Braving the economy, the car show goes on

  • 2000-04-13
  • By Peter J. Mladineo
VILNIUS - Lithuania is not known for its car manufacturing prowess, but from the high-energy curiosity shown by attendees at the Balt 2000 auto show at LitExpo April 4-7, the interest is there.

This was the eighth such show, and according to Arturas Geguzis, project manager for LitExpo, this year's event saw 45,000 people -2,000 more attendees than last year's expo. The largest turnout, Geguzis added, was 60,000 in 1998, several months before the onset of the Russian crisis.

For Geguzis, the increasing attendance is proof that the effects of the country's economic crisis is receding.

"People are getting a little bit richer and the economy is reviving so people are getting more interested in cars. It's a natural thing. Maybe I am optimistic," he said.

Exhibitors included large, mostly European automakers - Volvo, Peugot, Rover, Scania, Kamaz, Iveco, Skoda, Volga. Dozens of other auto parts and supporting industries, as well as motorcycles and representatives from the auto financing and transport industries. Everything from trucks, transport services, emissions analyzers, motor oil, brakes, tires, and Turtle Wax was represented there.

Car stereos were not forgotten. Inside Hall 1, the music of AC-DC blared, competing with inadvertent horns and car alarms.

Valentinas Krulikovskis, assistant director of the Auto Ekspresas newspaper, was there touting his yellow tabloid.

"They are interested [in cars] but there is not a good economic situation in our country right now," he said.

Lithuania, Krulikovskis said, now has 1.2 million cars, but most auto enthusiasts preferred the car sections in the largest dailies Lietuvos rytas and Respublika.

Krulikovskis was also promoting his company's new publication, Vairuotojo Kalendorius (Driver's Calendar), a coupon book that dispenses a bevy of information for Lithuanian motorists -everything from leasing information to driving statistics to policing procedures is covered.

"This is an experiment in Lithuania. The [auto] dealers in Lithuania are very interested," he said. The brochure's many advertisements signified that perhaps Krulikovskis is on the right track.

While most of the Lithuanian companies here were sporting cars or products made elsewhere, some companies boasted their own Lithuanian-made items.

Taratekas, the Vilnius car seat cover maker, was on scene selling its furry and colorful wares.

"Most Lithuanian companies try to buy things from abroad and sell to Russia, but this is something we can do by ourselves," said Darius Meizeraitis, the marketing manager. Well, almost. Taratekas, Meizeraitis explained, buys its materials both domestically and internationally and sells them within Lithuania and in Eastern Europe.

Meizeraitis thinks the Russian crisis is in its last phase and business is starting to pick up now that the worst appears to be over.

"Our business is growing up step-by-step. We think that business will increase in the nearest future so that is why we're here."

One company selling Taiwanese-made Camelot ball joints presented a new design for these parts that so often cause motorists major troubles, but its representative admitted that the country's high taxes were not helping to move products.

Outside, Volvo had a fleet of trucks on display, and boasted an improvement in this year's sales -100 trucks sold this year so far, compared to last year's grand total of 60 trucks.

"This year we feel that the market is coming back," said George Seitzinger, the general manager of the Volvo Truck Corporation's representative office. "If you drive from Vilnius to Klaipeda you see that the road is full of trucks. That wasn't true a year ago."

For Volvo, Lithuania is the spearhead of the Baltic market -truck sales here are equal to those in Latvia and Estonia, Seitzinger added. Volvos, incidentally, are the biggest sellers in Lithuania, now claiming 40 percent of the market. Seitzinger says there are currently 2,500 Volvos operating in Lithuania. In 1997, while economic times were still good, the Swedish firm claimed 70 percent of the market.

"This issue is that Lithuania is very much a bridge country between western and eastern Europe. It has a tremendous infrastructure and people in Lithuania are traders. They went to Western Europe very early to do business in the transit sphere and they are very good with the Russian market," he said.

Seitzinger also mentioned an increase in sophistication in Lithuania's trucking sphere. Volvo trucks, at an average cost of 130,000 DM ($65,000), are the most expensive trucks on the market, but are the biggest sellers. Number two is Maz, the Belarussian-made trucks that are five times cheaper than Volvos, but because of environmental unfriendliness are not allowed into most western European countries. (The rest of the pack, respectively, is Scania, MAN, and Mercedes.)

A few years ago, said Seitzinger, the biggest issue to Lithuanian truckers was price, now it's the overall package -quality, maintenance, service, guarantees.

"Here we can sell trucks at the highest price on the market and still win."