Leading the charge

Van Zyl’s impressive career with Mercedes-Benz South Africa is due to his passion for truckers, trucks and trucking.

Mercedes-Benz is changing the way South Africa goes trucking. Kobus van Zyl, vice-president, commercial vehicles at Mercedes-Benz South Africa, is one of the reasons why, as CHARLEEN CLARKE discovers.

Kobus van Zyl is a determined man who does not set his sights low. Not content with market leadership, he wants more. More customers; more market share; more happy clients.

This is a tall order. Not because Van Zyl and his team cannot soar to greater heights, but because they already dominate within the industry. As he noted at the company’s recent annual media bash: “During 2011 we have either maintained or solidified our market leadership position in all the sectors in which we compete.”

That’s no mean feat. And it’s thanks to two things: the company’s powerful brands – Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi FUSO, Western Star and Freightliner – and the man who leads the team; none other than Van Zyl. The brands are extremely well known. But who is Van Zyl? What makes him tick? And how did he come to be in the trucking industry?

It all started back in Namibia, which is where he was born. The eldest of five children, Van Zyl spent his school holidays at his father’s service station in Okahandja. It was thus that diesel crept into his veins.

After completing his BCom (Hons) in financial management at the University of the Orange Free State, Van Zyl obtained an MBA from the Stellenbosch Business School. He went on to excel within the diverse professions of banking, chicken farming and even being a restaurateur!

But it was in 1999 that he truly came into his own, when he joined DaimlerChrysler Services, the vehicle financing arm of what was then DaimlerChrysler. He was appointed sales director at DaimlerChrysler Services, then divisional head for the Mercedes-Benz truck and bus unit, and subsequently vice-president, commercial vehicles at Mercedes-Benz South Africa.

And no one can argue that Van Zyl has found his true calling in life. This is a man who loves truckers, trucks and trucking.

He also loves delighting his customers – which means problems are attended to immediately. “We know that we are doing the best possible job and that our products are top of their game. But the fact of the matter is that problems do occur. If a breakdown or issue is not resolved within two days, it’s on my desk – and I attend to it personally,” Van Zyl insists.

Another way of delighting customers is by making their lives easier. “We want to provide an even greater range of service offerings to transport operators; we want to take away all those things that are non-core. We already own the space for value-added products and, as market leaders, we will continue to play a leading role in providing innovative mobility solutions for our customers to achieve maximum profitability and to responsibly exploit current and new opportunities in the transport industry,” he tells FOCUS.

“I would introduce the new Actros tomorrow - if the right fuel was available. I would love that!” says Van Zyl.The company has a veritable arsenal of after-sales products – not least of which are FleetBoard and CharterWay. “FleetBoard has been well received by our operators and we currently have over 90 fleets under contract. Significant fuel savings have been reported by customers equipped with the system, generally between 8 and 10%, but in some cases up to 15%,” reveals Van Zyl.

FleetBoard is really the most incredible fleet management tool, as Van Zyl notes: “Thanks to FleetBoard I was even able to phone a customer yesterday; I told him that the right rear globe had been out on his truck since last Tuesday!”

He believes that the company has an important role to play – both in terms of 4 and 5PL. “With systems like FleetBoard we can play a new role and take logistics to a whole new level,” he maintains.

As this issue of FOCUS goes to print, Mercedes-Benz is launching a stolen vehicle recovery element to FleetBoard. “Keeping up with current trends, a FleetBoard application is also offered on the iPad and phone. We offer a new mapping conversion with 30-second tracking and tracing, including area monitoring – and all viewed using a topographic map,” Van Zyl notes.

CharterWay enables the company to combine its excellent financial services and fleet management products. “Following our success with CharterWay, we now offer a new optional Uptime product on all CharterWay contracts, which are sold together with Actros truck tractor units. The Uptime product guarantees customers that their vehicles will be repaired within two days following the report of any mechanical failure. Customers will either receive a stand-by vehicle or be compensated at a pre-determined rate for the rental of another vehicle,” says Van Zyl.

“We have also had a critical look at the maintenance costs of our products and are happy to report that we have been able to reduce the costs of a CharterWay Complete contract, which covers all service and maintenance costs, by more than 15% on Actros truck tractors, depending on the application,” he adds.

And, as they say in the direct marketing advertisements, when it comes to value-adds from Mercedes-Benz … that’s not all. “We could even introduce a truck with a driver in the near future!” says Van Zyl.

While he’s passionate about customer service, Van Zyl is also fervent about the so-called “softer” issues – driver health and the environment, for instance. “I was on a radio show recently and a driver phoned in. He had been on the road for 10 hours! That is terrible – for his safety, for the safety of fellow road users and the reputation of our industry,” Van Zyl stresses.

The company is doing an outstanding job of promoting driver health via the Trucking Wellness project. “We are pleased to see our Sprinters performing well as mobile clinics in one of our flagship CSI projects, where we have a fleet of 15 of these vehicles travelling throughout southern Africa. The Sprinters are utilised by the Trucking Wellness team to go to freight depots and 22 truck stops, offering truck drivers and other freight personnel health services – including HIV and Aids testing and treatment, Malaria and TB testing,” says Van Zyl.

He’s equally passionate about the environment. “Climate change and the impact on the environment have never been as evident as in recent months – such as the closing of Van Reenen’s Pass due to poor visibility, floods in various provinces, and even snowfalls in Gauteng! All these have a direct impact on the transport industry,” he notes.

So he is eagerly awaiting the introduction of “greener” trucks in South Africa. Their introduction is, of course, hampered purely by the poor quality of fuel in this country; Daimler has already launched its Euro-6 Actros overseas (see FOCUS November 2011). “We would like to be able to introduce Euro-5 trucks with BlueTEC technology as a standard offering as available in our green Actros 2660 in South Africa, but we require diesel containing a maximum sulphur content of 50 ppm. This quality of fuel is not readily available throughout Southern Africa and, for us and the transport industry at large, this is a major concern,” he notes.

As previously stated, the Mercedes-Benz Truck division is already moving to Euro-6 on an international front. This highly sophisticated and advanced truck, which promises operators savings of between 6 and 9% in fuel consumption, requires diesel with no more than 10 parts per million of sulphur.

Van Zyl cannot wait to bring this sensational new truck to South Africa. “I would introduce the new Actros tomorrow – if the right fuel was available. I would love that!” he says with a wide grin.

We have no doubt that operators would love that too …

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