Industry > Business

Bringing Alfa Romeo and Abarth to PH against all odds

How one businessman is fulfilling his dream of selling nice cars

The Abarth 595 is picture-perfect at Manila Bay. PHOTO BY MICHAEL KALBO

In January, I had a meeting with a 36-year-old businessman from Pampanga who told me he was bringing Abarth and Alfa Romeo to the Philippines. The guy’s name is Allen Ong, whose family has been in the auto parts trade for four decades as owners of Sharp Battery and Tire Center in San Fernando.

Ong struck me as a giddy (almost geeky) car enthusiast whose eyes lit up whenever the topic turned to automobiles. When he revealed that he had first attempted to be a car dealer 15 years ago—when he was 21 years old—by trying to contact Lotus, I began to feel somewhat suspicious. He added that he had also gotten in touch with McLaren to try and be the brand’s local representative—again, to no avail.

In my mind, I was wondering whether this man knew what he was doing. And was he just trying to take advantage of some publicity in order to convince any gullible car brand to do business with him? What made me especially doubtful was the fact that he hadn’t even secured any kind of contract with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, the parent company of both Abarth and Alfa Romeo. Also, at the time of our interview, he had yet to build a showroom and hire personnel.

Allen Ong will import Abarth and Alfa Romeo. PHOTO BY VERNON B. SARNE

It would have been very easy for me to dismiss Ong as a delusional character were it not for this single fact: He’s the owner of Foton Pampanga. He was so dedicatedly focused on his longtime dream of becoming a dealer of nice, high-end cars that he took a chance on a Chinese brand—all just to gain experience in sales, marketing and after-sales service. That’s because whenever he would approach a big-name automotive marque, the first question asked of him was always: “What do you know about running a car dealership?”

It turns out Ong really has a knack for the business, as his first Foton dealership (opened in 2009) has now spawned a couple more branches—one in Angeles (also in Pampanga) and another in Balanga (Bataan). You could argue that selling mass-market Chinese vehicles is vastly different from distributing high-end European cars, but then one could also postulate that if Ong can convince customers to buy Chinese cars, surely he can find himself wealthy clients for a premium auto brand.

During our meeting, Ong shared that he had put up a company called Petromax Enterprise to handle Abarth and Alfa Romeo. He also claimed that the newly formed organization had already sold a few Abarth units—including a P4.3-million limited-edition Abarth 695 Tributo Ferrari. Just the same, I put off writing the article because I honestly wasn’t sure how to angle it. Like I said, I didn’t want our website to be used as a mere bargaining chip in the subject’s ongoing negotiations with Fiat. The way I saw it, he was nothing more than a small-time gray-market importer hoping to be appointed by FCA as its authorized distributor in the Philippines.

Don't be surprised if you start seeing Abarth's 695 Tributo Ferrari and 595 on our roads. PHOTOS FROM ABARTH

Fast-forward to this weekend and Ong sends me a message asking me to help publicize a Facebook page named “Alfa Romeo Philippines.”

This time, things have progressed a bit since we last talked. For one, the dauntless entrepreneur has already found a place in which to erect his showroom: Bonaventure Plaza on Connecticut Street corner Ortigas Avenue in San Juan. Construction of the facility will commence in June, with the soft opening provisionally set for September. But no, he still hasn’t hired employees, but says his team will start screening applicants in July. He points out that his company has already received a lot of interest from industry people.

So, is he now the official distributor of Abarth and Alfa Romeo in the country?

“Nope,” he admits. “They don’t want to enter our market yet. It might take another eight to nine years before they allocate their resources to the Philippines. But they will support me through the supply of units, spare parts and warranty. They will also be the ones to approve the showroom design to make sure it conforms to Abarth and Alfa Romeo standards.”

He then discloses the list of cars that he will be making available to our market, together with their price estimates:

  • Abarth 595 (MT) – P2,700,000
  • Abarth 595 Turismo – P3,000,000
  • Abarth 595 Competizione – P3,300,000
  • Abarth 695 Rivale – P3,900,000
  • Alfa Romeo Giulia Super Sport (gasoline) – P4,000,000+
  • Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio – P9,000,000
  • Alfa Romeo Stelvio (diesel) – P4,000,000+
  • Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio – P9,000,000+
Alfa Romeo's Giulia Quadrifoglio and Stelvio Quadrifoglio are coming to our market. PHOTOS FROM ALFA ROMEO

I have to say I now admire the persistence of this person. Something tells me Allen Ong will move heaven and earth to please his customers and then subsequently convince Fiat Chrysler Automobiles that he’s more than competent to manage Abarth and Alfa Romeo in the Philippines. Well, at the very least, I expect him to do a much better job than Auto Prominence, the now-defunct firm that sold Alfa Romeo cars here in the ’90s.

Vernon B. Sarne

Vernon is the founder and editor-in-chief of VISOR. He has been an automotive journalist since July 1995. He became one by serendipity, walking into the office of a small publishing company and applying for a position he had no idea was for a local car magazine. God has watched over him throughout his humble journey. He writes the ‘Spoiler’ column.