Toyota Europe president Johan van Zyl. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Toyota Europe president Johan van Zyl. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

With Elon Musk grabbing the headlines, it’s easy to forget that there are many other South Africans who have risen to lofty heights in the global automotive industry. There was Gordon Murray from Durban, the designer of the McLaren F1 supercar, for example, and Brian Gush from Port Elizabeth, who heads Bentley Motorsport. And there’s Oona Scheepers, who plays a key role in Volkswagen’s interior design strategy, having made her mark at Audi and Porsche.

Another giant of the global motor industry is Johan van Zyl, who has risen from a childhood in Springs, east of Joburg, to become the president and CEO of Toyota Europe. He is also on the board of the Japanese company, is involved in global operations, and remains chair of Toyota SA Motors.

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Today, Van Zyl works from his office, not far from the airport in Brussels — a city that has assumed elevated importance as Theresa May’s government searches desperately for a plan to guide the UK’s exit from the EU. European council president Donald Tusk famously said that those in the UK who had promoted Brexit without a shred of a plan to make it work deserve "a special place in hell".

As someone with a doctorate in business economics from what is now North-West University, and because of his subsequent years at the top of the motor business, Van Zyl would know a thing or two about the economic implications of Brexit.

Known to many as "The Doc", Van Zyl joined Toyota after a spell at university that included a professorship. There, he says, he was "coached by real motor people".

His rise was swift: in 1993 he became director of the vehicle sales and dealer network at Toyota SA, and was instrumental in increasing Toyota SA Motors’ position in the company’s global manufacturing network. Last year, the SA operation produced more than 139,000 vehicles — the bulk of them Hilux models for export.

These days, The Doc’s role in the SA operation is more as a figurehead, as company chair, with Andrew Kirby having taken over as CEO.

But Van Zyl has a much bigger portfolio. In 2009 he became managing officer of Toyota Motor Corp, responsible for Africa. Then he was appointed president and CEO of Toyota Motor Europe in 2015. Two years later, he became senior managing officer of Toyota globally.

In an interview with the FM, Van Zyl says SA was a great place to start. "SA is a very good school, because you get exposed to everything. Of course you also get exposed to tough conditions, a lot of changes in the environment and the unions are not always the easiest to deal with, so you get to see the total spectrum of the industry," he says.

Europe, he says, is entirely different. "Europe is a continent, it’s 54 countries — each and every one of which has its own rules and regulations, and the customers and cultures are different."

Competition is exceptionally fierce.

This took some adjustment for Van Zyl, coming from a country in which Toyota was used to having a high market share. (At present it is 24%.)

"In Europe if you’ve got 7% or 8% market share you are in the top of the market," he says.

Encouragingly, it seems there are no plans for SA’s importance in the Toyota network to be diminished. Its manufacturing plant in Durban exports vehicles around the world.

Increasingly, however, other African countries are making plans to assemble vehicles. "If you look at Africa, you will find that most of the economies want to diversify and the first area they will be looking at is the auto industry," says Van Zyl.

Toyota already has a small assembly operation in Kenya, and the African arm of the company is looking at other countries as potential assembly hubs. At the moment, I can’t say we are targeting this country or that — but it is clear than most of the countries would like to have their own assembly operations at least."

If that happens, plants in those countries could use "assembly kits" manufactured in Durban, he says.

But other dynamics are likely to shape the future of the industry: for example, cars powered by alternative sources, such as electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Van Zyl gives nothing away. "If you look at the size of the SA market, such a development would have to go hand in hand with a strong export drive to other markets as well," he says.

The implication, of course, is that any change in the power source would have to be standardised across all the products exported from SA, like the Hilux. "We have always said that we are going to have a wide range of applications and each one of these applications will suit the market condition — for example hybrids, plug-in hybrids, battery electric vehicles and then, of course, fuel cell [vehicles]."

Fuel cells work by converting hydrogen-rich fuel into electricity without combustion.

Trade & industry minister Rob Davies has spoken of how SA has "prioritised fuel cells for proactive development".

There would be a number of benefits to making fuel cells locally: for one thing, fuel cells, unlike electric engines, require platinum. So developing fuel cells would not only suit the automotive industry — it would suit SA’s platinum industry too.

Van Zyl is a huge advocate of hydrogen — not just in cars, but also as an industrial energy for households.

"If you want to develop a fuel cell or hydrogen economy, you need to adjust the policies to say: ‘OK, we want to develop fuel cells in SA — where are we going to use them?’ So [you need to] create a local market, otherwise you will have to export everything and you can’t just rely on export markets," he says.

But if energy is one of Van Zyl’s concerns, so too is the B-word: Brexit. Toyota has a manufacturing plant in the UK town of Burnaston.

In 2018 the company invested £240m to upgrade the plant to produce the new Corolla and Corolla Touring Sports models, based on Toyota’s "new-generation architecture".

Van Zyl says Toyota is committed to the UK — but not without some caveats. "We cannot tell the UK [government] how to run its country, and we must respect that … but we would like to see that there is frictionless trade, that there are no tariffs, and that there is harmony between the regulatory framework of the EU and the UK," he says. If the UK opts for isolation, he adds, it would make things "very difficult".

So what happens if May can’t secure any trade deal with the EU — something that looks increasingly likely?

"We have a plan," he says. "Our plan is to optimise the efficiencies and then, of course, we will continue producing there. We’ve just invested and of course we’ve got to continuously evaluate the business opportunity."

It comes at a difficult time for Toyota, as it overhauls its entire personality. The idea is that Toyota will shift from being simply an "auto company" to a "mobility service provider".

It might sound like PR gumpf but, actually, it entails a shift from merely selling vehicles to looking at the whole transport chain — including leasing, rentals and ride-sharing.

There are also many new entrants to the market — including Tesla, Dyson and Apple — which are acting as disrupters in the automotive industry.

"Competition is always good for an industry — it puts you on the tips of your toes," says Van Zyl. "In this new environment, our industry or company needs to become more agile."

To this end, Toyota has created companies to focus on different market segments and is signing up new partners. "You cannot do all these things by yourself, so you need to form alliances and partnerships, not just in the mobility or connectivity space but also in the development of technology," he says.

For example, Toyota recently revealed the new Supra through a collaboration with BMW.

Van Zyl should know about partnerships. He was heavily involved with the SA team that won the Dakar Rally this year. It took a number of years to land that win. "It worked very well for the Hilux brand," he says. "I’m pleased for the SA team because they worked very hard."

Van Zyl remains a big classic-car enthusiast, with a few favourites.

"From a Toyota point of view it’s a GT 2000 and, of course, also the S800. I see the S800 as a unique car … It was a multiplatform-type vehicle — in other words you [could] have the Publica on it, you had a sports car on it, you even had a little convertible on it — it was fantastic."

But the 2000GT, for him, is the pinnacle. "I have a soft spot, because of design, for 1950s British sports cars like Jaguar, MG and Triumph. I have a few. But my favourite driving car — the car which I love to drive every day — is a Lexus SC430."

He also has a soft spot for old Toyota Land Cruisers. He once discovered a 1960 soft-top version in the Serengeti. It took some negotiating with the local vet to part with it, and he paid more to ship it back than to buy it — only to discover the floor had rotted away (he has since had it completely restored).

The anecdote illustrates what those who know him say: that The Doc is one of those "real motor people", not just a man in a suit who happens to work at Toyota.