Taking the helm of a major motor organization during a global health and economic crisis is not for everyone, but Isuzu Motors’ CEO Billy Tom accepted the challenge, and has overcome speed bumps to successfully grow the business. He speaks about the journey that led him on the road he is today.
“…what is driving me in Africa is intra-African trade. Africa has to trade with itself.”
Barely three months into South Africa’s national lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic – one of the strictest in the world at the time – Billy Tom took up the helm of CEO and GM of Isuzu Motors. With transit and travel closed to all but those termed ‘essential personnel’, taking on the responsibility to imprint a sense of stability, leadership and grow a vehicle manufacturing business was an arduous task. But Tom achieved just that, through embracing technology, pivoting the business to new opportunities and looking after Isuzu’s employees.
“… some of the things that the company did was to look after their employees during Covid-19” says Tom in an interview with FORBES AFRICA. “We didn’t retrench a single person.”
Isuzu Motors’ approach to engaging with the challenges the pandemic presented reflects the philosophy that informs why Tom was an appropriate choice to lead the business during these times.
Growing up in rural Alexandria in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, Tom learned early on in life that dedication, cooperation and humility are key. Despite having to redo several years of schooling due to ongoing anti-apartheid protests in 1980’s South Africa, Tom earned some extra money driving trucks during university, beginning a journey that led him on the road he is today.
“Every day the farmers would give me a job to drive trucks and get a little money… that instilled a lot in me – it instilled discipline… A lot of time in life when people see you eating your harvest, they eat their seeds. It has taught me to be patient,” continues Tom.
Commenting on his remarkable journey from truck driver to CEO of Isuzu Motors, Tom credits his early life and the desire to constantly create new opportunities, something that can’t be achieved if one doesn’t keep looking forward.
These characteristics are generally useful, but their value increased exponentially when Tom took up his position as CEO of Isuzu Motors at a pivotal and incredibly challenging time – the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdowns. Not only was this a tough time for business – particularly in the motor industry – but it also offered a unique obstacle to asserting his new leadership of the organization.
“It was quite an interesting one for me in that I signed my letter of appointment two days before the country went on lockdown,” Tom laughs. “The difficulty was, I didn’t meet any person… so I had to be very resourceful in how I introduced myself.”
Tom managed to achieve this through key management decisions and embracing technology. Under his guidance, Isuzu Motors moved immediately to work-from-home policies to protect their employees, and supplied them with the needed technological support to remote work. While many
companies did this, albeit half-heartedly, concerned that their employees would be slacking off without constant observation, Tom embraced the change to much success.
“One of the things I believe in is trust – because when you have people working from home, you’ve got to trust that they do the work… and people didn’t disappoint,” says Tom.
And it worked. Management also lowered costs where they could, including reducing salary increases and reducing management salaries to preserve funding. The result was that not a single employee was retrenched during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
This humane approach to management allowed for Tom to gain high levels of trust and productivity during the worst levels of the pandemic, and allowed Isuzu to be on the front foot as vaccination levels increased and daily life slowly returned to normal. That was Tom’s moment to push for growth.
“We are in a fortunate position in that our offering is more commercial orientated,” says Tom, explaining the commercial vehicle market which is a large component of Isuzu’s business. Focusing on market segments that saw growth during and after the lockdowns allowed for Isuzu to move from strength to strength. “The [commercial vehicles] segment grew drastically… but also the section that is more leisure, your double cabs and SUVs… because people couldn’t go into crowded areas, they started to go outside and doing things like camping… Agriculture is another area where we are strong.”
Tom is using this resourcefulness to grow the business into Africa as well, with a focus on inter-African development as well. With primary manufacturing occurring in South Africa, resources are being invested all over the continent to open up both new markets and develop manufacturing capacity in these markets for future growth.
“With the African Free Trade Area agreement, we see Africa as a huge opportunity,” says Tom. “South Africa is one country, and that gives you about 80% [revenue], many other countries give us 20%, but the potential for growth is massive… to me, what is driving me in Africa is intra-African trade. Africa has to trade with itself.”
This vision for the development of Isuzu Motors in South Africa and the continent more broadly is also driven by Tom’s personal philosophies around upliftment. Speaking on the ravaging effects that both the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2021 unrest in South Africa has had, he makes it clear that he believes upliftment is the only long-term solution.
“A child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth,” says Tom, quoting an old African proverb. “As a leader, I’ve always said we need to create opportunities for generations to follow…”