Despite its lackluster efforts in the past, Proton has always had an interest in exporting its cars abroad. Now with the backing of Geely and DRB-Hicom, Proton CEO Li Chunrong said the national automaker has got the resources to revisit international markets, but the timing must be right.

Not only that, Li told The Edge that he plans to unseat Perodua as the top-selling auto brand in Malaysia. “For Proton, the more important [thing to do] is we must grow in Malaysia first. How to lead our business [to] become stable is very important. It is very easy to spend money, but very difficult to make money.”

“For me, I want to be number one in Malaysia first, and then go outside to the ASEAN markets. But we don’t want to stop [there]. Now we are already in Brunei, not only the basic models, but also the X70,” he added.

Li, an engineer by training from Huazhong University of Science and Technology, knows that the key to sustainability lies in the export market. Proton must meddle in the international space to future-proof itself, and not risk billions of ringgit in taxpayers’ money to stay afloat like it did in the past.

Proton must work hard to achieve this. Li said Proton staffs are on overdrive, working 14 hours every day to improve all facets of the business. He said it’s the reason why Proton could launch four models in eight months, while at the same time have separate teams working on improving aftersales and ensuring the continual development of its most highly anticipated car yet, the Proton “X50.”

The hustles that happen behind the scenes are bearing fruit, no doubt. For the first time since 2015, Proton had finally sold more than 100,000 cars annually, with 100,821 vehicles sold in 2019. While the figure was attained by combining domestic and export sales, it was still a considerable leap from 2018 – it sold 55.7% more cars in 2019 than it did in 2018!

But the battle to dethrone Perodua won’t be easy. As of May 2020, Proton has sold 27,455 units of cars for a market share of 21.2%. Perodua, on the other hand, shifted 52,920 vehicles in the same period for a 40.8% share. Li acknowledges this, but said he has faith that his team will regain the top spot by the 10th year (2027) of the Proton-Geely partnership.

Li, whose tenure at Proton has just been extended, emphasised that Proton and Geely will spend this 10-year period to focus on product development. He believes that if Proton can constantly improve its product and aftersales service, the market will naturally shift towards the brand. For instance, he claimed that the Proton Persona has outsold the Toyota Vios and Honda City in the B-segment market, and that Proton is selling twice as many Sagas now compared to the time before Geely entered the picture.

He attributed this feat to product technology and quality, adding that “Malaysian consumers are very smart, they know the new technologies [in Proton cars] and the price is very reasonable,” Li noted.

Geely also owns Volvo, and one way Proton has benefited from the acquisition is the implementation of Volvo Global Customer Product Audit (GCPA) system. Based on this audit, Proton’s basic models had a demerit score of 6,388 points when Li became CEO in 2017. Perodua, on the other hand, had a lower score of 4,500 points (lower is better), and Geely had an average score of 1,200 points across the group.

Today, Li said Proton’s demerit score has significantly reduced, meaning the cars have less quality issues than before. For the Saga, its demerit score is now 1,100 points, sometimes dipping below 1,000. “So we have improved a lot. I believe our basic products now, including the Saga, are much better in terms of quality compared with our peers,” he said.

To be the number one automotive brand in Malaysia by 2027, Li said Proton may have to sell 175,000 cars annually, and believes that continuous product improvements could see the company meet its goal even sooner. So, what do you think of Proton cars today? Let us know, below.