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

Toyota SA chair Johan van Zyl, who has died in Pretoria at the age of 63 from Covid-related complications, led the transformation of the group from a family-owned business into a global player.

He was pivotal in helping SA become an important part of the global automobile supply chain. He believed the auto sector was vital for the entire South African economy. He saw it as a catalyst for industrialisation and believed that by growing the manufacturing base in SA, and the business in terms of volumes, it could make a huge contribution to employment, skills development and the country's foreign exchange balance.

The growth of the South African economy drove him at least as much as the growth of Toyota, which under his leadership became, and remains, SA's top-selling vehicle brand.

He started the Public-Private Growth Initiative with a group of senior government ministers and business people, modelled on the postwar economic recovery plan in Japan that he thought SA could learn from.

He had a global mindset, travelled extensively and brought global best practices to SA that influenced other South African companies' performance, besides Toyota.

Van Zyl was born in Springs on Gauteng's East Rand on June 8 1958 and matriculated at Hoër Seunskool in Springs in 1976. He won Eastern Transvaal colours for judo and athletics, played first team rugby and chaired the school debating society.

He went to Potchefstroom University where he completed bachelor, honours and master's degrees in commerce, all cum laude. After completing a PhD in business economics, also at Potch, he became a senior lecturer and professor at the university's Postgraduate School for Management.

He joined Toyota SA as sales and dealer network director in 1993 when the company was still owned by the founding Wessels family. In 2002, after Japan bought 75% of TSA, he was made chief operating officer. After the death of chair Bert Wessels, Van Zyl was made president and CEO and turned TSA into the profitable and dominant force it is in SA. When Japan took 100% ownership of TSA in 2009 he became one of the first Westerners to be appointed a managing officer for the global Toyota group.

He became CEO of Toyota Africa in 2013 and Toyota Europe in 2015, while still CEO of TSA.

For a time, he spent two weeks of every month in Brussels (Toyota's European headquarters), one in Tokyo and one in SA.

Although he had interests such as classical and sports cars and a collection of British and Japanese cars, and described himself as an "avid" reader of history and novels, he was at heart a workaholic. He frequently woke at 1am to get from his home in Pretoria to his Sandton office in time for a 3am video call with executives in Tokyo, and then worked a normal day.

Apart from his work ethic, the bosses in Tokyo appreciated his sincerity, razor-sharp intellect and ability to find solutions. A retired vice-president at Toyota recalled how four senior executives had been brainstorming unsuccessfully for hours over what to do about a product that wasn't making any impact on the market. Van Zyl wandered in, asked what they were working on and immediately suggested two completely left-field solutions, which solved the problem and left them speechless.

He was good at asking the right questions and focusing discussions on the critical areas. He didn't overanalyse, but was always clear about the critical elements that needed to be addressed. He had extraordinary recall. Dealers, bankers, his managers and factory foremen learned not to make any hasty promises about the next quarter's performance because "Doc", as they called him, would remember and remind them.

He was affable with a self-deprecating sense of humour and sensitivity for the wellbeing of his employees - whether it was a junior intern preparing for an exam or senior executive dealing with a domestic issue. It was the importance he attached to communicating with people and understanding where they were coming from that forged the strong relationship of mutual trust he had with Japanese executives.

His good relationship with Tokyo was instrumental in TSA being able to get significant investments approved in SA to grow it into being part of the global supply chain and being allocated significant export contracts. During his time in charge, Toyota Europe reversed previous sales losses and, in 2019, exceeded 1-million for the first time in 10 years. After retiring, Van Zyl returned to SA where he continued as chair of TSA.

While CEO of TSA and during two spells as president of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of SA, he played a central role in shaping the government's 2013 Automotive Production and Development Programme, which morphed in July 2021 into the South African Automotive Masterplan to increase local content and the number of black suppliers.

In May 2021 trade, industry & competition minister Ebrahim Patel made Van Zyl chair of a panel to advise the government on green energy policy.

A month ago he warned that SA cannot "just ignore" EU commitments to ban exports that don't comply with their carbon neutrality targets. "The world is not waiting for us. If we do not adjust we'll be excluded from the big markets in the world," he said.

SA needed to "put up more solar plants, get more wind, get more hydrogen".

Van Zyl is survived by his wife Santie and their daughters Nadia and Karla. 

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