New Isuzu SA CEO and MD Billy Tom. Picture: SUPPLIED
New Isuzu SA CEO and MD Billy Tom. Picture: SUPPLIED

It was a difficult upbringing in the farming village of Alexandria in the Eastern Cape for a young Billy Tom.

“I grew up poor and due to life’s challenges I repeated Standard 7 (Grade 10) a record three times,” says Tom, as he recalled his childhood. “I drove trucks and tractors on the farm and eventually obtained my truck licence behind the big wheel of an Isuzu truck.”

Finally finishing his matric at 21, he then got a scholarship and enrolled at Rhodes University and earned his B.Com degree in Business Management and ICT.

He then worked for a number of companies along the way, first at a winery as a distribution centre manager, then at another brewery, a soft drink giant and a car company.

Isuzu SA manufactures bakkies and trucks some 100km away from where Tom grew up and last week he was announced as the new CEO and MD of the company.

Motor News had a chat with him on his fourth day at work.

Phuti Mpyane: Congratulations on your appointment. You are not entirely new to the sector, or to some of your colleagues.

Billy Tom: Thank you very much and yes, I was previously in the employ of General Motors SA (GMSA) product planning department, helping to launch the Cadillac and Hummer brands. Then I moved to the Sales and Marketing team up in Woodmead, Johannesburg and became operations manager for Cadillac, Hummer and SAAB, eventually becoming brand manager for the brands after they were launched in the country. Late in 2007 I moved to Coca-Cola and headed up various divisions of the company over the past 12 years before joining Isuzu SA.

PM: Were you headhunted or was this a normal job application?

BT: I was headhunted

PM: With this being the fourth day at work, what have you planned for your first 100 days at the helm?

BT: The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic means the revenue stream stood still in April. We couldn’t even sell a single car. The first task is to get the revenue ticking over again while also helping in the fight against the disease. We have donated a part of our fleet to organisations tasked with helping communities deal with this pandemic.

This period is also about relooking and rethinking how we do business because customers aren’t going to flock into our dealerships like in the past. What I will be doing is guiding the team in response to the change in customer expectations where digital buying is concerned.

This company has gone through a lot in recent years. It was formed two years ago but it has shown to be resilient when trouble hits, and manages to bounce back. I’ll be giving them guidance to continue with operations in these difficult times.

PM: And the medium to long-term strategy?

BT: My background is about being a change agent who is going to ensure the business adapts to the changing environment. What I also bring on the table is the fact I grew up a peasant. When I talk to the teams on the manufacturing lines I’m able to resonate with their needs and at the same time able to talk with consumers on their requirements.

There’s also the upcoming new generation Isuzu D-Max bakkie range. Our HQ in Japan has invested R1.2bn in this project and we must not only ensure a successful market launch but also work on other strategies on the table like a new product portfolio. We must also make Isuzu SA and its dealer network profitable. These centres are crucial to the business because if they don’t generate good revenue it affects their viability in the long term.

The other undertaking is the company’s transformation. Transformation is not only about replacing white with black but also about how we make the business more agile, flexible and to think differently as things have changed.

The next-generation Isuzu D-Max will be built in SA for both domestic and export markets, in an investment of R1.2bn. Picture: SUPPLIED
The next-generation Isuzu D-Max will be built in SA for both domestic and export markets, in an investment of R1.2bn. Picture: SUPPLIED

PM: What of the sub-Saharan Africa business?

BT: First, we are a part of sub-Saharan Africa and there is this tendency to talk about it as if we are on a different island. We are part of the African continent. If you look at Isuzu vehicles which are tested and engineered for African conditions right here in SA, we need to take that advantage and plug it into the rest of the continent.

There are plenty of opportunities in other regions and considering that there already is an Africa Trade Agreement I will be looking at how we can utilise our facilities here in SA as a springboard into the rest of the continent.

PM: The new bakkie will come with platform sharing with Mazda. How will this play out here in SA?

BT: Yes, we have signed a nonbinding memorandum of understanding with Mazda which is open until the end of the year, but at this point it’s at corporate level. There will be a lot of work between the two companies but here in SA we haven’t signed anything, so the business of manufacturing and selling bakkies and trucks to customers and governments here and beyond our borders will continue as usual. It’s premature to say anything at this stage but we will look at any opportunity that comes along.