What a MAN!
It was with true delight that, earlier this year, local operators welcomed back to South Africa one of the most liked and respected individuals within the local commercial vehicle industry. CHARLEEN CLARKE pays tribute to MAN Truck & Bus South Africa’s executive chairman, Geoff du Plessis
This industry got lucky. The reality is that Du Plessis didn’t grow up dreaming of joining the commercial vehicle industry. Rather, he wanted to be an engineer.
“As a kid I was always making, breaking and fixing things,” Du Plessis recalls, with one of his characteristically big grins. “In terms of industry choice, this came later and rather by chance during my national service where I became involved in the development of mine-proof vehicles which was my entrée into the motor industry.”
Du Plessis’s first job was with United Car and Diesel Distributors (UCCD), a manufacturer and importer of Mercedes-Benz cars and trucks, where he worked as a design engineer. He moved through the ranks, and ended up heading up the engineering division. “I also had a stint in manufacturing, running the passenger car final assembly division for a few years (my only time when I was not in the truck game). During my 21-year tenure with the company, I eventually ended up running the commercial vehicle business at DaimlerChrysler for all the truck brands,” Du Plessis recalls.
He made the move to MAN Truck & Bus SA as CEO some eight years ago. It was interesting, moving from the one German company to the other. “It was great fun, driving the cars at Mercedes-Benz. But it was also great to move to a company where the focus is 100 percent truck and bus. You do not have to compete with any other product or division to get attention. This business is 100 percent diesel!” Du Plessis points out.
He was not sorry to bid the car business goodbye. “I have always said that cars cost money but trucks make money. I love being part of a customer’s business through the provision of a truck or bus. Trucking is about people, not databases,” Du Plessis notes.
Of course, working in South Africa was not a bed of roses. “My biggest challenges at the time have been leading businesses during the transition that we as a nation made towards the new South Africa. The workplace was the only area where the disenfranchised had a voice. What was negotiated had little to do with cars and trucks, and all to do with human rights and liberty. This made for interesting times! In the truck game one is also inevitably faced with technical challenges, and these have truly tested my engineering skills,” he recalls.
After three years at the helm of MAN Truck & Bus SA, he moved to the United Kingdom (UK), where he was in charge of MAN Truck & Bus in that region (which also included Scandinavia, Ireland and Iceland).
It was a challenging time for the company and the economy in general. “My arrival in the UK coincided with the start of the financial crisis in 2008. Hopefully I was not to blame for this,” he notes, with yet another broad grin.
After his period in the UK, Du Plessis flew across to Munich in Germany, where he was based at MAN Truck & Bus’s headquarters from mid-2010. There, he headed up the business units portfolio. Among others, this included the sale of engines to industrial users, MAN Truck & Bus’s rental business and used trucks. But, his heart remained in South Africa – so he jumped at the chance to return here.
One only had to see Du Plessis interacting with customers at the recent Johannesburg International Motor Show to see how happy he is to be back on local soil. “What we have here that is special and unique is our ‘Ubunthu’. Being part of and engaging with society at all levels is special, and only when this was not there did we realise how much we thrive off of it!” he confirms.
But now, of course, he has to take MAN Truck & Bus SA forward. “We see the future in Africa and we are going to be part of it. Success will be secured by us providing the right trucks, buses and services delivered through highly motivated and customer orientated people,” he tells FOCUS.
Speaking of motivated people, this is undoubtedly one of Du Plessis’s greatest successes – he is renowned for leading motivated teams, and this should bode well for his future plans. “I have always said that I want to be sitting on a beach in the Seychelles for at least two weeks before anyone in the business realises I am not there! I want the organisation to perform at all the levels so that it does not need my input on a daily basis. When this is achieved then all the right decisions and actions will be taken quickly and at all the right levels,” he explains.
In inimitable Du Plessis style, he cannot resist a final quip: “Of course, this also means I will be able to work on my tan!”