The banker who made it BIG

The banker who made it BIG

Some people change when they make it big – generally not for the better. But, as CHARLEEN CLARKE reports, this certainly hasn’t happened with Kobus van Zyl, vice president of commercial vehicles at Mercedes-Benz South Africa (MBSA). He may have THE job in the commercial vehicle business in this country, but he’s as down to earth as ever …

Van Zyl hasn’t always had things easy. A trained banker and former chicken farmer, he has also owned pubs – and lost absolutely everything.

So life hasn’t always been dandy for this dynamic man, who was born in Namibia. And, while he did get an introduction to the world of wheels while working at his father’s service station in Okahandja during school holidays, he certainly didn’t imagine a career in trucking. Rather, he was headed for the glamorous and high-flying world of finance – and so, after completing his B.Com. (Hons) in financial management at the University of the Orange Free State, Van Zyl obtained an MBA from the University of Stellenbosch Business School …

But, along the way, he ended up selling trucks. But no one is more surprised than him. “I often say to my kids that, if someone had told me I would one day be involved in sales, I would never have believed it. I like finance and computers and balance sheets and things like that. Sometimes I wake up in the morning, shake my head and think that all this is just not possible …” he muses.

Of course, his area of responsibility makes perfect sense if you know the man. Van Zyl is a people’s person. The business of selling trucks is, after all, all about people – and that’s where he truly excels.

“It’s true that this whole business is about interfacing with customers,” he concedes. “It’s about looking a customer in the eye and saying that I am sorry … because something has gone wrong … but I will sort it out.”

Van Zyl is very, very good at that: he regards himself as a partner to the customer. “Last year, I went to see a customer in Bloemfontein. I drove into his yard in an Actros. He was not an existing customer, but I was trying to convince him to move to our brand. I agreed that his secretary should minute my commitment to him; I told him that I was running the business with him – as a partner. A total of 32 Actros sales resulted from that meeting …” he recalls.

Now I know precisely what readers are thinking: talk is cheap. But Van Zyl actually delivers on his promises. “If I see a truck parked next to the road, I will phone the customer and discuss it with him – even if it’s not one of my products.

“My cellphone number is on my card and I take calls at any time. Just last week, a customer phoned me at 01:30 in the morning, saying ‘my lorry staan’ (my truck has broken down),” he tells FOCUS.

The thing is that Van Zyl really cares about his customers – and he’s proud of their ability too. “I am constantly impressed by the standard of South African transport operators. They are incredibly sophisticated businessmen. I travel the world and meet many operators. The companies here are streets ahead of anyone else in the world …” he notes.

So too are the people who work within Mercedes-Benz. “I was so proud of my team at the Johannesburg International Motor Show. After being there for hours and hours … they were all still smiling.”

But, of course, Van Zyl was there too. “I was at the show every single day, walking the stand, shaking people’s hands and chatting to them. It was important for my team to see me there. Also, they knew that, when I asked them how they were, I really did want to know …” he says with a warm smile.

That’s because he (rather wisely) values the contribution of each and every member of his team. And he’s also worked hard to garner an “appropriate” team. “I am so proud to say that we are now well ahead on our transformation journey. This really pleases me – as part of the rainbow nation in the new South Africa. We have a team that is as good as it gets. We embrace diversity. We are not doing it because of a scorecard; we are doing it because it is the right thing to do,” he reveals.

This was not an easy achievement. “You can buy skills in a business – but it is always expensive. This is especially the case in this company. Once a person has the Mercedes-Benz name on their CV, it increases their value – and the loyalty is not necessarily there with the ‘bought skills’. So I have decided to find the right people and grow them instead,” Van Zyl tells FOCUS.

However, this meant ignoring regular methods. “It’s a challenge attracting young people to the world of trucks; everyone wants to join Mercedes-Benz in order to design cars …” he explains.

So what Van Zyl did was approach schools in Pretoria, and look for students who excelled at English and mathematics – and then groomed them for a career within Mercedes-Benz Commercial Vehicles. “It came to me when I was in Dubai one day. I was battling to balance on a tightrope between equity and business performance. I was at a crossroads. I found it hard to do something just to get a scorecard right.

“So I walked around a park in Dubai and thought about the issue at hand. I built a mind map (I love mind maps; they structure my thoughts). Then I went to Mercedes-Benz in Germany and explained what I wanted to do and that I needed a lot of money …”

It was thus that the Mercedes-Benz Star Programme was born. “We have 11 kids on the programme; it’s a real passion of mine. I am mentoring a wonderful guy called Kgothatso Maseko. I asked him why he was planning to come and work for us and he told me that, when he gets home from school, there is no food there. His goal is to have full cupboards at home for his family. I am so proud that we can help him achieve his goal,” he reveals.

As our interview draws to a close, I ask Van Zyl if he has any advice for kids like Maseko, who want to make a go of things in this industry. “Oh absolutely,” he says with a huge grin. “We all get a chance to speak to the new inductees at Mercedes-Benz and I will tell you what I tell them. First, it’s important to be able to sell yourself in an authentic way.

“Most trucks are good. Trucking people buy from people. You need to believe in yourself. How you get up in the morning is how you go to bed; you have to sell yourself well,” he advises.

Company politics will always play a role. “You need to understand that company politics exist. Be aware of the politics but never be known as a player,” he suggests.

It’s also important to get noticed. “You need to ensure that this happens. Sometimes, if you make a huge mistake, you’re also noticed – and that’s fine. But you must just not make the same mistake twice; then it gets a bit tricky,” Van Zyl says.

Furthermore, you must be really good at Powerpoint. “You have to be able to work magic with it. In our corporate environment, presentations and meetings are how you roll. Someone must be able to get the message from the slide in three seconds. That’s why I do most of my own presentations …” he reveals.

What some people don’t know about Van Zyl is the fact that he’s actually a tech wizard, who loves gadgets and all things related to technology. “My kids made the mistake of inviting me onto Facebook. They have actually unfriended me a number of times,” he reveals with a huge laugh.

He has some strict rules pertaining to Facebook, being very selective about who he interacts with …

But those people who he DOES interact with are in for a real treat …

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