Licenced to lead
Kobus van Zyl is no stranger to this industry. As vice-president of commercial vehicles at Mercedes-Benz South Africa, he’s the dynamic leader of a powerful pack.
Van Zyl was born in Namibia. As a child, he spent many school holidays at his father’s service station in Okahandja, where his love affair with all things diesel began. 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.
The turning point came in 1999, 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, before moving into his latest role.
Van Zyl is known for his hands-on involvement: “If a breakdown or issue is not resolved quickly, it’s on my desk – and I get involved personally,” he says. This dedication and first-hand involvement was evidenced earlier this year during Truck Test 2012. He’s had his code 14 driver’s licence for seven years, and couldn’t resist the temptation to participate. He ended up driving Mercedes-Benz’s Actros 2658 in the test – and was pulled over!
He chuckles as he chats about the experience: “Pulled over! Can you believe it? We were just outside Harrismith when we drove past a police vehicle. As we went past, I pressed the hooter to wave at them – and they then proceeded to follow us with lights blazing!”
Realising the risks of a big rig like the Actros stopping on an uncompacted shoulder, Van Zyl first had to find a safe place to stop. “Even though it ‘damaged’ my fuel consumption, the police were actually friendly. And once they realised what we were busy with, they let us go quite quickly. For me, this was a taste of what drivers experience every day. I can now add this experience to my CV too,” he laughs.
Van Zyl says he decided early on in his commercial vehicle career that the best way to have a good understanding of the products would be to drive them. “That’s why we have a motto here: ‘If you can’t drive it, you can’t sell it’.”
But customer service and a hands-on approach aren’t Van Zyl’s only passions. He also feels very strongly about issues such as driver health. “I was once on a radio show, 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.”
The environment is another issue that’s close to his heart. “Climate change and its impact on the environment have never been as evident as in recent months,” he says, citing the closing of Van Reenen’s Pass due to poor visibility, and floods in various provinces, as examples. “Even snowfalls in Gauteng!” he says. “All these have a direct impact on the transport industry.”
He’s proud of MBSA’s progressive efforts to be an environmentally sensitive player in the commercial vehicle sector – and it’s this kind of philosophy and passion that will keep the company ahead of the game in 2013 and beyond.