the hunger to learn from each other. At the end of the day, the China automotive market has grown tremendously in the past decade, so they must be doing something right. It only makes sense that we take the good and replicate their business models for the Malaysian market.
Q: The Head of Department is currently still in China due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How does the team report to him? Can you share a bit of how you get work done?
A: Well, technology has definitely makes things easier. Similar to our current situation of work-from-home during the Movement Control Order, and now Conditional MCO, meetings are held online through Microsoft Teams.
All approval documents are processed using e-signature. Let’s not forget the WeChat messenger which is a popular communication tool. Yes, we have to adapt from Whatsapp to WeChat.
Q: Basically, how do Product Marketing support the development of production of Proton models?
A: We are there before the sun rises until after the sun sets. From pre-conception of models, we will gather customer feedback, analyse the market trends to forecast the future customer behaviors and needs. All the input is gathered onto the drawing board for consideration towards commercialisation.
For new model launches, our most important role is in deciding the optimum price positioning to achieve the desired sales volume. Other tasks include marketing communications strategy for product release.
For sales sustenance, we conduct post-launch surveys to gather feedback for product improvement. During the end-of-life of a model, we plan for the next replacement model to ensure continuity of offering competitive products to our customers.
Q: How competitive are PROTON models in the Malaysian market?
A: 2019 has been a glorious year for PROTON. It was the first time in the past four years that we managed to sell over 100,000 units. We also regained the No 2 position in the market. The X70 has been a runaway success with over 32,000 units sold since launch and it’s the best-seller for the Above RM100,000 price category.
Customers who previously shied away from the PROTON brand are now reconsidering our models due to the visible improvements in competitive features and build quality. This translates to the value-for-money proposition for customers.
A media friend once quoted, “Undoubtedly, the X70 was the most talked about SUV in 2019.” A senior government official said, “The success of X70 has helped to improve the PROTON brand. Now we can see an increase in sales volume of the other models like Saga and Persona.”
Q: Based on your data, what do you think Malaysians generally look for in a car? What are the pull factors? Is price a major determinant?
A: Excluding the luxury brands, price will always be the major determinant coupled with the hire purchase monthly repayment. Market data shows that over 70% of vehicle sales are from the OTR (on-the-road) price of below RM100,000 which is the home ground for national brands – PROTON and Perodua.
Secondly, it will be space and convenience considerations like cabin roominess, trunk volume for ‘balik kampung’ trips, how many USB ports, etc.
Third on the list will be safety. The number of airbags, and whether it has features like Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) and 360 Camera, will always be the frequently asked questions.
Post COVID-19 pandemic, we anticipate that there will be a demand for health related features. The X70 has been upgraded with the N95 Cabin Filter for the air-conditioning system, working together with the existing air purifier system to form the PROTON Intelligent Air Purification System (P-IAPS). Sit tight, there is still more to come…
Q: We will definitely look forward to more good news. But besides providing analysis and statistics on buying factors, what else does Product Marketing do?
A: Another related area of responsibility is the expansion and marketing of telematics services. With the pace of IT development, we are already living in the connected car era. For example, we now have the “Hi PROTON” voice command, remote control via the PROTON Link app, JOOX Music streaming and over-the-air (OTA) updates for the infotainment software.
As consumers spend more and more time in their vehicles, we now call it the third living space, after our home and workplace. The future trend of being connected whilst in the vehicle is fast becoming a reality.
Q: Personally for you, what are the values you find important in life?
A: This is easy. Respect for others, especially the less fortunate. Integrity in work ethics and way of life. And recognition based on achievement, instead of appearance or social status.
Q: What does working in PROTON mean to you, aside from its physical meaning.
A: Having been working in PROTON for the first 13 years of my career, then returning after a 5 year hiatus, I would like to contribute positively towards the growth and success of the company. It is more than just a workplace, it’s very much a national pride whereby we feel a sense of achievement whenever we see a Proton vehicle overseas from developed countries like United Kingdom to ASEAN neighbours like Laos. More so, if it was a vehicle model which I have worked on previously.
Q: Lastly, if you have a magic lamp in your hand now, what would your 3 wishes be?
A: Firstly, to find a quick cure to eradicate COVID-19. Apart from the loss of life, pain and suffering, it has
literally brought the global economy to a near standstill.
Secondly, transform PROTON into the No. 1 car brand in Malaysia again.
And for the third wish, I wish for my fellow Malaysians to enjoy a happy work-life balance. Happiness beyond wealth.
Thank you for your time, Gary.