Alabama-based Carter Brothers Mfg. Co. Inc. is in its second year of business as the exclusive importer/distributor of vehicles made by Taiwan's Sanyang Industry Co. Ltd. (SYM).
What is SYM, and why should you care?
Most people who've had a chance to inspect, ride or sell Taiwan-made vehicles know the quality of such product tends to be on par with units built in Japan and higher than many of the units imported so far from China.
Furthermore, while many "New Asian" suppliers entering the U.S. market often attempt to scrape together as many sales as possible as quickly as possible by moving product through multiple distributors, Taiwan-based vehicle suppliers appear to have a more long-term approach — choosing a single U.S. based importer/distributor through which they can more easily manage their business and plan for the future.
When Kwang Yang Motor Co. Ltd. (KYMCO) entered the United States nearly a decade ago with what at the time was an introductory line of scooters, the company chose a small, virtually unknown South Carolina-based firm — STR Inc. — to import and distribute its vehicles. Today KYMCO is considered a major player, widely regarded as building quality product and adequately supporting its U.S. retail operations through STR's Motorsports Division, which now does business as KYMCO USA.
SYM and Carter want to follow a similar path.
SYM is a 46-year-old company that, thanks to a 40-year collaboration with Honda, began building motorized two-wheelers in 1962 and automobiles in 1969 (see 'Time Line').
Based in Taipei, SYM is the third most prolific scooter manufacturer on the island — behind KYMCO and Yamaha Taiwan — and supplies product to 892 local dealers and distributors in 67 countries. Last year the company produced roughly 600,000 vehicles and recorded sales of $1 billion.
SYM claims to have been the first motorcycle and automobile manufacturer in Taiwan, and the first manufacturer there to offer ceramic-coated cylinders and fuel-injected engines. Since ending its relationship with Honda in 2002, the company has manufactured its own product while also assembling automobiles for Hyundai and ATVs for BRP. It also acts as an engine supplier to numerous other OEMs.
Jim H.L. Hong, director of SYM's overseas marketing division, says the company had planned to enter the U.S. for years but wanted to make sure it had the appropriate product and reliable representation.
"We understand that we have a long road to go in marketing our brand internationally, but without first having a good product you can't go out and ask people to sell that product," he says.
SYM's plan, according to Hong, is to distribute only through one company in each country. In the U.S. that company is Carter.
"SYM was looking for an established, American-owned company with a solid dealer network, and we chose SYM because of the integrity of the company and the quality and reliability of their products," says Jonathan Arn, chief executive officer at Carter Brothers. Arn says discussions between the two began in 2004 when SYM began supplying engines for use in Carter's larger go karts. The partnership agreement was signed in January 2006.
Operating out of a 235,000 sq. ft. office-production-and-warehouse facility in the small town of Brundidge, Ala., 60 miles south of Montgomery, Carter Brothers claims to be the oldest and largest continually operating manufacturer of go-karts and off-road buggies in the world. Established in 1936 by the brothers W.W. Carter and Charlie Carter, the company initially specialized in manufacturing agricultural machinery, lawnmowers and personal gardening equipment.
In 1967 the company opted to use its engineering and manufacturing prowess to try to find success in the go kart market. Since then, the company has produced more than 1.5 million go karts, and supplies product to nearly 1,200 U.S. retail locations as well as distributors in 20 different countries.
But business hasn't been easy. After experiencing a boom in the 1970s and early 1980s, the kart market dried up. By the late 1990s, only Carter and a handful of other companies were still retailing karts in the States.
Then, in 2002, the market began changing — again.
"That's when the Chinese invasion began," Arn says. "With their lower prices and lower quality, the market changed more in the past five years than it did in the previous 20 years, and it definitely created a lot of confusion among dealers and consumers alike."
In 2005 Carter sought a joint venture in China, ultimately leading to conversations with SYM.
Certified in California
The 96 SYM scooter and ATV dealers now operating stateside sold 1,278 units in 2006. Arn says he's confident that number will double for 2007 now that all SYM product has been certified for sale in California.
"We have certain areas of the country that our sales will obviously be stronger depending on the product line, but we intend to have a full coverage of our products in the continental 48 states with some growth planned for the Caribbean Islands," Arn says.
Carter's current dealer floor planning programs offer interest-free financing from 60 to 180 days. And, in May, the vehicle supplier signed a new, multiyear consumer financing agreement through GE's FUNancing Card. Arn says Carter and SYM also are "seriously looking at" joining the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America (SVIA).