When wheels and heels collide
Since this is the month to celebrate women, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at someone who has made it big in the transport world. CLAIRE RENCKEN catches up with Nicolette Lambrechts, managing director for Mercedes-Benz Vans South Africa, to chat about her journey in the industry thus far
Lambrechts began her relationship with Mercedes-Benz South Africa in 2001. “I started as a graduate trainee in the supply chain division. I worked there for a year-and-a-half, doing distribution, administration and sales planning. I then applied for the position of sales planner for Chrysler Jeep. I worked in this position for a further 18 months. Thereafter, I was promoted to distribution and logistics manager for commercial vehicles in the supply chain division.
“I held this position for six years and I was responsible for everything from ordering of the vehicle, shipping, the import procedures in South Africa, to logistics and, finally, delivery,” she recalls.
After that, Lambrechts moved over to Mercedes-Benz Vans, and was promoted first to sales manager, then to brand manager and, ultimately, last year to managing director of the division.
Interestingly, although she has held various positions in sales, Lambrechts says it wasn’t something that came naturally to her. “I am more of a process person, but I think that my experience in the supply chain division has helped me a lot in the sales environment. I have been fortunate to have had various mentors over the years; they have helped me to achieve success and excellence in this role,” she says.
“My first mentor was Nicolai Berger, who was an expatriate and brand manager for Mercedes-Benz Vans when I was sales manager. He coached me on everything I needed to know about sales and marketing.
“And of course, Kobus van Zyl, current managing director for Daimler Trucks and Buses South Africa, was, and still is, a mentor, a coach and a tremendous support through every challenge.” She notes: “Van Zyl has played a big role in my career. He is always available if I need to bounce ideas off him or get some advice.”
She adds: “There are also many more people – in the commercial vehicle industry, at Mercedes-Benz South Africa and at our dealerships – who have supported me. I will always be grateful for the role that they played, and continue to play, in my life.”
One might assume that, as a woman in a predominantly male industry, Lambrechts would have faced certain prejudices that she had to overcome. However, refreshingly, she says not. “I honestly cannot say that this is the case. Of course I have always wanted to give my best and prove myself in the industry, but I think that is just my own internal drive and never something that was due to any prejudice. Yes, you can argue that it’s a man’s world, but, as a woman in this industry, I have never been treated with anything other than the utmost respect by customers, dealers and staff.”
She adds: “I have, however, seen a definite shift in the industry during the time that I have been with Mercedes-Benz and in the commercial vehicle industry. There are more and more women who are taking up careers in the commercial vehicle sales environment. I have also noticed more women coming into our dealerships as customers, and working there as sales executives, or holding various positions at the wholesale level.”
Lambrechts most definitely has a passion for the commercial vehicle industry. “For me, working in this industry has always been fun and rewarding,” she enthuses. “It is all about relationships. The volumes might not be high, but you build a relationship with a customer over the years, and get to know them well through the dealers. You have to be available to help 24-hours a day, seven days a week. This level of engagement is exciting.”
Of her division in particular, she says: “In the sale and supply of vans, there is such a diverse variety that you can offer the client – from an ambulance, to a hearse, to a mobile clinic. There are numerous new and exciting developments, and you meet clients from the entire spectrum.”
Another of her passions is the Mercedes-Benz Star programme, which takes children of school-going age, and supports and guides them through the process, until they graduate with a degree.
She explains: “Children, who are identified as gifted in mathematics and physical science, are chosen and they receive support – both financially and personally, in the form of mentoring. I am currently mentoring a girl who is now in her first year at the University of Pretoria, studying engineering. South Africa will always need engineers – we need these scarce skills. With the Star programme, we are helping to make that happen.”
This programme does not cater for girls only, but it does provide an opportunity for young women who want to become involved in the industry.
Lambrechts has the following advice for young women: “What is very important is that you gain sales experience. For example, I did not have this experience and had to be taught by my mentors. You should also gain further experience once in the business. Do not just have the vision of climbing the ladder. Rotate in the business and in the different areas, to understand the business and gain invaluable experience of how the intricacies of the business function. Move laterally first, before wanting to climb to the top.”
She also stresses the importance of learning how to manage your time and the increasing pressures and demands that come with increased responsibility. “The importance of prioritising cannot be underestimated,” she adds.
“Furthermore, I make time to read business literature. One of the concepts that I am currently practising (as advocated by Robin Sharma) is that you should use the first 90 minutes of your day to complete your number one priority for that day. Another valuable lesson, learnt from my colleague Clinton Savage, divisional manager of Mercedes-Benz Trucks, is not to let your emails rule your life – focus on what is important and not what is at the top of your inbox!
“Finally, be true to yourself. I have weekends where I just relax, shut out the world and do the things that make me happy. That’s how I recharge.”
We can still expect great things from Lambrechts, that’s for sure. It is doubtful that she’ll be leaving the Mercedes-Benz family, though: “I have spent the major part of my career at Mercedes-Benz South Africa and, for me, it is quite clear that once that Mercedes-Benz star is branded in your heart – it doesn’t necessarily ever fade,” she concludes with a smile.