Friday, January 31, 2014

George Christoff: Shattering Expectations

By Edison R. Misla

“Relationships are really important to me,” says George Christoff. It is hard not to believe him. His demeanor makes it clear that Christoff is intent on winning his listener’s trust.

With over 30 years of industry experience, 25 of them within Toyota, Christoff has been appointed as president of Toyota de Puerto Rico Corp. In his new post, the executive will direct the operations and performance of the Toyota, Lexus and Scion brands in Puerto Rico, as well as the duties performed by Toyota Foundation and Lexus with the Arts. 

Since joining the Toyota family in 1989 Christoff has held several positions within the company, among them: vice president and general manager of the Cincinnati Region, Business and Distribution manager for Lexus in the Southern Region, Lexus corporate sales manager and Distribution, Operations, Sales and Production Analysis manager at TMS.

Wow experiences
With a calm and collected demeanor, Christoff explains to Empresarios that he brings to his new position three key priorities. First, he will focus on improving the customer experience. A car purchase is second only to the purchase of a home in terms of importance, and he wants to treat it as such.

Under his watch, the company will aim to make the purchase process the best experience possible for the customer. “One of the initiatives I want to work on is wow experiences,” he says. “How do we do things differently and how we look at things differently." The executive has already tasked his team with coming up with new ideas to make this a reality.

Supporting the economy

The Puerto Rico market is an important one for Toyota. The carmaker has a 27 percent market share locally, according to Christoff, and it has sold 545,000 vehicles in the last 20 years. “In the last 15 years, we have been the best selling brand. We have 24 [dealers], which probably have roughly 1,000 employees.” In other words, Toyota has a sizable presence and can positively influence the local economy.

That is another of Christoff’s priorities. He is committed to supporting Puerto Rico’s economy through the local entrepreneurs who own Toyota’s car dealerships. He has been impressed by the dealers’ can do attitude and willingness to invest in the business in the midst of a tough economy. Christoff wants to return the favor and support them fully.

Christoff believes in supporting all sorts of small business. He'll dedicate his weekends to "knock on doors" throughout the Island. "I want to see where the locals go. I don't want to see where the tourists go. I want to see where the locals live and what they see and how they view life in Puerto Rico." He has already started to immerse himself in the local culture. “I’m going to become Puerto Rican. I want to learn how to become Puerto Rican.”

So far, his experience in the Island has shattered his original expectations. He admits to being somewhat apprehensive about moving to Puerto Rico. However, once here he has been impressed by the reception he has gotten and not just from Toyota employees. "Everybody has been so wonderful," he says.

That experience has inspired him. "I want to work with the poor. I want to work with the homeless. I want to work with the arts. I want to work with young people,” he says. "I am 55 years old and I don't know how many years more I have left in this business. I have to be paying it forward."

Christoff believes that a car is far more than a means of transportation. It is an instrument for generating income. It is an instrument to enable an individual's social life, getting to a person to important events, such as weddings and birthdays. "I know people in Puerto Rico love their cars. They are an extension of who we are."

Slow and steady wins the race
Asked about his sales plan for this year, Christoff says he only wants to “sell one more car than last year.” He explains that he is aiming for slow and steady growth. "When you have slow and steady growth, again it is about taking care of your customers. You know, our sales loyalty number for Toyota is 53%. Our service loyalty number is 40%. I can say, on one side, those are very strong numbers. But I also could say to you, even on the sales side, we have 47% of something that we can go after. Our market share is 27%. We can argue that is a strong market share. But at the same time, there is 73% of something that we can go look at and try to get people into our dealerships."

It is all about relationships
Christoff feels that relationships are what differentiate Toyota from other car manufacturers. “Puerto Rico is Toyota and Toyota is Puerto Rico.” He wants dealers to strengthen relationships with customers.

The executive says his predecessor, Mario Davila, did a beautiful job leading the company. "I've got big shoes to fill," he says.

Christoff shares a final story to relate his vision on relationships. On a recent Sunday, he decided to take walk around Isla Verde. He says he handed out several hundred business cards with his cell phone number on them to everyone from business owners to complete strangers. Christoff never mentioned he was president of Toyota, only that he “sold Toyotas cars.” He asked them about their views on Puerto Rico and the economy. He did it to understand what it means to be part of the culture.

"Go and see" is a company mantra that he intends to apply in his tenure. Every weekend, Christoff plans to drive around the island, alone, to learn more about local customers. He keeps a journal on his experiences and in it he has begun to register his experiences.

Moving forward
Again, he stresses the importance of relationships, both personal and professional. "If you take care of your customers they'll take care of you," he says.

If Christoff sticks to his vision, he has his work cut out for him.


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