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Life after Ferrari and Maserati for Hong Seh Motors

Two years after ceasing to be an authorised car distributor, Hong Seh Motors has just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Branching out has given the business a new lease of life.

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Step into Hong Seh's showroom in the Alexcier on Alexandra Road, and you'll see new models from Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla on sale, but the company also discreetly sources hard-to- get exotic cars for its clientele.

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"The way I see it, in the past, as an AD we were servicing the demands of two groups: the principals and the customers. Now, our job is easier. We just focus on delivering whatever the customer wants." - Hong Seh Motors executive director, Edward Tan, on going from Authorised Distributor to boutique car parallel importer.

Singapore

HONG SEH Motors is perhaps best known as a seller of fast cars, and having just celebrated its 50th anniversary, the company shows no signs of slowing down.

The former Authorised Distributor (AD) for Ferrari and Maserati in Singapore, Hong Seh still sees cars as being a cornerstone of its business even though both franchises are now in the hands of Komoco Holdings, which also holds the Hyundai, Chrysler, Jeep and Harley-Davidson franchises here.

Hong Seh now operates as a boutique car parallel importer, specialising in luxury, sports and exotic models.

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Step into its showroom in the Alexcier on Alexandra Road, and you'll see new models from Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla on sale, but the company also discreetly sources hard-to-get exotic cars for its clientele.

It's a more straightforward business than being a factory-authorised agent, says the company's executive director, Edward Tan.

"The way I see it, in the past, as an AD we were servicing the demands of two groups: the principals and the customers," he tells The Business Times. "Now, our job is easier. We just focus on delivering whatever the customer wants."

The motor trade here refers to car makers as "principals".

The business started in 1936 as Chop Hong Seh, a sole proprietorship set up by Mr Tan's grandfather Tan Theng Hern. It dealt primarily in chemicals and plastics.

Mr Tan's father Alfred, who joined in 1966, is the current managing director. In 1968, Hong Seh Company was incorporated as a private limited entity, and eventually laid the foundation for Hong Seh Motors when Alfred Tan saw a market for exotic automobiles in Singapore and pitched for the Ferrari business. The company has a 40,000 square foot maintenance facility in Lok Yang to provide service support for the cars it sells, plus general maintenance and repairs.

It's not limited to the latest and greatest, as it also offers services in sourcing, restoring, and importing classic cars. It's a sector that, like the market for fine art and wine, is seeing increasing interest from global investors, says the younger Mr Tan.

In 2008, Hong Seh Marine was set up to market luxury yachts from the Italian Ferretti Group, which includes such brands as Ferretti Yachts, Pershing, Riva, Custom Line, and CRN.

Mr Tan sees Hong Seh as a business that delivers what its high net-worth customers want, sometimes even before they know it. "In two decades, if a customer wants whatever luxury transport is around at the time - driverless pods with lounge-like interiors - we'll get it for them, too," he says.

But what might be surprising for a company that specialised in cars with loud, high-revving engines for decades is its recent foray into electric cars.

In April this year, Hong Seh announced it would be selling and leasing the entire range of Tesla electric vehicles in Singapore.

Currently, it sells the Model S luxury sedan and Model X sport utility vehicle, with plans to bring in the more affordable Model 3 sedan.

Mr Tan, who has been tooling about in a Model X himself, says after switching to a futuristic Tesla, he never wants to go back to a conventional car. He feels that Tesla's lack of an authorised dealer here is no problem, as long as customers have a familiar dealer.

"For Teslas, the technology really speaks for itself, but the difference for customers is that they know us," he says. "Hong Seh has been around for 50 years. We're not going anywhere."