Heels & Horsepower Magazine

Johan Van Zyl 25

Tribute to a global industry giant, the late Dr Johan van Zyl

On Friday 6th August 2021, industry player from around the globe, joined Toyota South Africa bid farewell to one of Africa’s business giants, Dr Johan van Zyl, during a touching celebration of his life and legacy.  

Dr van Zyl began his career with the company in 1993 as Director for Vehicle Sales & Dealer Network. He was appointed President and COO of Toyota South Africa (TSA) in 2002, and President and CEO in 2003. In June 2009, Dr van Zyl was appointed as a Managing Officer, Toyota Motor Corporation(TMC), CEO of Africa Region in April 2013, and Senior Managing Officer in April 2017.

In 2015 he took on the role of President and CEO of Toyota Motor Europe (TME) until his retirement in early 2021. It was noted that he left an indelible mark there too as, under his tenure, sales in Europe passed the one-million mark in 2019 for the first time in 10 years. On his return to South Africa, Dr van Zyl remained chairman of TSA.

He was without a doubt my mentor and confidante and I’m going to miss bouncing ideas off him.

– Andrew Kirby, Dr van Zyl’s successor and current President and CEO of Toyota South Africa

“The Doc”, as he was affectionately known, had an uncanny sense of knowing just what consumers want and he was able to instill this thinking in all his colleagues, which is why he had such a profound impact on the Toyota Family.

But for all his successes in the corporate world, what “The Doc” will be remembered for the most was his humanity – his ability to remember the name of each and every person he came into contact with, his self- deprecating sense of humour that immediately put everyone at ease, and his comprehensive wealth of general knowledge.

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.”

Brand Pretorius

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.

He saw the opportunities to partner with government and to grow local component manufacturing

– Ebrahim Patel, Minister of Trade, Industry & Competition

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.

Toyota South Africa is also going to establish a Dr Johan van Zyl Scholarship Bursary Endowment Fund to further the much-needed education of previously-disadvantaged South Africans. (In a similar vein, Matthew Harrison also announced that TME would be establishing a foundation in Dr van Zyl’s name to support education and uplift young people; a scholarship in the Doc’s name will likewise be set up in Israel.)

Share this article: