There’s a Zara behind your Nissan

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez (The Philippine Star) - August 5, 2015 - 10:00am

And it’s tailor-made for the Nissan.

“You should see the face of the cashier whenever I use my credit card,” says AntonioTotiZara, the first-ever  Filipino president and managing director of Nissan Philippines. He was of course referring to the popular Spanish RTW brand Zara. “I still enjoy watching them when I use my credit card. But I don’t associate with the brand but I do have a lot of pressure from the Zara family. My grandfather, Gregorio Zara is a National Scientist. And of course my father also had his own success. So in the end, I have much pressure on my own. Having Gregorio Zara as my grandfather and Antonio Zara Sr. as my father.”

Toti Zara need not feel the pressure too much. With him at the wheel of Nissan Philippines, whose majority stakeholder is Nissan Japan, the car company has overtaken at least three others. According to Zara, Nissan has accelerated from 10th to seventh place under his watch.

This Zara has also got a style of his own.

“In terms of my style, anywhere I go, I need to do things differently. I don’t just want to make things better. I want to do things differently,” says this former expat. Since graduating at the top of his class in 1990 at the Don Bosco Technical College with a degree in BS Mechanical Engineering, Zara has held top positions here and abroad with Toyota, Daewoo and GM. Prior to assuming the presidency of Nissan Philippines in 2014, Zara was managing director of international sales of General Motors Korea.

“I feel I fit well in that innovative spirit of Nissan,” he continues. “Personally, even before joining Nissan, I always wanted to make changes and I didn’t want to just keep improving existing things. I would also ask, ‘How are we different’?”

His style is also inter-continental, without borders.

“I worked for  General Motors, which is a western company, a classic American type. I also worked for Toyota. And I worked in Japan, so I understand Eastern management. I also lived in Korea.

“In (the Western companies), we realized our ways are not the best ways, but we also understood that the (Eastern) way, which is very traditional, was also not the optimum way. So we’ve always thought it was a race to the middle. In the end, the winner would be the one who would be the first to be a truly global company. Americans are more innovative; big changes, re-engineering. Japanese are more ‘kaizen,’ continuous improvement. Americans are about superstars; individual talents that shine, that’s why they have the Superstar CEOs. Japanese are about teams. Japanese are inflexible, they are about standards. Americans are about improving as you go. In the end, it cannot be the extreme, it must be somewhere in the middle.”

So having been exposed to both styles of management, is he leaning towards a 50-50 (Western-Eastern) or 60-40 leadership cocktail?

“I believe it is 50-50. Truly,” Zara says without hesitation.


Despite the gridlock on Metro Manila’s streets, Zara thinks there’s room for more vehicles in the Philippines, and the time to get them on the road is NOW.

“That’s the reason why I went back home. It’s the best time to come home because the Philippines is on the verge of motorization. Motorization is a phase where there is a rapid growth in the industry. That reflection point happens when the per capita income reaches like $3,000 average. When the per capita income of our country reaches $3,000, that means the middle class can now afford to buy cars,” points out Zara, who recalls that when he was posted in Thailand, his Thai maid drove to work every day in a pick-up that was parked alongside his car in the garage! “That’s when an industry grows, when the middle class can afford to buy cars. The total Philippine industry is 270,000 units a year last year. But then we have 100 million Filipinos. The Thai population is 70 million and their car industry is one million cars. There’s a huge difference! I say it’s the best time to come home because we’re now at that verge of motorization where the middle class can now start to earn and buy a car.”

But where to drive these cars when EDSA is often one kilometric parking lot?

 “So where will all these cars go to? They will go to the middle class outside of Metro Manila. Calabarzon is developing. The Bulacan area is developing. GenSan is developing.”

His job is to make sure that those roads less travelled will soon be humming with Nissans.


Toti Zara, 48, has always had a fascination with cars and all their mechanical parts. He undertook all the repairs on his first car, a second-hand Lancer box-type that he inherited from his mother.

“I used to repair my own car because I didn’t have enough allowance to have it repaired elsewhere. I knew there were defective parts, but I would assess that even if they conked out, I will fix them on the road. Which I did a couple of times,” he laughs.

After graduating at the top of his class in Don Bosco, he was accepted by Toyota Philippines and excitedly, Zara reported for work on the first day in a long-sleeved shirt and tie. On the first day.

“On the second day, I was in a white T-shirt with ‘Toyota’ written in front and I was led to the final line of the assembly and told, ‘that’s your work station.’ So I spent a year in engineering. After engineering, I spent a lot of time in technical service so I was wearing a blue jumpsuit, the technician’s uniform. And I was courting my wife and going to her house in my blue jumpsuit until my now-father-in-law said, ‘Sabihan mo naman siya na ‘wag naman naka-overall…’”

But Zara is proud that he rose from the ranks, and knows every station of the assembly line like the back of his hand. “It was an excellent start, being exposed on the line, being exposed in engineering, being exposed in technical service. In the 25 years of my career, 10 years was actually as a technical guy in service, in engineering. I think that was an excellent start for doing a technical job.”

 From the blue overalls, Zara resumed wearing long-sleeved shirts as he yearned to do something — you guessed it — different.

“At one point, I decided, when I was 29 or 30 and head of parts and services stations nationwide, I said, ‘Is this what I will do for the rest of my career?’ I have 30 years ahead of me and as a technical and services guy, this is it! I said that I wanted to do something else. One day, I went to my boss and said, ‘I think I want to go to marketing and sales. Whatever it takes, I want to go to marketing and sales.’ On hindsight, that was a good decision, personally. Ten years as a technical guy, 10 years as a sales marketing guy — those gave me a good background for the job I am doing today.”

As a leader, his undeniable strength is “functional expertise.”

 “These are the two main aspects of operations. Sales and marketing, I am confident that I can take over the job and do it myself. Same applies to technical, production; same applies to after-sales. I’m not a finance guy but I have the overall management experience to understand what is happening in finance from a management perspective. It’s very helpful that I understand most aspects of the business. It helps me coach the team. With my experience in the Philippines and outside the Philippines, it’s my duty to share what I’ve learned. The other countries that I have worked with are more developed than the Philippines, so there is a lot to learn and a lot to share.”


Zara believes that his heading Nissan Philippines “is testament that Nissan is no longer a traditional Japanese company.” In fact, Nissan’s chairman and CEO, Carlos Ghosn, is not Japanese, either. He’s Brazilian.

According to Zara, Nissan Philippines is different in the sense that “my counterparts in other Japanese car companies in the Philippines are Japanese.”

A world-class Pinoy named Zara in a Japanese firm that aims to be truly global.

“And that’s how I perceive my role in this organization,” says the former globe-trotter. “We need to be a global company if we are to win in this industry.” (You may e-mail me at joanneraeramirez@yahoo.com.)

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