Although she hadn’t contemplated a career in the motor industry, 20 years after joining Mercedes-Benz, Maretha Gerber finds herself heading up the brand’s trucking business
Nearly two decades ago, when Maretha Gerber arrived at Mercedes-Benz South Africa’s Head Office in Centurion, near Pretoria, to demonstrate the capabilities of a photocopier machine, she had no idea that one day she would return to the building as head of Mercedes-Benz Trucks.
“I was working as a sales executive for a copier company at the time,” she says. “The day following my presentation I received a phone call from one of the people who had attended. He wanted to know whether I would consider working for Mercedes-Benz – there was an opening for an account executive.
“I had always had an interest in vehicles – and Mercedes-Benz models in particular, since my family had owned a number of the cars when I was growing up – so I thought: ‘Why not?’ An interview was arranged and I got the job. That was in 2000 – and I’ve been associated with the brand ever since.”
It was little more than a year ago that Gerber was appointed head of Mercedes-Benz Trucks following a three-year stint as dealer principal at Mercedes-Benz Rosebank, a key Johannesburg branch in the brand’s dealer network.
Previously, she had gained extensive managerial experience at head office following appointments in various key departments – including sales, strategy and marketing – where she had obtained insights into, and an understanding of, many of the integral parts of the brand’s operations.
Last year, when welcoming Gerber back to Centurion, Jasper Hafkamp, executive director of Daimler Truck and Bus South Africa, said of her: “She is no stranger to the automotive sector and she has proved that she is invaluable to any team of which she has been part. Mercedes-Benz Trucks was looking for someone with leadership qualities, who could innovate and ensure that the brand would continue to be the best. Gerber ticked all of those boxes, and more!”
As head of a business unit that had traditionally been the preserve of men, Gerber admits to having been a little nervous about moving into the driver’s seat. However, given her motor industry experience – and the full acceptance of the team with which she was working – she quickly found the job to be less awkward than she originally expected.
“Good teamwork is vital to success,” she says. “The quality of the support I received helped me to settle in smoothly. Being surrounded by people you can rely on always makes a big difference. Here, everyone lives the brand … there’s common focus. It’s been that way since day one.”
That said, she reveals that her first year in office has been quite a journey. Highlights have included the launch of a new-generation Actros – the most popular seller in the Mercedes-Benz truck stable – as well as the unveiling of the Arocs, a heavy-duty vehicle aimed at the construction sector. On the negative side, the poor state of South Africa’s economy has impacted sales in specific segments of the truck market – including the sector in which the Arocs competes.
“As far as sales go, there have been disappointments,” she says. “Equally, there are no significant signs that growth will occur soon. On the upside, the first three months of the year were great for Mercedes-Benz. We saw a lot of interest from transport operators not usually associated with the brand, as well as from our loyal customers. The added buoyancy helped us to make a number of conquest sales, which was pleasing.
“Since then, however, conditions have toughened – and I think volumes in the market generally will stay flat for the rest of the year. Business confidence remains under pressure and, although we were expecting an upswing in sales following May’s general election, that didn’t happen. I remain optimistic, however. I believe that next year will see an upward trend in the truck market generally, with the trajectory continuing into 2021.”
Though the new-generation Actros remains the star performer in the Mercedes-Benz Trucks line-up, the brand is a leading participant in all of the commercial vehicle segments in which it competes – medium, heavy and extra-heavy – with road efficiency, cost reduction, and aftersales back-up fundamental to enhancing the total ownership experience across all categories.
“While each of our products has a reputation for excellence, our ability to offer total solutions contributes substantially to the way the market perceives the brand,” Gerber says. “We have a strong and effective dealer network that stretches across the country and into neighbouring territories – enabling us to take responsibility even for cross-border assets.
“The aftersales aspect remains the backbone of our road-efficiency programme. It is critical to our overall success, and is an enabler in terms of service, preventative maintenance and repair – the main aim being to reduce truck downtime. It operates extremely efficiently and, in terms of feedback, is much-appreciated by our customers for its dedicated, premium-quality technical support.”
She’s been encouraged, too, by the growth of Mercedes-Benz’s TruckStore operation, which is responsible for sales of used commercial vehicles. “TruckStore provides a service that offers the same reliability that is synonymous with the Mercedes-Benz and Daimler brands, and it prides itself on being a trustworthy business partner for its customers.
“Essentially, vehicles sold through the division provide value for their new owners in the same way that new vehicles do – the operation is working very well,” she says. “It has also become a significant enabler for new vehicle sales, which is pleasing from a business perspective.”
So, is there anything in particular that customers look for when buying a truck? Her response is immediate: “Fuel efficiency is paramount from a running-cost point of view – and transport operators see that factor as one of Mercedes-Benz’s most significant strengths.
“The new Actros, for instance, has been shown in tests to offer fuel savings of between five and ten percent compared with the model it has replaced. Similarly, the new Arocs has been lauded for its fuel efficiency, as have other models in our line-up.”
She adds that recently more customers have begun to take cognisance of the way the vehicles they operate affect the environment, with one key fleet operator stipulating that he would buy only trucks fitted with
Euro-5 engines, which run on low-sulphur diesel. “It’s a trend that I believe is beginning to establish itself in South Africa, and it is one of Mercedes-Benz Trucks’s strategic focus areas,” she says.
Vehicle uptime and efficiency in the field are other factors that influence customer purchasing decisions, with the capability of digitally managing fleet operations playing a central role. In this respect, Gerber says Mercedes-Benz’s FleetBoard management system is a popular choice among new-vehicle customers, boasting a penetration level that exceeds 70 percent.
“Driver training, too, is a factor, with Mercedes-Benz being well placed to uplift skills through our various programmes. We are also involved in driver wellness projects, which, in turn, contribute to road safety. Essentially, though, any aspect of a vehicle’s operation that helps to drive down cost, provide more efficiency and add comfort and safety is well appreciated by our customers – and our products and services are designed to meet all of those demands, and more. It’s our ability to provide a total solution that counts most.”
Does she have advice for women who may be thinking of a career in the motor industry? “The environment is not as daunting as many women may believe,” she says. “A few women both here and overseas occupy significant positions within the industry. I think that common to most is a passion for things automotive and the drive to make a difference. The point is that anyone who really loves the motor industry can contribute.”