Hubert Burda Media

Super-powering the Hyper-cars

Not even poverty or a global financial crisis can throw a spanner in MICHAEL LIM's dreams of growing his supercar dealership into a super brand. By Lauren Tan

Super-powering the Hyper-cars

We're sitting and chatting in a playground of luxury marques — Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, and an army of other lean, mean driving machines with superlative pre-fixes such as “super”, “hyper” and “exotic”.
What was that? Eighty kilometres an hour, did he say? “Yes, 80 to 100kph,” repeats Michael Lim. “I don't speed when I drive. I like cars. But like 80 percent of collectors here, I find more pleasure in looking at these dream cars than tearing down the road in them.”
He can't mean that driving, say, a Koenigsegg — the Swedish hypercar he holds exclusive franchise to and which is said to have a top speed in excess of 400kph — isn't ridiculously satisfying, right? “We actually took one out on a private runway in Sweden. It's fast. Even at 280kph, I barely felt anything. My son did 280kph as well. Even my wife did 200kph,” replies the 49-year-old, betraying his cool-cat veneer for a quick moment with a lopsided smile.
If Lim isn't displaying the same outward excitement for x-number-cylinder engines, torque and party trick designs as most other hot-blooded men, it's only because he's been in the automotive business for nearly three decades. Prior to that, he used to get elbow-deep in grease repairing the most badass of badass machines — military tanks in the army. So, he's been there, done that.
Founder and chief executive officer of the Motorway Group, arguably the biggest player in Singapore's used luxury and supercar market, Lim has purchased and sold just about every make, from SsangYong utility vehicles (Motorway is SsangYong's authorised distributor) to McLarens and Maybachs. Unlike most other dealers with suped-up inventories like his, all stock — including the 40 pre-owned supercars and the 160 other vehicles with more sedentary top speeds on the sales floor today — are purchased, not taken on consignment.
The showpiece du jour is a vintage Rolls-Royce 20/25 from 1935, which takes prime position by his showroom's second-floor landing. Lim first spotted the cream and black limousine (with a burgundy interior) on a trip to the UK and simply had to have it purchased and added to Motorway's inventory. He doesn't say it, but you get the feeling that he might actually baulk at the idea of having to part with his trophy car should a customer actually come round one day with a decent offer.
Has he ever been tempted, I had to ask, to poach a car off the sales floor to put to his own personal use? “No,” he maintains. “Maybe I've seen too many.”
So what cars does he like best? “Those with four doors,” he replies, ruling out nearly all the prancing horses, fighting bulls and even the Koenigseggs that he's known to wax lyrical over. “My everyday car is a diesel SUV and my wife drives a Jaguar saloon.”
“We actually have to encourage him to drive some of the sports and supercars out once in a while to get them ‘exercised' and their fluids moving,” Steven Ng, his group marketing manager lets on. “I'm able to drive all vehicles. It's just that I'd rather look at them!” Lim interjects, flashing that lopsided smile again. “I do have comprehensive insurance.”
Touch wood — has he ever met with an accident? “Never.”
CURRENTLY THE FIRST vice-president of the Singapore Vehicle Traders Association, Lim started his fast-growing venture in 1992 with his wife Alice Tan. The two had met at a dealership where they both used to work. After toiling for eight years as paid employees (Lim was a despatch rider who had worked his way up to the sales floor), the pair, with encouragement from their regular customers and a capital of $300,000, started Motorway Trading, a pre-owned car dealership, and Motorway Credit, a hire-purchase and commission agent. Just as it is now, Lim took charge of marketing and sales, and Tan, now chief operating officer, handled the finances.
“The Gulf War had just ended in 1991 and the market was bad. But I believe in that Chinese saying 危机是时机 (wei ji shi shi ji) — When there is a crisis, there are opportunities,” Lim says, reflecting on the early challenges. “Looking back, it was our customers who gave us confidence. A number of those who had followed us from our old dealership came to buy cars even though they didn't need to.”
By 1994, Motorway had performed well enough to move out of its tiny 200-sq-ft Beauty World Plaza office and into a more comfortable 1,000-sq-ft space opposite the old Bukit Timah Turf Club. Already, they were selling 30 to 40 Japanese cars every month and making “a few millions” a year. Basking in the firm's robust growth and spurred by another necessity to relocate — the government had re-designated the area for residential purposes — Lim moved Motorway into a 25,000-sq-ft showroom in Jalan Kilang in 1997.
Little did he know that before the new year, much of Asia, including Singapore, would be gripped by the Asian Financial Crisis. Sales dipped drastically and car loan defaults affected revenues. “That's the period where all my white hair came out,” he shares. “All I could do was panic. We couldn't move out, we certainly couldn't close the business and we couldn't borrow money from friends. In the end, I decided we had to cut losses and sell off the existing stock at a loss of $3 million.”
After a nail-biting nine months, sales picked up fast towards the end of 1998. “Otherwise, we wouldn't be here today,” says Lim. Having weathered yet another market downturn, he decided to diversify the business by establishing Motorway Car Rentals in 1999. “That way, if government regulations were to change or we were hit with another crisis, our rental and credit divisions could supplement our pre-owned car profits,” he explains.
In 2002, he acquired Motorway's current eight-storey building at Lower Delta Road for a steal (at a quarter of its asking price). It was just after the events of the September 11 attacks, but this time, market sentiment and a stagnant property market worked in Lim's favour.
When the ripple effect of the Global Financial Crisis hit shores in late 2007, Lim and Motorway's growing divisions — pre-owned, credit, insurance, rentals and car care — were more than well-prepared. “I was scared in 1998, but not anymore,” he says with the sort of sure-footed confidence that comes only with experience. One who lists timing, luck and guts (or as he says in Mandarin: 胆量; dan liang) as the key tenets of his entrepreneurial success, Lim saw opportunity in the midst of the crisis to venture into the new car business and, for a sum of $8 million, took over the SsangYong franchise which had become available.
Around the same time, in 2008, he also began adding more exotic and super-luxury models to Motorway's inventory, solidifying the group's position as Singapore's foremost pre-owned luxury specialist. The impetus was the need to develop a niche. “There are so many dealers out there doing day-to-day cars. We didn't want to be competing against everybody else,” he says.
Up until the most recent loan curbs in February, Motorway had averaged 20 to 25 supercar sales each month. (Now it does about half that.) For the impatient buyer looking to drop a million dollars on their ride, pre-owned has its advantages. Not only can they take delivery of a car immediately (instead of having to wait for production schedules), they have less to worry about depreciating values and are almost always assured of a low mileage. The five-month-old Audi R8 that had come in just before our interview with Lim, for instance, had clocked a mere 300km. (Vehicles that average 50km a day, roughly the two-way distance between Changi Airport and Sixth Avenue, would have done 7,500km, or 25 times the distance, in the same amount of time.)
“Ten years ago, spotting one sports car on the road was difficult. Now you see them parked at just about every condominium,” he says.
ONCE AN IDEA takes root, there is little that keeps Lim from following through. Chit-chatting, as usual, about big boys' toys with friends over coffee one day, conversation turned to Swedish marque Koenigsegg, maker of the Agera, the entirely carbon fibre car which won the BBC Top Gear Hypercar of the Year Award in 2010. Back at work, Lim dashed out an email to the hypercar manufacturer (which was briefly represented in Singapore in the mid-2000s before making a quiet disappearance) and a trip to Ängelholm for a test drive was arranged.
(Note: While there is no clear-cut distinction between a hypercar and a supercar, it is generally acknowledged that the former is significantly more expensive and faster.)
After his high-speed turn behind the wheel, Lim broached the idea of distributing the brand in Singapore. Finally, in June 2012, after Koenigsegg founder Christian von Koenigsegg paid Motorway a site visit, an agreement was sealed. What won Motorway the franchise was its track record and experience dealing in high-end models.
“We were already selling so many sports cars here, so it was only natural that we would look into importing a supercar marque ourselves,” says Lim. Only after Lim had secured the contract, did he learn that he had beaten out other local players who were also courting the Swedish automobile maker.
Within weeks, Lim locked in his first sale — a matte blue Koenigsegg Agera S with a five-litre turbocharged V8 engine, 1,030 horsepower and 1,100 Newton-metres of torque and an equally stunning $5.3 million price tag. The buyer, investor Denis Chua, like 80 percent of all Motorway clients, was a well-informed car enthusiast and a repeat customer. “We were just talking about the car one weekend, and he said: ‘I'm interested'. That very Monday, he came in to pay for it,” Lim reveals. In June, Chua's wife Angela Tan was personally presented the keys to their Agera by Christian von Koenigsegg in a glitzy unveiling at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore.
Constantly in search of new opportunities, Lim has initiated negotiations to secure distributorship of another supercar, this time, one that hails from Italy. “I cannot reveal anything yet. All I can say is hopefully I'm in luck,” he concedes. Also in the pipeline, are plans to grow Motorway Car Rentals, the group's rental arm. His not-too-lofty target is to increase the current five satellite offices into 20 and triple the existing 1,000 fleet to 3,000 by 2015.
Also new, or rather, brand new on the agenda are plans to start up a driving school division. “A customer came to me earlier today with the suggestion that we offer driving clinics. It's a good idea, since most Singaporeans aren't the best behind the wheel of a normal car, yet alone a supercar. I could get in experienced instructors to teach drivers how to spin properly, for example,” says Lim, all enthused.
Isn't it a little too premature to be sharing these plans with the press, I wonder? “Once I start thinking about something, I will make it happen,” he replies.
WHY LIM IS so down-to-earth, forthcoming, and sincere is because his entire being is informed by his past. Raised in a kampong that is now Xiao Guilin park, he was born in 1964 as the seventh of 10 children. His daily allowance of five or 10 cents a day meant he had little choice but to walk 45mins to school each day. After school, he busied himself with chores such as fetching water from the village well and feeding the family's pigs and chickens.
“We only drank orange juice once a year during Chinese New Year. So as kids we would long for there to be a wedding in the kampong because that was the only other time we could get a soft drink or better dishes,” he recalls.
His father, the sole breadwinner of the family couldn't afford to keep his children in school, so the highest education level of any of the siblings attained was secondary four. Although, Lim himself loved attending, he had to pull out after secondary two due to his family's financial difficulties. “Even after I dropped out, I would still return for the open days because I liked school that much,” says the Jurong Secondary School alum.
By then, he was already a carpenter, a job he began at age 12 after school let out for the day. At 18, he was called up for National Service and was put to work as a military mechanic, an experience that would prove invaluable to his future role in the automotive industry.
At ROD (Run-Out Date, now Operationally Ready Date) in 1985, Lim, a Taoist, and a group of friends banded together to start up a temple, now known as the Chin Pin Tze Temple in Bedok. Each founding member contributed $50, which in the case of Lim, was exactly half of his life savings. The very day after ROD, Lim started as a dispatcher at a car dealer (and by night, supplemented income as a waiter). Two years later, he was promoted to the sales floor and in 1992, set out on his own to found the Motorway Group — and in the process turned a boyhood dream of owning one vehicle into a more than a 1,000-strong reality.
“When you are poor, you aren't able to afford a car, so owning one becomes the dream to work towards to,” says Lim who still continues to this day as an active fundraiser for his temple.
“Maybe Buddha is looking out for me,” he muses.
Creative Director / Catherine Wong
Photographer / Micky Wong
Fashion Stylist / Toety Liang
Hair & Make-up Artist / Ros Chan using Sisley