SPORTS FEATURE – JOEL STRANSKY
What the hell is the guy who kicked the winning drop goal in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final doing as the new head of a prominent car rental company?
Well, Hertz South Africa believes they’ve got their man and that they’re onto something as they look to turn their operation around. Joel Stransky, the former Springbok flyhalf and hero of that famous Ellis Park victory over New Zealand’s All Blacks, spent a year with Steinhoff International in a marketing and consulting role, before taking the reins at Hertz, as chief executive, in December.
“They asked me to come in and sort out the issues, and here we are,” says Stransky, but it’s clearly been a period of introspection for Hertz and a steep learning curve for the former rugby player.
“The last four months have been almost like parallel roads running simultaneously,” he says. “One has been learning about the car rental industry and its nuances, and understanding some of the basic principles. The other has been running the Hertz company, understanding our deficiencies and what we need to do to overcome those. It’s been a tough road and an emotional road. We had to lose some senior heads and get rid of some people – that’s never pleasant for both parties.”
Now, before you wonder if Stransky headed straight from the training ground into retirement and then on to the Hertz CEO’s position, think again. He’s been a part of the South African business community since returning from his final rugby stint with the Leicester Tigers in the UK in 2000. What started as a two-week exploratory trip to Johannesburg with wife Karen turned into a permanent stay, and the Stranskys haven’t looked back.
Stransky first got involved with Jordan Properties, before his most significant business move in 2001, joining up with another former rugby player in George Rautenbach, at MEGAPRO – Stransky’s first foray into the commercial side of sport. His time there involved, among others, running hospitality for the 2003 Cricket World Cup. It also culminated in him taking up a director’s position, and it’s clear that Stransky has only fond memories of his time with MEGAPRO.
“It was a good time, a happy time and a great time to be involved in sport. It was also, a great learning curve for me because I was able to understand sport on the one side and adapt many of the principles to business. It was almost a ‘soft’ launch into business for me,” says Stransky.
Thereafter, Stransky set up a financial services business with a friend of his, but concedes now that, “we probably never had the capital to really have a full go at it.” A year into that project he left, before using his old MEGAPRO contacts to explore getting electronic advertising boards into rugby.
From there, it was a hop, skip and a jump to the Altech Group, joining them as sales and marketing director of Altech Netstar, before taking on the managing director’s role of the Netstar Group after a year. Stransky remained in that position for two years until Steinhoff International approached him, and the rest, with regards to Hertz, is history.
One gets the sense that Stransky knows a challenge when he sees one and he’s certainly taken on one at Hertz. “Everyone told me how tough the car rental business was and how tricky the game is,” he says, “but I think the fundamentals are the same as any other business. The nuances, I suppose, are quite tough, in terms of managing your fleet well, ensuring that your utilisation is good and that you show some profit. I think the difficult part of this game is the fact that it’s so cut-throat. It’s almost as if there’s a constant price war happening - it’s hugely competitive. I suppose the biggest differentiator is that there is no differentiator at all. You can walk either side of your own shop door and someone next door will offer the same vehicle at the same price, with the same smile.”
So, if that’s the case, how do South African car rental companies get their edge? “There are ways of getting an edge,” says Stransky, “and right now we are working on a couple. Obviously, service is an issue in this country and we have also dropped the ball in the past. I would like to think that we’re not going to drop the ball ever again, but I’m sure we will. I’d like to think that when we make a service promise that we will deliver every single time and, hopefully, we will.”
Bold words, but not too much of a surprise from the former flyhalf who claims to draw on his experience with team sports every day. “You have to work as a team and rely on those around you. You have to communicate well and, most importantly, you have to focus on doing the little things well. If you do the little things perfectly, the big picture takes care of itself.”
So, what does that mean for the future of Hertz? “We’ve got through the tough stage,” says Stransky. “We’ve set an ethic and a foundation that we work and subscribe to and that our team of staff members have staff bought-in to. Going forward, we all understand now what the common goal is and what our strategy is and what we need t do to succeed.”
One wonders if the same theory applies to the current Springbok class, something Stransky is quite happy to offer an opinion on. He’s still very close to the game as a commentator with SuperSport and has high hopes for the Boks at this year’s World Cup in New Zealand, despite concerns over the potential make-up of the squad. “Even if the balance isn’t right and even if it is Dad’s Army, as some people are saying, then Dad’s Army, on any given day, is capable of beating any other team. I’ve no doubt we’ll progress to the semi-finals. They’ve got a nice pool, a nice soft quarter-final draw. We’ll get to the semis, where we’ll more than likely face the All Blacks – we can coast until there, play one big game and be in the final.”
Stransky is also happy that coach Peter de Villiers has ended speculation over the captaincy and gone for John Smit as the man to lead South Africa’s World Cup challenge. “He’s a great captain and a wonderful guy. His play has probably suffered a little bit of late, having played prop, tighthead and loosehead, and hooker. It just shows you how skilled and talented he is.”
Skilled, talented and probably patient is what Stransky will have to be, as he looks to take Hertz forward. “Every day we have more dramas to deal with,” he says, “but every day we have mini victories as well and every little victory inspires us to tomorrow.”
FAVOURITE TRAVEL DESTINATIONS TRAVEL MUST-HAVES
Mauritius - I love the beaches, the sea, the fishing and the golf
Rome – Just the most magnificent city
Venice – Having lived in Italy, we’ve seen Venice in every single condition
Italy and France – We love the social aspect of ski holidays
Mozambique – For the bush and fishing
Running shoes - first thing I pack – if I don’t exercise, I get grumpy
Laptop – because most of my trips are work-related
A good book – must be fiction – I’m not big on sports books
Music – my iPod is a must