Alistair Benn has been in the motor Industry since 2002. He kick-started his career by selling Japanese cars in the UK. For the past ten years, they have built a strong reputation in Kenya with high levels of customer satisfaction. In the following exclusive interview with StartUp Magazine, he proudly talks about his company adding genuine value for every client and surpassing their expectations.
Give us an insight into MHH International and its mandate.
At the onset, we noticed people were too scared to buy from the UK. For the first 4 years in Kenya, we ran seminars and training sessions educating people on importing safely with our company and the concept of saving 20% VAT. This made it possible for people who previously had only bought from Japan to buy from the UK as well.
We strive to make the customer experience better than it ever has been and to give each customer a faster and safer way of sending their money overseas. Our reputation is anchored on honesty and reliability in a trade which is fraught with risk. This trust is the foundation of successful importation since there is no structured used- car market. That trust allows us to deliver the value.
Who are your target clients?
Our services are suitable for clients with a budget in excess of 2.5Million Shillings. This is where we can provide a meaningful saving to clients that can reach in excess of 5 Million shillings for a Range Rover or a Toyota Land Cruiser. The introduction of asset finance on imports has allowed many people to buy a car import with just a 20% deposit. This has made importing accessible to many working professionals and not just the elite.
Tell us about your relationship with customers and how you guide them in the process of buying quality cars.
Our warm relationship with customers coupled with first-rate customer care are our assets. Guiding and explaining the process to the customer at the beginning is fundamental. Expecting a customer to send millions of shillings outside the country and then wait for a car to arrive requires a huge amount of faith. Our ability to give customers confidence that their money is going to be safe and the car will be of the highest quality has made this possible.
The moment of truth for the customer comes 2 months after sending their payment. So it is vital we maintain the relationship with our customers throughout this time. They need to feel constantly informed on the progress of their car and the timings.
It is important to say that we strive to constantly get better at keeping our customers up-to-date at every stage of the import process. We’re looking at how technology can help us deliver this.
What major milestones can you point out to?
The first major milestone was the realisation that people did not want to have the main dealer experience because they didn’t appreciate the hard sell. We discovered people preferred a more personal service from a smaller team. Coupled with that, was the understanding that there was an export market crying out for genuine reputable suppliers. We simply needed to prove that UK cars were significantly cheaper, of great quality and their money was safe with us.
The second major milestone was inventing asset finance for imports. We recognized that importing was only for clients who could buy a car in full with cash and none of the Kenyan banks were offering asset finance to cars which were overseas. So we set up partnerships with Chase Bank, NIC CBA and I&M. Each bank now allows clients to buy their car from the UK, Japan or Australia via MHH International and repay their loan over 4-5 years in the normal way. We will continue to drive this and make it more accessible to Kenyan customers.
The third major milestone was introducing Japanese cars to our clients. 3 years on from launching import finance, we realised there is need to allow clients to buy Japanese cars as well as UK cars. In 2016 we started to import cars from Japan to Kenya which completed our offering. Recently, we introduced cars from Australia too, to make sure our clients can buy the best car brands from across the world.
From your experience, what would you say are the impacts of your services across the region?
I think that it must be giving customers the confidence to spend significant amounts of money from overseas without having to deal with a relative in the sourcing country. We have heard many stories of high net-worth individuals driving cars that are significantly older than you would imagine. Their reason was that they did not want to spend the money on a brand new car or risk sending vast amounts of money overseas. So they chose to do neither, even though it was not consistent with their general wealth and lifestyle.
We have found over time people are increasingly willing to buy higher value import cars. I feel this is a combination of our clean reputation and the collaboration of leading banks with MHH ,making it safer in the customer’s eyes. I can also see that the market is trying to get better and improve quality of the cars.
We have also seen other exporters from Japan partnering with local Kenyan banks to offer Asset Finance but I haven’t had sufficient feedback as to whether those partnerships have been successful.
On a practical level, what should customers consider when importing vehicles from overseas?
The first , is to make sure that the person they’re choosing to import with is a genuine exporter with a good reputation. Look for genuine first-hand recommendations or proper online reviews.
Ensure that you get comprehensive information about the car. It is very easy for dealers overseas not to share Japanese auction sheets or inspection notes which tell you critical information such as the condition of the tyres and avoid unexpected costs.
Customers also need to understand the need for transparency on the tax costs associated to the car when it arrives in Kenya. Depending on the car, duties could range from 300,000 shillings to 11 million shillings . Therefore, knowing this in advance is imperative.
Finally, a customer should understand what is included in the quoted price. We often hear stories where customers were given ‘a firm price’ which turned out to be an estimate of costs. Customers then find out about additional port charges, transport to Nairobi and insurance. Each of these requires the customer to dip into their pockets to cover costs they were not expecting to pay.
At MHH we strive to alleviate all the risks associated with importing of cars. This is why we work on one complete quote for our clients to include all the costs and mitigate them from unforeseen costs. We also include a warranty, giving the customer peace of mind for the first few months of motoring.
What are some of the misconceptions around vehicle purchasing and importation?
We are often told that all cars from the UK are rusty. We also hear that cars with low mileage from Japan must have had their mileage clocked. On the other hand, South African cars are said to be in very poor condition .
Everyone has their own specific experiences but many of these are untrue. We have seen cars from the UK that have rust underneath. This is much less common nowadays because the quality of the alloy metal used has improved. Sometimes we encounter Japanese cars with questionable mileage but at the same time we see many cars from Japan with extremely low mileages. We question why somebody would even own a car for 6 years and only do 3000 KM because it’s just not what we are used to. That, however; doesn’t mean the mileage is false.
The truth is, everybody has a perspective which shapes their needs. Our job is to keep listening to our customers’ experiences, have answers to help them and match the right car with their needs.
Which emerging trends do you see in vehicle purchasing/importation and their impacts on the economy?
The current average age of cars in Kenya is 15 years old. As importation increases, the quality of the total car pool in Kenya improves and the average age of cars on the road should reduce. CO2 emissions should also reduce as better technologies become more widespread. This improves the health and driving safety for everyone. I think it was beneficial to customers that the import level was not reduced to 5 years as this was about to make importing less affordable to a significant number of Kenyans.
It will be interesting to see if the move to hybrid and electric takes off as it has in other parts of the world. This will drastically reduce pollution levels .
How do you see your business evolving?
Our aim is to become synonymous with importation of the highest quality cars in Kenya. We have a great sales and customer service team within our Kenyan and the UK offices. We envision making asset finance for imports more accessible via our bank partnerships with NIC, CBA and I&M.
We will continue to find the best value cars for our clients whether they import from the UK, Japan Australia or beyond. We are excited to test a new business model in the UK involving buying Japanese cars to stock. Once it turns out successful, we intend to roll it out in Kenya.