Johan van Zyl Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Johan van Zyl Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

The death of Toyota SA Motors chair Johan van Zyl will leave a gap not only in the motor industry but also in efforts to foster government-business collaboration for economic growth, colleagues said at the weekend.  

Van Zyl, 63, who died on Friday night of Covid-19-related complications, was a co-founder and driver of the public-private growth initiative (PPGI), which seeks to create sector-based partnerships between the government and business.

The initiative is based on Japan’s post-World War 2 economic reconstruction model. Industrial sectors are encouraged to prepare medium-term investment and development plans, in co-operation with relevant government departments.

PPGI backers have argued that by getting rid of regulatory obstacles in this way, it is possible to unlock more than R500bn of investment and increase annual economic growth to 5%.

Trade, industry & competition minister Ebrahim Patel, who in May appointed Van Zyl chair of a panel to advise the government on green energy policy, described him at the weekend as “a true patriot” and said: “His passing deprives the country and business community of a strong and thoughtful voice.”

Van Zyl joined Toyota SA as sales and dealer network director in 1993 when the company was still owned by the founding Wessels family. Toyota Japan bought 27.8% in 1996 and appointed Van Zyl as president and COO in 2002 after taking its stake to 75%. He was elevated further, to president and CEO, in 2003 after the sudden death of chair Bert Wessels. Japan took 100% ownership of the company in 2009.

Under Van Zyl, Toyota cemented its position as SA’s top-selling vehicle brand, which it has held for more than 40 years. He was appointed a managing officer of the global Toyota group in 2009, CEO of Toyota Africa in 2013 and CEO of Toyota Europe in 2015, all while still CEO of Toyota SA.

For a time, he spent two weeks of every month in Brussels (Toyota’s European headquarters), one in Tokyo and one in SA. When it finally became evident he was overworked, he shed the SA and Africa jobs and dedicated himself full-time to Europe. Andrew Kirby became Toyota SA CEO and Van Zyl moved “upstairs” to chair.

During his time in charge, Toyota Europe reversed previous sales losses and, in 2019, exceeded 1-million for the first time in 10 years. He returned to SA after retiring at the end of March 2021.

He remained chair of Toyota SA, where he saw his role as preparing the company for the future, notably of manufacturing and engine technology. Later in 2021, Toyota SA will become the first local company to build mass-market hybrid cars, using dual petrol and electric engines.

In an interview shortly after returning to SA, Van Zyl said: “Toyota is moving worldwide from being a vehicle manufacturer to a mobility provider, so we’ll have to address this in SA too.”

His time in Europe made Van Zyl an expert on global environmental regulations not only for the motor industry but also for broader society. The SA motor industry exports two-thirds of its vehicle production, most of it to Europe, where many countries will ban diesel and petrol vehicles in the next few years. He knew better than anyone the export challenges faced by the local motor industry. So it was inevitable that the government should seek his advice.

During his time as Toyota SA CEO, and two spells as president of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of SA (Naamsa), he played a central role in shaping the government’s 2013 Automotive Production and Development Programme, which morphed in July into the SA Automotive Masterplan. The government says the latest policy can be adapted to meet changing environmental needs.

When Van Zyl returned to SA, Patel was quick to appoint him head of the government’s Green Hydrogen Advisory Panel. The aim, said the department, is to find ways to “reindustrialise the country and become an exporter of cost-effective green hydrogen to the world”.

Specifically, the country has a wealth of platinum group metals, a key ingredient in the production of fuel for hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles.

Former colleagues were quick to laud Van Zyl’s contribution at the weekend. Kirby said: “He had a wonderful impact on our country.” Naamsa CEO Mikel Mabasa described him as “an influential and impactful leader”. Isuzu Motor SA CEO Billy Tom said he “played a pivotal role in growing and evolving the motor industry”.

Matt Harrison, Van Zyl’s successor as CEO of Toyota Europe, spoke of his “vision and tireless efforts”. He said: “We will always remember him as a great mentor, who had a story to share on any topic and who truly cared about people.”

Van Zyl leaves his wife, Santie, daughters Nadia and Karla, and grandchildren.


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