Isuzu Motors South Africa (Isuzu SA) has a new captain at the helm. Describing himself as a plaasjapie from Alexandria, in the Eastern Cape, Billy Tom (50) has been appointed CEO and MD from July 1.
He succeeds outgoing MD Michael Sacke, who has opted to pursue other opportunities.
The product of a farm school which saw him drive trucks during university holidays, Tom says he has always been passionate about the automotive industry – especially the trucking industry.
He has more 22 years’ experience in the automotive, banking and fastmoving consumer goods sectors. He has a BCom from Rhodes University and a Master of Business Leadership degree from Unisa.
He started his career at Distell and then worked at SABMiller, Standard Bank, General Motors (GM) and finally at Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa/Abi, where he spent the last 12 years.
His most recent role there was as Alternative Revenue Streams GM, where he was responsible for soft drinks exports into Africa, Asia and Australasia.
Prior to this, Tom was involved in setting up the premium vehicle channel at GM, which led to the launch of the Cadillac and Hummer brands and dealerships in South Africa.
GM has since exited South Africa, with Japanese auto maker Isuzu moving in to take over the management of its brand from GM in the country and setting up its own 100% subsidiary at the same Port Elizabeth facilities.
“When this opportunity came about, I grabbed it,” says Tom.
“A lot of the people here are still familiar from my time at GM, but it is a completely different company. Back then Isuzu was one of the brands within GM, and now it is a standalone brand. Having that kind of focus on one brand means you understand the segments you operate in much better.
“Also, the more you focus, the more you are able to mine new opportunities, especially within your customer base. And, when you become smaller, you become more flexible, more nimble and more agile in responding to customer issues.
“Despite our segments slowing down, we have gained market share, which means we have been able to find more and more opportunities in the market.”
Production and Covid-19
Tom’s appointment comes at a time of unprecedented change as the Covid-19 pandemic wreaks havoc in the economy.
Isuzu SA last year produced 19 600 bakkies and just more than 3 600 trucks.
“Given the current situation, it is difficult to provide projected numbers for 2020, but we anticipate that the market may decline by 30% this year,” says Tom.
“Our business is highly linked to the economy, but we have the ability to adjust production to meet demand – equally so if there is an uptick.”
Tom says Isuzu SA is working hard to preserve the 1 000 jobs at its plant.
“From late April we have embarked on the four-day work week, with pay in accordance to this, up until the end of the year. This includes the production line, office staff and myself, to ensure we minimise the impact of the pandemic on our operations.
“If the economy improves we may go back to five days, but for now we are able to meet market demand,” notes Tom.
Isuzu SA has had 100% of its manufacturing employees at work from June 1. (Salaried employees are encouraged to work from home.)
All 79 dealers in the country, employing around 4 000 people, are open.
Isuzu SA also exports to markets in sub-Saharan Africa, where the brand has 33 dealers.
“We have had surprising demand from the rest of Africa,” says Tom.
“Last month [May] we exported more than 200 units, so there is demand. I had a meeting with the African dealers and there is a lot of positivity.
“Each African country is at a different stage with Covid-19,” notes Tom.
“Also, other than in South Africa, some countries are not so well developed, which means there is still room for Isuzu to grow in Africa in this environment.”
Tom adds that all of Isuzu SA’s component manufacturers and suppliers are still operational and able to supply the company with production parts.
“We are working closely with them to monitor the stock situation.
“The Port Elizabeth harbour is also operating well, so we have no shortage of imported stock.”
Those companies able to adapt the quickest will be the ones to survive the Covid-19 economy, says Tom.
“The automotive industry will never be the same.
“Think of 9/11 and how it changed the way we travel. That is almost 20 years ago but those changes remain with us. Covid-19 will change us. It will change the customer and it will change lifestyles and mindsets.
“People may no longer use ride-hailing services, because they do not feel safe. They may also prefer to buy a car digitally. We kick tyres electronically now. Covid-19 will eliminate dealers that are not able to respond to this need.”
Every vehicle company has a website, adds Tom, but the quality differs.
“We need to reimagine how we respond to customers.”
Another challenge Tom faces is to gear up the Isuzu plant for the launch of the new D-Max bakkie in the second half of next year, and to bring the vehicle to market successfully.
Isuzu Motors of Japan is investing R1.2-billion into the next generation bakkie programme in South Africa, with an additional total local content value of R2.8-billion to be generated through the lifecycle of the programme.
While Isuzu is in a comfortable second position in the single-cab workhorse market in South Africa, Tom hopes to gain some ground in the lucrative double-cab market with the introduction of the new bakkie.
“We are lagging on the double-cab side,” says Tom. “We need to build our product here. We need to get more balance in the leisure-lifestyle segment and I’m confident that we’ll be able to make up for this lag with the new product.
“We need to grow our revenue. We need everyone to do well, which will strengthen our dealer network.”
“Transformation is also an imperative,” adds Tom. “That doesn’t mean replacing white with black, but changing how the business operates.”
Tom would also like to further entrench the Isuzu culture within the two-year-old organisation.
“The last two years [since splitting from GM] has been about adapting to a new culture and now we need to set the tone for Isuzu in South Africa.”