The tough times ahead for the automotive sector will bring out the best in management talent, for which South Africa is already world-renowned.
According to Neale Hill, the managing director of Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa, the challenging economic and trading environment will help hone the skills of a new generation of managers, engineers and marketers in the auto sector. This will be a boon for South Africa and the world.
“As an industry, we were facing tough times even before Covid-19 further impacted business and society. We have, however, faced tough times before, and I firmly trust that we have the depth of management talent to survive and emerge stronger as Ford and as an industry,” says Hill.
According to Hill, South Africa is known the automotive world over as a hotbed for industry talent. Many brands send their promising managers to South Africa to build experience and expertise, while they often also draw on the locally developed talent to bolster their operations elsewhere in the world.
“The auto world is full of South Africans and SA-trained foreigners who now fill senior roles. This is because we have every aspect of the automotive industry in our relatively small market. With the addition of very high levels of competition, this has created the perfect pressure-cooker to grow excellent management skills.”
Hill explains that South Africa has a very developed industry, with all aspects represented. These include manufacturing, vehicle development, sales and marketing, organised labour, imports, exports and a deep and growing parts manufacturing supply network.
Added to that, he says, South Africa is an incredibly competitive market with over 60 brands and more vehicles added as soon as they become available internationally.
His view is mirrored by Mike Mabasa, executive director and CEO of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa (Naamsa).
“This market we call home is characterised by an incredibly high level of competition, a complex regulatory and tax environment, social and economic challenges and all the other issues that face the global industry, such as the rapid pace of technological advancement. We learn to function and thrive in this environment and it makes South African managers and auto specialists a hot commodity abroad,” says Mabasa.
Hill himself has spent time in different countries and in different roles with Ford since starting with the company as a graduate trainee in 1991. This includes the position of Regional Brand Manager and then leader of the Cross-Carline Brand Strategy division for Ford Asia Pacific in Bangkok and later as Managing Director for Ford New Zealand and General Manager for Sales for Ford in Australia.
In these roles, Hill was responsible for setting up and growing Ford’s presence in Asia, developing the local application of the Sync vehicle interface system and growing Ford’s market in New Zealand and Australia before returning to head up Ford Motor Company in Southern Africa.
“My story is not much different from that of many other South Africans in the industry. Names abound of people in very senior global positions and in highly specialised design, engineering and marketing positions for Ford and other brands in Japan, Europe, Asia Pacific and as far abroad as North America.”
Another well-known example for the company is Lewis Booth, the retired chief financial officer of Ford Motor Company, who honed his skills in South Africa before heading up Mazda in Japan and then joining the global senior management team of Ford in Dearborn, USA. He now serves on the board of Rolls Royce, amongst other roles.
Jacques Brent, Ford’s director for Product Marketing, on the other hand, serve as a great example of a South African making a name for himself abroad. Brent comes from a family of Ford employees: his father having worked for Ford for 38 years, beginning in his home town of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Today he has global responsibility for alignment between Ford’s Marketing and Product Development activities.
Over his 20-year career, Brent has accumulated deep marketing expertise from serving in multiple global assignments, spanning three continents. Prior to his current role, Brent served as president of Ford Middle East and Africa (MEA), leading the company’s operations of more than 70 markets and, before that, he served as vice president of marketing for Ford Asia Pacific, a role that covered the 12 major markets of the region.
Hill explains that South Africa is fully integrated into the global automotive vehicle supply chain, both for cars and other commercial vehicles. This has not only opened new markets for proudly South African built vehicles, but also for South Africans who want to expand their horizons abroad before returning home to apply their skills.
“Young people who are keen on seeing the world and growing their careers rapidly should consider the automotive sector. Our beloved industry not only represents some of the most advanced engineering opportunities but also sets the pace for marketing, research, human development and finances. There is surely a position for any type of professional skill in this industry and most of the automotive companies offer development programmes for young graduates.”
Ford is fully committed to supporting the National Government’s drive for the development of skills in South Africa and has been running on such development program for young graduates called the Young Professionals Development Program (YPDP) for about 20 years.
Learners who have successfully completed their undergraduate qualification from various fields of study, including engineering, finance and marketing are provided with an invaluable opportunity to gain practical experience in preparation of securing a permanent position.
Over 12 to 24 months the graduates may further their development through company-sponsored short skills training programs as well as post-graduate studies relevant to the motor industry. Learners also have access to the Ford inhouse learning database which hosts a range of digital learning programs.
Some learners now hold senior positions in the company, including Hill himself.
Hill says that young South Africans keen on working in the automotive industry should not only restrict their job search to the large manufacturers but also look to ancillary industries. South Africa is, for instance, the global hub for off-road racing vehicle development and is a core supplier of products such as leather seats and catalytic converters, with many of these suppliers based or represented in South Africa.
“As a South African, you have a lot to offer this industry. We are known to work hard, and our history and current economic circumstances make us very comfortable with challenging environments. We are known to be comfortable in environments with many different cultures, and we rarely panic. We make a plan and move forward,” concludes Hill.