Driven in as Left-hand Drive, Driven out as Right-hand Drive
Tucked away on the bank of the Kelani river is a world-class workshop, a conversion facility where brand new luxury vehicles go through a magical transformation. Left-Hand drive vehicles that are driven into the workshop are driven out as mirror images of the ones that came in, as Right-Hand drives! Autogroup International, an innovator par excellence and a pioneer of the Sri Lankan automotive industry is responsible for making this transposition of automobiles. For over two decades, the company has been catering to the whim of wealthy car lovers, living in countries that follow right-hand drive traffic laws, desiring to drive luxury brands that are factory produced as left-hand drives. Their frequent clients include the likes of Indian cricketing stars such as MS Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh.
Autogroup International is headquartered in Australia and set up operations in Sri Lanka in 2003 as a BOI Company with only 5 employees, to cater primarily to the Australian market. It has since then, been silently revving up its pace to becoming a leader in reverse engineering. It brings much-needed foreign exchange into the country every year while creating a knowledge pool of highly specialized automotive technicians, engineers, and designers within the Sri Lankan automotive industry. The Chairman of the company is Peter Norman Hill, an Australian national. Chamath Tennekoon, a veteran in the automotive industry, is the Managing Director of Autogroup International.
A majority of the demand for their work is from the Australian market which accounts for 95% of their export volume. The company also caters to the uber-rich in other right-hand drive markets such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India and the African continent.
Why Sri Lanka?
Autogroup International’s Chairman Peter Hill started his left to right-hand conversion business in Melbourne more than 25 years ago. The business was going well and the company had expanded its model line-up. However, Peter was facing difficulty sourcing the right people to take the company to the next level. That was when he met a few Sri Lankan friends in Australia who suggested that Peter explore the idea of venturing out to Sri Lanka. Within ten days of that conversation, Peter found himself on a flight to Colombo. The Chairman of the Board of Investments at the time, Dammika Perera had been extremely supportive of Peter’s idea. The rest is history!
The BIZnomics team spoke to its Managing Director, Mr. Chamath Tennakoon, who explained what exactly happens within Autogroup: “If Australian consumer or a person in a right-hand driven country wants to drive a vehicle made in the US, for the US, which is a left hand left-hand driving country, Auto group international provides an end-to-end solution of converting the vehicle from Right-Hand drive to Left Hand Drive”.
Sometimes the customer’s need arises from a sentimental attachment. “For example, a car lover in left hand drive Dubai, migrating to New Zealand, a right-hand drive country, wanting his vehicle converted, will send it to us. We will do the conversion for them.”
The manufacturers of these brands do not make right-hand drive vehicles even on special order. They do not make parts required for a conversion either. “If they did, we wouldn’t be in business”, Tennekoon stated the reason for the existence of their business.
What kind of cars do they convert?
We take a short walk in their workshop and yard and are instantaneously transported into a place much like Hollywood. Flashy cars and fancy trucks are spotted wherever we turn. The majority of the vehicles are the likes of Chevrolet Camaro & Silverado, Cadillac Escalade, Ford-F150, F-250 & Shelby Mustang, Dodge RAM, Challenger, Charger, GMC Yukon, Denali & Sierra, Lincoln Navigator and North American models of Japanese origin such as the Nissan Titan and Toyota Tundra. This is because the conversion process is not cheap, therefore, it makes little sense for inexpensive cars to undergo a conversion.
The process of Left to Right conversion
When a customer places an order with Autogroup, the vehicle would be bought from the manufacturer in the US and shipped to the Autogroup yard in Kaduwela, Sri Lanka. Then the conversion process begins. The length of the conversion is dependent on the vehicle model and its complexity.
The process begins with the disassembly of the vehicle and all the departments within the workshop such as Electrical, Mechanical, HVAC, Welding, Fiber, Plastics, Upholstery take on their relevant responsibility. The Quality Control department has a large role to play as they monitor quality not only at the individual workshop level but ensure the built quality of the finished product.
The ISO Department and Conformity of Production (COP) Department ensure that all models are manufactured to the Australian Design Rules (ADR), a stringent standard which all auto imports to Australia must abide by. Incidentally, this also makes Autogroup International the only conversion company in Asia (outside of Australia) manufacturing to Australian standards.
“We are an Australian Government approved and audited off-shore manufacturing facility” states Tennekoon.
Technological innovation and design
The conversion process, also called the reverse engineering process, begins with identifying all parts, components, systems, and sub-systems that require modification or complete re-design. The Engineering Design & Development team spearheads all new model development. The process involves scanning and capturing a3D image, designing electrical and mechanical parts and validating the design by way of 3D printing & software simulations. Once all design work is validated, production is handed over to the respective workshops with relevant drawings to begin manufacture.
The value addition outside of designing consists of manufacturing the dashboard, steering rack m, interior and exteriors parts, heating ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC), Seat Controls and many other electrical and mechanical components.
A steady flow of capable human capital
The conversion process is a highly specialized vertical of the automotive industry, and each employee must have thorough knowledge about his specific task in the process.
Providing an answer to our question on the availability of technical experts and skilled labour required for this highly specialized process in the country, Chamath explained, “A lot of people are under the impression that Sri Lanka doesn’t have tech-savvy people. We actually have really good people and a good supply of human resources. Sri Lanka has a strong automotive culture. Our people like to tinker with their vehicles. This inculcates a love for vehicles from the early stages of one’s life. The vocational training infrastructure in the country on one end of the spectrum and the graduate engineers from our universities on the other end has resulted in a very technologically savvy and capable set of young talent entering the automobile work pool every year.” Autogroup International is an equal opportunity company that ensures equal pay for equal work. In fact, 40% of their workforce is female, including the engineering and workshop teams.
He elaborated that they hire young talent who get the opportunity to practice what they learnt at the university. The company has been able to pass on the knowledge, technology and skills it has accumulated over the years, to its workforce. Being able to apply their skills and techniques in a cutting-edge field helps these young engineers and technicians at Autogroup mature into fully rounded professionals.
BOI Support and feedback for improvement for further investments
Chamath Tennekoon explained their experience dealing with the BOI as a positive one.
“Overall BOI has done a great job in bringing investment into this company and giving the necessary support throughout,” Tennekoon expressed his appreciation for the BOI’s effort. He also stated, “I would like to see the BOI facilitate and push for approvals with other government bodies such as Sri Lanka Customs as a consolidated one-stop body. This is in practice; but it needs a lot more authority and clout, which will enable the BOI to furnish investors with seriously quick approval timelines, which in turn will have a positive impact on the ease of investing in Sri Lanka, manufacturing or otherwise.”
Autogroup International with an order book full of luxury cars, waiting to be shipped into and out of Sri Lanka is a trailblazer in the Sri Lankan automotive industry. The company has benefited from the highly knowledgeable and skilled workforce created by the country, while giving opportunities for Sri Lankan engineers and technical staff who have a passion for automobiles to be a part of the industry. This is a perfect example of how Sri Lanka has the fundamentals in place for a high skilled production plant to be set up, while showcasing the benefits of such investments coming into the country.