x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Uzbekistan, an unlikely example of Chevrolet's global influence

Of the 4.26 million Chevrolets sold last year, more than 60 per cent were sold outside the United States, and emerging markets are a huge part of Chevy's success.

Louis Chevrolet, behind the wheel, was a car racer until his brother Gaston was killed. Courtesy of Gemeral Motors.
Louis Chevrolet, behind the wheel, was a car racer until his brother Gaston was killed. Courtesy of Gemeral Motors.

The problem with virtually all automotive manufacturer press events is that they are meticulously - some might say obsessively - scripted, all the corporate talking heads sticking to their "talking points" like a bunch of politicians (and, yes, I am referencing America's infamous Tea Party here) afraid that they might actually have to state an opinion of their own.

So it was at General Motors' 100th anniversary celebration in Detroit for Chevrolet, its most ubiquitous brand. Every speech - and there were many - reinforced that, yes we heard you, Chevrolet has sold more than 209 million vehicles in its star-studded history and that someone, somewhere in the world, buys a Chevrolet every 7.4 seconds.

What makes such tightly scripted events interesting, however, is that despite the best manipulations of über-controlling PR flacks, some totally off-the-wall tidbit always slips out. So, amid all the "our new [fill in any model here] is going to revolutionise the market" and "we are poised for the next 100 years of success" that was part and parcel of every GM manager's mantra, was hidden the completely unexpected gem that Uzbekistan - yes, that little peanut of a landlocked country that used to be a part of the Soviet Union - is the fifth-largest market for Chevrolet in the world.

Of course, we understand that China and Brazil have joined traditionally large markets such as the United States and Canada in Chevy's top five; China is now the world's largest auto market and the Brazilian economy is booming. But Uzbekistan? It butts up against such thriving nations as Afghanistan to the south and Kyrgyzstan to the east so it's hardly an export powerhouse. Indeed, its economy is mostly rooted in the past, with cotton production its greatest export. GDP per capita is less than US$1,000 (Dh3,673) per person and unemployment or under-employment is said to be more than 20 per cent. It is, by any measure, a poor nation.

And yet, according to Johan Willems, vice president of communications for GM International Operations, Uzbekis will buy almost 80,000 Chevrolets this year, making it an even more important market to GM than rising industrial giant India. Casually ask a GM spokesperson the secret of the amazing success and, of course, they will talk about Chevrolet's product revolution, new business practices and all the other rigidly mandated highlights that were part of every press release. Press a little further, however, and out comes the real reason. The General, thanks to a generous association with government-affiliated UzAvtoSanoat and with a reputed 93 per cent of the passenger car market, is essentially the only game in town. Virtually all other makes have to be privately imported.

OK, so Uzbekistan is hardly a business model that can be transposed elsewhere (though, no doubt, GM would love to try). What it does show, however, is that the new General Motors is very much a worldwide automobile manufacturer. Of the 4.26 million - yes 4.26m - Chevrolets sold last year, more than 60 per cent were sold outside the United States, and emerging markets are a huge part of Chevy's success (the company's spokespeople claim it was the only top five global auto brand to grow its market share).

Indeed, GM is becoming quite the expert at exporting the American way of motoring. Susan Docherty, GM International Operations' vice president of sales and marketing, notes that The General's relative lack of exposure in the Middle and Far East are actually a benefit. "There's just so much potential for growth," says Docherty, noting that while GMIO made up 28 per cent of Chevrolet's sales in 2011, it is up from a minuscule one per cent in 2000. "And," she says, "there's lots of room for growth," her region accounting for 49 per cent of worldwide auto production and 80 per cent of its population.

With this focus on international markets comes a breadth of knowledge of emerging nations that the previous General Motors could only dream about. Along with the standard marketing bumpf (80 per cent of the world's growth in gross domestic product until 2050 will be outside Europe, the US and Canada; the middle class in the developing world will exceed that of US, Europe and Japan combined) comes the interesting observation that emerging markets become serious car-buying nations when GDP per capita hits US$6,000. By that reckoning, says Docherty, China now has more than 300 million households with sufficient income to go car shopping, which explains why it's the world's biggest market for new automobiles and why Chevrolet's sales in the People's Republic have skyrocketed 413 per cent since 2005.

Of course, right alongside China in market potential is India, where Docherty sees annual sales hitting five million - third globally behind only China and the United States - by 2015. Almost 50 per cent of those will be to first-time car buyers and will be to predominantly young people.

What General Motors is trying to reinforce, however, with its gala centennial celebrations, is that Chevrolet has been the world's most successful automotive brand. Of course, more important is that Chevrolet's glory years are not yet in its past.

This year looks to be the brand's all-time best. There's been a record 1.2m units sold in the third quarter alone, sales of the Cruze subcompact are about to reach the one million mark globally (and more than 175,000 in the third quarter of this year) and the brand accounted for about 5.8 per cent of all vehicles sold worldwide in 2010.

Did I mention that a Chevrolet is being bought somewhere in the world every 7.4 seconds?