The recent passing of Dr Johan van Zyl, Executive Chairman of Toyota South Africa Motors, was a huge blow not only for Toyota, but also for the local automotive industry as well as for South Africa as a whole.
Van Zyl (63), who died from post-COVID 19 complications in a Pretoria hospital, was an academic from North-West University who rose to international heights with Toyota in the motor industry while remaining a patriotic South African.
Besides his demanding business life, he was actively involved in several undertakings to improve the country’s economy and the lives of its people. He and former politician Roelf Meyer were the driving forces which led to Van Zyl’s Public Private Growth Initiative becoming a reality in 2018.
Van Zyl’s move onto the global stage with Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) began in 2009 when he became a TMC Managing Officer. In 2013 he was appointed CEO for the Africa Region. Then, in 2015, he moved to Brussels as Toyota Europe President and CEO, where he led Toyota’s European operations, which include Russia, Turkey, Israel, and central Asian countries, until he retired in April this year. He was succeeded by his sales and marketing chief, Matthew Harrison.
Van Zyl was appointed a Senior Managing Officer of TMC in 2017, making him one of only a few non-Japanese board members.
Toyota Europe delivered sustained strong business results under his strategic and operational leadership, with annual sales passing the one-million mark in 2019 and for the first time in 10 years Toyota’s market share exceeded 6% in 2020. During his stewardship Toyota also became a low emissions leader with its hybrid-dominated model range. He received an Automotive News Europe Eurostar award in the European Operations Head category in 2018.
Van Zyl was born on June 8, 1958, in Springs on the East Rand and obtained a doctorate in business economics at the University of Potchefstroom (now North-West University) in 1986 and began an academic career. However, he was already keen on cars and took a shareholding in Kyalami Toyota in Potchefstroom as part of his business interests outside his academic post.
This led to his appointment as Director of Vehicle Sales and Dealer Network at Toyota South Africa in 1993. He and his family continued to live in Potchefstroom, which meant a daily commute to the TSA head office in Sandton for several years. Van Zyl relocated later to a house in Die Willers in Pretoria and in 2002 he was appointed President and Chief Operations Officer (COO) of Toyota SA. The sudden death of Toyota SA Chairman, Bert Wessels, in December 2002, led to Van Zyl becoming the company’s President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in 2003.
I had the privilege and pleasure of working with Van Zyl from the time he joined Toyota SA in 1993 until my retirement at the beginning of 2007. This included my wife, Meg, and I going with Johan and his wife, Santie, as the Toyota SA representatives on a very enjoyable, rugby-based dealer incentive trip to Britain in 1998. We maintained ongoing contact after my retirement and I had the opportunity to interview him for an hour in May this year, soon after his return from Brussels.
Following the interview at his office in Sandton office I was able to write three different articles, one for Automobil focusing on the future of industry bodies (he was President of NAAMSA in 2006-2007 and again in 2013), the second, for AutoLive covered his career, while the third article, for Business Fleet Africa, was very topical and was headed “Vehicle energy sources will continue to vary according to world regions.”
Chatting after the interview he said he was excited at the prospect of starting a new life, working three days a week as Executive Chairman of Toyota SA, while having time for his many other interests, which included those involved with his patriotic commitment to the betterment of South Africa and his love of classic cars.
He said he was having a museum built for his collection of 20 cars and we would get together later in the year to view and discuss them. They included an extremely rare Toyota 2000 GT, Toyota 800 Sport, Lexus LF-A supercar, Jaguar E-Type, an MGA, Austin Healey 3000, an MGB, Citroen, several Land Cruisers, and an Alfa Romeo – which was his very first car – bought in Potchefstroom and fully restored years later in Pretoria.
Besides his interest in cars and motorsport, Van Zyl was an ardent rugby supporter, which saw him using sponsorships in this sport as powerful marketing tools. This included Toyota’s sponsorship of the 1995 World Rugby Cup, then the Blue Bulls rugby team and later major support for the Free State Cheetahs franchise.
His business acumen and enthusiasm for a wide range of other interests made him an incredibly special person. He will be sorely missed.
Johan van Zyl is survived by his wife, Santie, daughters Nadia and Karia, sons-in-law Dirk and Brent and grandchildren Juno van Rooy (4) and Kylo Swart (18 months).
By Roger Houghton
Pic by Ian Groat