BMW April 2022

Nico Vermeulen retired from the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa (NAAMSA) at the end of March after 37 years of yeoman service to this important automotive industry body. NAAMSA itself has a history of 85 years and only had a permanent director for the past 59 years, with Frank Locke serving for 22 years and Nico for the remainder. Mike Mabasa, who joined the organisation in November is the new executive director. 

During its long history NAAMSA has had 35 industry CEOs and the organisation has been pivotal in the development of an industry that has grown substantially as its members changed from being assemblers of imported components to becoming not only suppliers to the local market, but also a major exporter of built-up vehicles with substantial local content and a 7% contributor to the South African Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

An impressive group of movers and shakers in the motor and related industries assembled at the Johannesburg Country Club, Woodmead, last week to pay their respects to Nico and to welcome his successor to the ranks. 

Praise was heaped on the retiree, not only from industry executives at the function but also from several people who are no longer involved in the local business. 

Current NAAMSA President, Andre Kirby, who is also the President and CEO of Toyota South Africa Motors, was generous in his praise, saying: “Your professionalism, commitment and steadfast character have made an indelible mark on all of us and you’ll always be remembered for your passion for the industry and for driving an organisation that draws the various facets of the sector together, to work together and support each other, despite our different business models and challenges. 

“You have steered the (local) automotive industry through multiple challenges and will always be remembered for tirelessly and consistently promoting the industry to anyone who would listen!” 

Dr Johan van Zyl, former head of Toyota SA and NAAMSA president for several terms and now CEO of Toyota Europe, is another person who was full of praise for Nico’s career: “Your commitment and passion for the South African motor industry is legendary. Through your hard work and dedication, you are leaving behind a legacy. NAAMSA is broadly recognised as the most professional and best-managed representative industry body in South Africa.” 

Peter Searle, another past-president of NAAMSA and former managing director of Volkswagen SA, said: “Nico, you are the unsung hero of the motor industry and we all owe you a huge debt of gratitude for what you have contributed overs so many years.” 

Brand Pretorius, another person with a long and illustrious career in the local motor industry, both wholesale and retail, had this to say: “In the times in which we are living it is, regrettably, quite rare to describe a business associated as absolutely competent, committed and loyal. Nico epitomised all these attributes during his tenure at NAAMSA. 

“Thank you, Nico, for the power of your example. I learned a lot from you about your unwavering commitment to the wellbeing of your NAAMSA members. You are a true professional from a very point of view and I salute you for it. The contribution you made to our industry has been significant.”  

Nico  the man and his career 

Although dedicated to his career at NAAMSA, it was not a case of “all work and no play” for Nico Vermeulen. He is a devoted family man with wife Lorna, daughter Jane Cherniak, son-in-law Zev and granddaughters Gemma and Georgina; son Murray and wife Claire; son Brad, daughter-in-law Kerry and grandchildren Lilly and Tristan. 

Nico has always been a keen sportsman, having played squash, soccer, tennis, and rugby. He still plays squash regularly as well as continuing to be an enthusiastic weekend soccer player.  

Nico was educated at the University of Natal in Durban where he obtained degrees in Social Science (1969) and Commerce (1971) as well as an Honours B. Comm degree in Business Administration (1981). 

He entered the business world at Unilever SA in 1970 as a management trainee, then joining the Natal Chamber of Industries in 1974. He was appointed Director of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Industries in 1980.  

His next move was to NAAMSA in 1982 where he became the organisation’s second director, succeeding Frank Locke. Nico’s appointment coincided with the relocation of the NAAMSA office from Port Elizabeth to within sight of the Union Buildings in Pretoria. 

Besides his many NAAMSA responsibilities Nico has served on many other entities and business organisations, including two, non-consecutive three-year terms on the Council of the International Organisation of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, the Board of the Unemployment Insurance Fund, the Board of Productivity SA, the Council of Business Unity SA, the Motor Industry Development Council, and the Board of the Motor Industry Ombudsman. In addition, he has served on a number of audit and risk committees, including those of the Unemployment Insurance Fund, Productivity SA and the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry. 

“Changes are coming”  Mike Mabasa 

Mike Mabasa, the new executive director of NAAMSA, was also full of praise for Nico Vermeulen as to the manner in which the hand-over and mentoring has taken place. He said he found the prospect of taking over from an icon intimidating but he said that immediately after meeting and interacting with Nico he understood, appreciated, accepted, and respected the man for making it so easy and pleasant for him to find his way through a dynamic and ever-changing environment. 

“When people are on the way out (of an organisation), whether, through resignation or retirement, they (usually) drop their level of commitment to the organisation they serve. Not so with Nico Vermeulen  the opposite is, in fact, the case. His level of commitment and dedication to his work and his devotion to NAAMSA are truly second to none. 

“I know we have different views on many issues about the future of NAAMSA. Despite this he consistently continued to treat me with respect,” added Mabasa, who went on to say: “There is an African proverb that says, ‘What matters is not what you get, but what you leave behind.’ For me, this proverb speaks to the strength of the character of the man Nico Vermeulen and his professionalism, as well as what he has meant to NAAMSA.” 

By Roger Houghton