Tribute to a legend
It was with extreme sadness that we learnt of the passing of Kobus van Zyl last month. CHARLEEN CLARKE pays tribute to a man who has forever left his mark on the South African commercial vehicle industry
Truth be told, I cannot remember when I first met Kobus. I know that it was a very long time ago; in fact, I cannot recall a time when he was not a part of the truck and bus industry. I think that this had a lot to do with his nature; Kobus was the sort of guy who had a real presence. Generally speaking, he wasn’t loud or rowdy, but – despite his unassuming nature (he really was a humble man) – he was hard to miss…
I guess I probably first met Kobus about 18 years ago, when he joined DaimlerChrysler Services, the vehicle financing arm of what was then DaimlerChrysler. He was appointed sales director at DaimlerChrysler Services, then as divisional head for the Mercedes-Benz truck and bus unit, before being appointed executive director of Daimler Trucks and Buses.
It was probably only in about 2008 that I truly got to know Kobus, and learnt something about his life pre-Mercedes-Benz South Africa (MBSA). I was interested to discover that he was previously a banker, chicken farmer and even a pub owner!
Kobus was born in Namibia. The eldest of five children, he spent his school holidays at his father’s service station in Okahandja, where diesel crept into his veins. After completing his BCom (Hons) in financial management at the University of the Orange Free State, Kobus obtained an MBA from the University of Stellenbosch Business School.
At this stage, he certainly didn’t imagine a career in trucking. Rather, he headed for the glamorous and high-flying world of finance, but, along the way, he ended up selling trucks.
No one was more surprised than Kobus. “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, computers, 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 told me one day.
Of course, this area of responsibility makes perfect sense if you knew Kobus; he was – first and foremost – a people’s person. The business of selling trucks is, after all, all about people – and so it’s hardly surprising that he exceled at this task.
I put this to him one day and he smiled. “Ya Charleen, you’re right. It’s true that this whole business is about interfacing with customers. 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.”
Kobus was very, very good at that: he regarded himself as a partner to the customer. He never ever put himself up on a pedestal; he didn’t sit in an ivory tower. I was amazed to discover, one day, that he didn’t get annoyed when customers phoned in the middle of the night.
“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 told me in an interview in 2012.
While Kobus cared about his customers, he also cared about helping people. One day we were at the now-defunct Johannesburg International Motor Show, and Kobus told me about a new programme called the Mercedes-Benz Star Programme.
“It’s a challenge attracting young people to the world of trucks; everyone wants to join Mercedes-Benz in order to design cars. I decided to launch this programme, and so I went to Mercedes-Benz in Germany and explained that I needed a lot of money,” he told me, with a big chuckle.
“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,” Kobus told me at the time.
While Kobus had the ability to think strategically, he was also very much hands-on – in the literal sense of this term. He had his Code 14 licence, for instance. “If you can’t drive it, you can’t sell it,” he used to love to say.
I was so impressed when, back in 2012, he arrived at the start of our Truck Test, and then hopped into the cab of an Actros to drive the first leg of the route to Durban. En route, he even had a brush with the boys in blue!
He thought that it was terribly funny at the time. “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!”
Naturally, Kobus had to find a safe place to stop. “This ‘damaged’ my fuel consumption, but 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 told us at the time.
Last year Kobus had something else to add to his CV: he was offered the job of general manager for National Automotive Industries in Saudi Arabia. Kobus was responsible for Mercedes-Benz Trucks, Vans, Buses and Special Trucks, as well as Western Star and Freightliner Trucks. He and his wife, Lynette, moved to Saudi Arabia to embark on yet another chapter in their lives.
I met up with Kobus at the IAA in Hannover late last year and we spent a couple of hours together on the Daimler stand, catching up. He told me that he had thought long and hard before moving to Saudi, but that he was very happy there. There was, however, one big disadvantage: he didn’t like being so far from his children, Pierre, Mignon and Marlon, who he adored.
However, in true Kobus fashion, he did deal after deal in Saudi. In April, we chatted after he had concluded a 540-truck deal with the Saudi transport group Al Khaldi from Damman.
It was endearing to see that his sense of excitement was palpable; Kobus had such a lust for life. “We are so thrilled with this deal. It’s certainly one of the biggest deals ever in our market, and the incredible thing is that all the trucks were sold with service contracts,” he told me.
The transaction was thanks to his hard work, but, in typical Kobus fashion, he remained as humble as ever, attributing the deal to his many decades of working in South Africa. “To be honest, I am so grateful for what I learned in South Africa from our trucking customers and their incredible focus on life-cycle management,” he told me.
When I wrote about this deal, I noted: “We have only one thing to say: well done boet!”
I now say this: “We’re really going to miss you boet!”
There will never be another Kobus.