Toyota South Africa bids farewell to one of Africa’s business giants, Dr Johan van Zyl, during a touching celebration of his life and legacy. Due to the pandemic restrictions, physical attendance at the company’s Sales and Marketing head office was limited to close family, friends and Toyota colleagues, but thanks to technology, close to 7000 from around the globe were able to watch the livestream and playback of the proceedings.
It was a fitting tribute to a truly remarkable captain of industry as all 14 speakers attested to. Andrew Kirby, Dr van Zyl’s successor and current President and CEO of Toyota South Africa, was personally appointed by the Doc: “I owe my career and many opportunities that I have been given to Johan. He helped me develop and lead me to where I am today. He was without a doubt my mentor and confidante and I’m going to miss bouncing ideas off him.”
Brand Pretorius recalled that the last time he stood at the podium in the Toyota Auditorium was 26 years ago when he was still at the helm of Toyota; then it was for his own farewell, and now it was for farewell of another kind, but a far sadder one – saying goodbye to his lifelong friend. Interestingly, it was Brand that set Johan on the automotive path, having poached him from academia: “From the first moment I met him I could sense his formidable intellect and integrity. I was also impressed with this sense of attitude, energy, passion and saw some definitive leadership qualities that would lead to greater things. I knew we needed him to be part of the Toyota team. In 1993, we had a vacancy for the Director of Sales and Dealer Network. I recruited him and got him to join Toyota… He did a brilliant job and I was immensely proud of him.”
And true to that prophecy he did scale the heights of automotive excellence, landing the top spot as President and CEO of Toyota Motor Europe (TME) in 2015. His successor, Matthew Harrison recounts that he “will forever remember his leadership and humour. He leaves behind an incredible legacy of his six years in Europe. Under his leadership, we grew the business to over 1 million sales and Toyota became the Number-two passenger car brand for the first time in our history. We also led the market in terms of our electrification mix and environmental performance. At the same time, we increased our profitability… We will also never forget his personal engagement in the Brexit negotiations to ensure the best possible outcome for Toyota.”
The Minister of Trade, Industry & Competition, Ebrahim Patel echoed Matt’s sentiments, highlighting how Johan was instrumental in helping to shape the new fit-for-purpose APDP: “He saw the opportunities to partner with government and to grow local component manufacturing. He just had passion for industrialisation. By 2019, before the pandemic hit, the industry in South Africa had reached record local production and export levels – a tribute to his leadership and his work.”
What was noteworthy is that despite the fact that each speaker touched on a different aspect of their time with the Doc, there was one golden thread – and that was sheer quality of his humanity. Roelf Meyer, summed it up the most appropriately: “Johan had the most unassuming nature – his interactions with people from grass-roots level to presidents was the same. It was a model on how all people should conduct themselves.”
It’s therefore fitting that Andrew Kirby closed off the event with the announcement that in recognition of Dr Van Zyl’s significant contribution to the SA motor industry, the National Association of Automotive Component and Allied Manufacturers (NAACAM) is going to set up a memorial education initiative in his name – the proceeds from the members will be bequeathed to TWIMS (Toyota Wessels Institute for Manufacturing Studies) and will be used as bursaries for deserving students.