Little-known now, but a big future

Updated: 2013-09-30 01:01

By CECILY LIU (China Daily)

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Great Wall's pickup wonder builds up a reputation in the UK automobile market

Everybody has heard of the Great Wall, but few outside China know of the products it lends its name to.

So Paul Hegarty remembers the challenge last year of bringing the Chinese car brand Great Wall Motors to the UK market.

Little-known now, but a big future

Paul Hegarty says IM Group is preparing for the launch of a Great Wall SUV, the H6, but the date is still to be decided.Xie Songxin / China Daily

"People asked me, ‘Who makes Great Wall?' and I said ‘Great Wall makes Great Wall'. Back then, no one knew who Great Wall was," says Hegarty, managing director of Great Wall Motor Distributors UK at IM Group.

China's biggest maker of sport utility vehicles was unknown in the UK when it was launched in April 2012 — but things have quickly changed.

Steed, Great Wall's pickup truck, has already sold about 1,000 vehicles and built up more than 50 dealerships in the UK and Ireland. IM Group is now preparing for the launch of a Great Wall SUV, the H6, which is already popular in China, although the date is yet to be decided.

Hegarty says it chose "value for money" as its marketing proposition.

"If you're an unknown brand in the market, you have to give the customer a reason to buy it," he says. "When we say value, we don't just mean being cheap. We came in at a price range that would undercut everybody else in the market but with high specifications."

The basic Steed S sold for 13,998 pounds ($22,200) at launch, significantly undercutting the cost of established brands of pickups in the UK market, such as the Isuzu Rodeo, Nissan Navara, Volkswagen Amarok, Mitsubishi L200, Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger.

Despite the low cost, Steed cars include features such as Bluetooth connectivity, heated seats, reverse sensors and full leather interior, many of which are unusual in a basic pickup, Hegarty says.

The cars are manufactured by Great Wall in China, and sent to IM Group's import center in Kent, where some final components are added.

Steed's price advantage also allowed it to be competitive in the secondhand market, a value proposition that its competitors are unable to match, Hegarty adds.

And it offers a longer warranty. The original three years offered at launch was extended to six years, a year longer than the warranty of any other pickup brand, he claims.

The new kid on the block pulls its weight in other respects. Following market feedback, the towing capacity has been increased from 2 to 2.5 tons.

However, because the Great Wall Steed's initial towing capacity became a challenge to sell to many farm owners, being difficult to tow livestock with it, Hegarty's team decided to target the shooting market.

"A lot of our customers are either employed full time in the shooting industry or they have a weekday job elsewhere and do shooting as a hobby at the weekend," he says.

Hegarty's team invested in events and brands highly regarded by the shooting community, such as Real Tree, a US company that makes camouflage apparel, and Team Wild TV, an outdoor sports channel that promotes shooting.

Ian Harford, a Team Wild TV celebrity, conducted a hunting test in South Africa in the Great Wall Steed, which helped establish the car's credibility in the minds of the shooting community.

"They saw it being tried and tested by him in harsh environments. So people thought, ‘If it's good enough for him, then it's good enough for me'," Hegarty says.

Hegarty admits customers initially had concerns about the vehicle's quality following its launch because so few Chinese cars are available in Europe.

However, the low expectations meant that many customers were surprised and impressed when shown the car.

"When they see the car, they say, ‘This is a very good car. It's just like anyone else's pickup.' Whatever expectations they had for a Chinese car, the Great Wall Steed exceeded it," he says.

"We have heard so many times that the car is much better than they thought it would be."

Now that the Steed has been around in the UK and Ireland for more than a year, Hegarty's team is seeing customers buying a second one.

Some customers need more than one pickup truck to suit their business needs and, after they have tested the Steed, they trust it enough to add another.

Although Great Wall has yet to put the Steed through the EuroNCAP crash test, Hegarty says this has not affected sales. "On the pickup that's OK, because it's not what people ask for as the No 1 question. But on passenger cars, yes, because it's something people do ask if they are buying a family car," he says.

Hegarty says his team hopes to expand Great Wall's dealership network, but not so fast as to compromise quality.

He says the ideal Great Wall dealer is a private operator with one or two stores, who is not already selling pickup trucks from Great Wall's competitors.

"We take a very personal hands-on approach in recruiting dealers," Hegarty says. "That's because we don't just want Great Wall to succeed today or tomorrow, but for the long term. We don't want to be in a situation of changing the dealers."

Great Wall, founded in Baoding, Hebei province, in 1976, has been China's largest automotive exporter in volume and revenue since 1998.

With a sales network covering more than 100 countries, Great Wall sold 85,000 vehicles abroad last year, a 50 percent increase from 2010. Its key export markets include North and South America, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Australia, Russia and Italy.

Hegarty says he is excited to work with Great Wall on its journey to become established internationally.

"At the moment, China has a lot of demand for cars, but when the time comes for capacity to outstrip demand, Chinese manufacturers will come to Europe," Hegarty says.

He feels confident Chinese cars will one day follow the path of Japanese and Korean manufacturers in becoming trusted and liked by European customers — but the journey will be a lot shorter.

The British market has become increasingly popular with Chinese carmakers in recent years.

SAIC Motor Corp Ltd of Shanghai bought the intellectual property of MG Rover in 2005 and has since launched the MG6 and MG3 on the UK market. The company designs and assembles cars at MG's old plant in Birmingham.

Hangzhou-based Geely Holding Group Co Ltd has also gained a foothold in the European automotive industry through acquiring Swedish carmaker AB Volvo in 2010 and the London taxicab maker Manganese Bronze Holdings Plc earlier this year.