Interview: Tom Lee, Middle East Managing Director, MG Motor

A seasoned executive of the Middle East automotive scene and former Hyundai regional boss, Tom Lee’s stewardship has seen MG making its mark in the region, with its sights set on much more than just breaking into the mainstream.

With an aim to make the top selling ten regional car brands and a Middle East car of the Year award already under its belt, the British-born, Chinese-owned and operated MG brand has made significant inroads in the short five years it has been on sale in the Middle East. In an exclusive interview, MG Motor’s Middle East Director, Tom Lee, discussed the automaker’s regional network, services, customers, technologies, manufacturing, market position, products, British roots and links, and plans for coming years.

Q&A

GM: Five years after parent brand SAIC Motor’s arrival in the Middle East, MG Motor’s market presence seems to be growing considerably in more recent months. How did you achieve this in such a short timeframe and what should we expect in the coming couple of years?

TL: MG has experienced an extremely rapid and impressive expansion across the Middle East, both in terms of sales and the size of the network. All of which places us in an excellent position for the future.

The key reasons behind this rise are three-fold: firstly, the quality of our ever-expanding product range, which includes the Middle East’s 2020 Car of the year, the MG HS; secondly, the quality of our dealer network, which has been completely revitalized over the past couple of years; and thirdly, the quality of the MG ownership experience, which includes the region’s best new car warranty, the highest standards of customer service and a hi-tech regional distribution centre that ensures rapid delivery of parts when required.

Over the coming years, you can expect to see more of the same, as we continue to enhance our product line-up, including the introduction of the newest technologies, increase the size and quality of our network, and reinforce our industry-leading standards of customer service.

GM: What is MG Motor’s sales and market share position at the moment, and who do you see as your main competitors?

TL: In the last full year of sales, 2019, we sold 15,928  units, a year-on-year rise of 130 percent despite the challenging market conditions. This meant we had doubled our market share across the region in just 12 months. Before the current pandemic, we had set ourselves an ambitious target to break into the top 10 of manufacturers by the end of the year, and we still hope to achieve this. As of today, MG Motor’s position is strong, and we are currently experiencing a growth in sales numbers compared to last year.

In a competitive market, we coexist with Japanese and Korean brands that have established a strong reputation in the Middle East over the years; nevertheless, our primary focus is to provide our customers with the best state-of-the-art MG products, deliver attractive aftersales and warranty offers that cater to the needs of our customers. We are confident about addressing the needs of our current and new customers especially during these times where buying behaviours are constantly changing. We are ready to adapt to the new standards that are being set in the automotive industry.

MG HS, 2020 Middle East Car Of The Year winner

GM: Until its regional return in late 2015, the MG brand had perhaps faded from public consciousness. How difficult has it been to re-establish a brand identity and market position?

TL: It certainly wouldn’t have happened without a lot of hard work, both from the teams at MG as well as those of our regional partners. Our focus was to improve brand awareness and relaunch the brand to Middle East customers, and to do this we have invested significantly in our marketing and sales operations.

And as the number of MG cars on the road has increased, we have been working hard to ensure that as many people across the region as possible get to hear our news. This awareness has undoubtedly been helped by the launch of sponsorship deals with famous partners such as Liverpool and Al-Ahli football clubs, as well as the implementation of other major marketing campaigns.

GM: MG Motor’s British origins have been used heavily in marketing. To what extent has this helped in market position, sales and branding, and has this given MG an edge over other Chinese car brands?

TL: It is not just through our marketing that we are able to leverage our strong British roots, with global research, development and design facilities in Great Britain ensuring that our customers know that when they buy a MG they are buying into almost 100 years of history.

We believe that this gives us an edge over many other brands on the market – not only do we have a uniquely impressive heritage, but our customers can enjoy owning cars that still retain a particular character that cars sold by larger volume makers don’t enjoy.

Like many other major car makers, MG has international manufacturing facilities – in our case in China. This is an economical option, one taken by other leading brands who also manufacture in the country. MG is owned by SAIC Motor, which is one of the largest automotive companies in China, manufacturing for brands such as VW, GM and others. Our state-of-the-art production facilities ensure the highest levels of quality and efficiency, which of course benefits our customers.

MG 6 Trophy

GM: After test driving several MG cars recently, the MG 6 was a particular standout among sister models and many competitors for its nuanced steering and its engaging handling. It had a distinctly ‘British’ feel to how it drives, and I believe it was originally designed and engineered in the UK? Does MG retain development links with the UK, and are we likely to see more authentically sporty products soon?

TL: We are proud to speak of MG as a British brand, and that is not simply because of the company’s long and highly respected heritage. After almost 100 years, the brand is still very much rooted in Great Britain.

As you have indicated, MG’s global Research and Development facility is in Longbridge, Great Britain. Moreover, our global Advanced Design Studio is in London. The team here is responsible for the interior and exterior design of all MG products across the globe.

GM: The one gripe I had with the MG 6 Trophy was its Apple-only infotainment compatibility, whereas value-minded customers are perhaps more likely use Android devices or even USB devices for music. Will this be revised for future, or is there a dealer solution for this issue for non-Apple drivers?

TL: We have addressed this issue and all the upcoming models are equipped with Android Auto and Apple car play. We are also developing a dealer solution for our existing customers.

MG HS

GM: Another standout model was the 2020 Middle East Car of the Year winning MG HS. Its affordable package of design, performance, equipment and cabin refinement was quite impressive. Will we continue to see similarly good value cars from MG, or is the HS testing the waters to pitch MG at the ’premium’ end of the market in future?

TL: I’m glad to hear you feel that the HS is befitting of the ‘premium’ end of the market. It shows that our design and development teams really got it right.

Having said that, we have no plans to specifically target the ‘premium’ market. We are focused on selling cars that deliver excellent value for money and this is what we will continue to do. Of course, within this context we still aim to produce cars that are of the very highest quality possible.

GM: In terms of design, MG cars seem to have two different styling identities, with the MG 6 and HS sharing a similar and more distinctly MG grille. Will MG adopt a more unified design identity or corporate ‘face’ in coming months or years?

TL: As two of our ‘sporty’ models, it is no coincidence that the MG 6 and MG HS are differentiated from other models in the line-up, and feature the brand’s latest design language, in particular the ‘star’ grille, which incorporates the iconic MG badge.

The wing- shaped grille is designed to appeal more to the high-end executives, with its subtle and simple design. Whilst the honeycomb grille is a bolder and a more contemporary look, and one that we are set to introduce all our future models.

MG T60

GM: The recently introduced MG T60 pick-up truck is particularly relevant to the Jordanian market as a tough, capable and economic double cab diesel. However, will MG’s traditionally sporting brand identity translate easily for a truck? And will the T60 be marketed more as an entry-level workhorse like the Ram 1200 or a luxurious lifestyle truck similar to a Ford Ranger Wildtrak?

TL: You guessed it right. The MG T60 pick-up truck double cab diesel will cater to the business sector, however we have plans to introduce more lifestyle trims for the individual and niche customers.

GM: The recently launched MG ZS looks like a potentially very popular compact crossover model, with the EV version of special interest for the high duty Jordanian market and its EV/hybrid exemptions. Are there more electrified vehicles imminent for Jordan and the wider Middle East market?

TL: The MG ZS has been very successful model in our line-up because of its appealing design, and list of features. We have also launched the MG ZST with 160 horsepower, the most powerful Turbo engine in its segment. Based on the success of the MG ZS petrol version, we introduced a fully-electric version of the previous generation MG ZS, which was launched in certain Middle East markets at the end of 2019 and has since generated a lot of interest around the region. Off the back of this, we are certainly looking at introducing further new energy vehicles in both Jordan and the wider region. For example, we plan to bring in PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) by the early next year, and will announce details of these at the relevant time.

MG ZST