A self-confessed Joburg boykie with French ancestry has taken over the helm of the largest privately-owned Chinese car manufacturer’s South African affiliate. Henri Meistre, 46, has been appointed managing director of Geely South Africa.
Meistre is a 20-year veteran of the South African motor industry, who brings with him an in-depth knowledge of the Chinese automotive industry and its product. He is also an experienced retailer who is passionate about the motor industry. “It’s all about cars. I love them. I understand them. I eat, sleep and drink cars.”
Armed with a B.Com degree from the University of Johannesburg, he joined WesBank as a senior business development manager before spending several years with Hyundai as a marketing executive. This was followed by a spell running his own dealer retail company, which is still in business today, and has held various franchises including Daewoo/SsangYong, Kia, Subaru, Daihatsu and GWM.
In 2005 he became a shareholder and managing director of Great Wall South Africa, a position he has relinquished recently. He has also consulted to China Construction Bank/ Rand Asia Trade Finance on the auto industry, with particular reference to Changan.
“I like to take time to look at things carefully and what I see at Geely – the product, the quality, the calibre and commitment of the people – impresses me. There’s been a very real change in Geely’s approach to the global automotive market and they’ve adapted their strategy accordingly. They’ve carefully examined who they are and where they are. They see themselves as a global and not just a Chinese company and they have a refreshing approach to global business. South Africa is an important market to them. They see us as the gateway to the rest of Africa.
“We’ve recently had the opportunity to meet with senior Geely executives in South Africa, who were with us for the launch in June of the LC Cross, the only urban crossover option in its market segment. Dr Frank Zhao is head of R & D and Dr Lin Xhang is VP of Geely Holding Group and GM of Geely International Corporation, of which the overseas sales and marketing operations form a part. Dr Zhao did a PhD in Japan on the internal combustion engine and spent many years with Chrysler in the United States, as did Dr Zhang. Their experience is not just of the Chinese industry and market.
“We’ve got good momentum going at Geely South Africa,” he says. “We started small with the LC and now we’re building up to a new product launch at almost six monthly intervals. This is good. We need to add product. Initially we didn’t have a lot of product for our dealers to sell and service and this was a challenge to their viability. But we have a future and the future looks good.
“Introducing new product twice a year will allow us time between launches to evaluate and fine tune, to get each product properly established. We’re growing upwards. Our next new product is the SC5 before year-end, a 1500 hatch that will compete in an aggressive segment of the market against the likes of the VW Polo Vivo, Ford Figo and Renault Sandero.
“Next year we’ll see the EC7 sedan, which is a serious value-for-money product and the first car from China to be awarded the Euro NCAP 4-star safety standard. Towards the end of 2013 we plan to introduce our first SUV, the GX7, which was launched at this year’s Beijing Motor Show.
“My prediction is that Geely will be the most successful Chinese automotive brand in South Africa in the medium to long term.”
On Geely South Africa’s immediate plans to build and strengthen its dealer network, he acknowledges that there is still much work to do
“We have a small, young and enthusiastic team with a very important job to do. For a young and growing small Chinese car company in South Africa we have a surprisingly strong dealer network of 37. A total of 45 to 50 is our target. We have a strong parts supply capability which is in very good hands. We have a dedicated representative from China, Charles Xing, based at our Midrand head office, who provides invaluable assistance, particularly with evaluating trends in South Africa and reporting back to head office in China.
On the link with Volvo Cars, which Geely bought in 2010 for $1.8 billion, Meistre says the benefits are coming through, mostly in terms of technology transfer and safety features. “There is an important transfer of skills between the two companies and Geely product can only benefit, particularly in the critical area of passenger safety.”
Meistre takes the helm of one of South Africa’s newest and most exciting young motor companies. He comes with a good, solid work foundation. “You don’t have to do the same thing over and over again. You can – and you must – think out of the box. We need more people who think out of the box in our industry.
“But above all, we must have fun doing our business. This must filter through to our dealers and our customers,” says the married father of two boys, who flies his own aeroplanes and loves to get away to the bush. “I like travelling to places in Africa I haven’t been to.”