A passion for people, a specific brand and the automotive industry in general, are what laid the foundation for Zhai Auto in George on the scenic Garden Route in the Southern Cape.
Zhai Auto just added Jeep and Fiat to its portfolio, joining its Peugeot, Citroën and Opel brands to become a full-fledged Stellantis multi-franchise of their established operation in this part of the world.
The owner of this family business, Hilton Cook, says they now have a wide variety of brands and body type of vehicles on offer to customers. “Not only selling, but a fully prepared workshop for servicing will draw the existing car parc out there of the new additions to our dealership. Our relationship with the other three Stellantis brands, Peugeot, Citroën and Opel, stretches over many years,” he tells Dealerfloor.
Zhai Auto’s history stretches back to 2013 when they opened Peugeot George. The dealership relocated to its current site in 2015 with the acquisition of Citroën with Opel joining the facility in 2020.
Hilton tells Dealerfloor that he always had a passion for the French brand, Peugeot, and was a Peugeot dealer back in the days when the brand made a re-entry into the country.
“I believed in the brand and for me it was not just a case of passing objects on through selling. I have a passion for Peugeot and the people and believe this helped us to establish a solid reputation in the Garden Route.
“The partnership with Stellantis will grow the brand footprint in the region and has provided a solid foundation for exciting new ventures that will provide innovative convenience to customers. This includes a Service Mobility programme due to launch soon to offer remote servicing of vehicles,” Hilton says.
He tells us his career kicked off at a young age when his father had a used vehicle dealership in Parw. Hilton later joined the then Samcor (Mazda & Ford) in this part of Cape Town before moving to the Southern Cape’s Garden Route where he tied up with Renault. After Renault, there followed a career with GM and Delta’s Isuzu and Opel.
Then he perused his own interests with a used vehicle dealership for five years before his passion for Peugeot led him to what is the world of Stellantis today. Still passionate about the French brands, Peugeot and Citroën, which he believes offer exceptional quality and value for money and deserve more attention from prospective customers, Hilton believes the brands have tremendous growth potential.
“I believe being a family business has its advantages in that we have a customer-centric culture, which means customers are able to experience individual and personal service. Taking decisions is not left to board decisions, and we can act swiftly and assist any customer immediately. We pride ourselves on providing a personal and professional hands-on experience to our customers,” Hilton says.
Asked about their current facility, Hilton says in the future they will have a look at a larger premises as the current space of the dealership is limited. “But in meantime we offer everything that is needed to deliver the necessary overall functionality to our customers. Our used vehicles are limited owing to space, but the 15 to 20 used vehicles are of a good quality under our Select banner.”
About the economy along the Garden Route and specifically in George the biggest town in the region, Hilton says a larger middle class is necessary notwithstanding the growth in the area. We need an industrial commercial sector where goods are produced to grow the middle class here. The middle class is the regular buying power.
“The current economy is growing primarily owing to migration, agriculture, tourism and a large, retired community, which sustains the local economy through the services required by these inhabitants. A bigger commercial industry will see a more sustained and constant growth which is important when selling vehicles,” Hilton tells us.
“I firmly believe that we need to keep up with the changing landscape of the automotive sector like the arrival of EVs, but also through doing some basics right. One area of the dealer floor environment that I think needs more attention, is more official training for vehicle sales executives.
“We need to entice a new young generation to the showroom floor as a professional profession, something that I believe is a shortcoming at many dealerships. This is a career, and career training will make all the difference,” Hilton says.
And on a lighter note. What does the name Zhai in Zhai Auto stand for? “As a family business, we named it after each member of my family – Z for Zandalee (daughter), H for Hilton (me), A for Ariston (son) and I for Ingrid (my wife)”.
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