A Mercedes-Benz Vito 115 CDI panel van has clocked more than 1-million kilometres without any major engine or gearbox repairs or replacement. And that’s thanks also to sticking to regular maintenance, says the Johannesburg-based owner who uses the panel van for transporting human remains from hospitals and mortuaries to funeral parlours all over Southern Africa.
Zac M. Letsoalo, a 37-year old Johannesburg entrepreneur, who was born in the Limpopo Province, operates from Braamfontein, a precinct of central Johannesburg, where several of South Africa’s biggest funeral services groups have their headquarters.
Letsoalo’s business, Let’s Management & Transport Services CC, operates from a smart, electronically equipped office suite.
“Many people, whilst working away from home, die from natural causes, or in accidents, natural disasters or as a result of crime. We ensure they are brought home in a dignified and decent manner. We also repatriate remains to outlying areas and regions,” he says.
Human remains repatriation is a specialised service dictated by procedures prescribed by international standards. It is an end-to-end process that needs a speedy, reliable response. Part of Letsoalo’s service offering is to fetch remains from homes, hospitals, police mortuaries, etc. and store them in the company morgue until repatriation. This, from the Johannesburg end, often involves the cleansing and embalming side of the process, especially if there are long distances to be travelled.
In terms of logistics, Letsoalo has been providing a transportation service from his own mortuary to funeral parlours in Southern Africa since 2003. He started with two pickups fitted with canopies. In 2006, he decided to provide a more fitting mode of transportation and chose the Vito 115 CDI. The deal was made through the Mercedes-Benz Commercial Vehicles dealership in Centurion, who arranged the necessary finance.
Transport to cross-border, as well as other sub-Saharan or overseas countries, requires the preparation of relevant documentation and authorisations, including forensic medicine, embalming and infection control certification. These documents must also be issued in the different languages spoken in various country destinations. Apart from English, this could require Portuguese, French or Arabic translations and the need for foreign government approvals via local consulates or embassies.
Letsoalo gained valuable experience in this field while employed by the well-known Medical Rescue International organisation in Johannesburg, which provides worldwide ambulance, repatriation and financial services to insurance companies and travellers. Before that, he spent three years with First National Bank while studying for a Diploma in Business Administration and Marketing from Damelin College.
Looking at local requirements and seeing a business opportunity, Letsoalo decided to take his Vito and market an efficient repatriation service to funeral undertakers around the country. People appreciated the service and over the past five years, he has had to purchase six more Vitos and a Sprinter panel van. He has also employed additional drivers and administrative staff to help him cope with the demand.
While Letsoalo now employs a staff of 12 people to handle the entire process, he also uses a clearing and forwarding agency to take care of the more intricate aspects, especially when remains are flown in to or out of the country over long distances. The regions he serves now have reached as far north as Eritrea, Nigeria, the DRC, Tanzania and Kenya.
While most of the road distances travelled are on tarred road, the vehicles have also gone off-road and braved “the sandy roads of Mozambique, the hot dry, climate of Botswana, the high altitude of mountainous Lesotho and the rugged roads of Zimbabwe”.
“I believe our success is all due to my first Vito, which provided a more dignifying service while also raising the corporate image of the business at the same time. I am still paying off that first Vito but was able to pay cash for the others, some of which were demo models. Unfortunately two have been in accidents and have been written off. I will not sell the first Vito because it has made my business grow,” he says.
Letsoalo also attributes his success to the low fuel consumption of the vehicles, their reliability and the excellent back-up service he gets from the Centurion and other Mercedes-Benz dealerships on the West Rand and the East Rand.
“I get about 740, up to 750 kilometers on a full tank, which is important when you travel long distances. Servicing the vehicles regularly at the right intervals prolongs the lifespan of the vehicles and prevents breakdowns, which I cannot afford to happen in this business. Obviously, parts like shocks need to be replaced and only once was there a hiccup – I waited for more than a day for a spare part which had to be obtained from another dealership.”
Letsoalo loves marketing and when the first Vito, virtually his corporate symbol, reached 999 964 km during April this year (2011), he did not hesitate to notify the Mercedes-Benz head office of an important event to happen. A photographer was sent out for the ride that would see the odometer tick over, but.....
“We took it on the N1 towards the Grasmere off ramp but when it got to 999 999km, it stopped at that. But that’s fine with me,” he said, proudly.
The Vito 115 CDI, is powered by a 4-cylinder in-line diesel turbo engine and offers 110 kW of power and 330 Nm of torque. This model has since been replaced by the Vito 116 CDI offering increased power of 120 kW and 360 Nm of torque.
“We are pleased to note that Let’s Management & Transport Service pay attention to the regular servicing of their vehicles and through this continued maintenance they have enjoyed outstanding reliability, safety and economy,” says Mpumelelo Zulu, Product Manager, Mercedes-Benz Vans.
The ergonomic loading facility of the panel van; 56 cm load height from ground, together with the twin sliding doors and large rear tailgate, makes for easy access in and out of the Vito. In addition, the spacious and secure loading area of 2,7 m length of load floor with secure floor anchors (lugs), makes the Vito panel van an ideal business solution.
The Mercedes-Benz Vito also comes with an unparalleled range of safety and assistance systems as standard. All models feature a brake system with powerful and robust disc brakes on all wheels, electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and adaptive brake lights which display an emergency braking signal when the brakes are fully applied.
Numerous active safety features are also on board the Vito. The ESP Electronic Stability Programme with anti-lock braking system (ABS), acceleration skid control (ASR) and brake assist (BAS) is obligatory for all Vito models. Vehicles which are factory-fitted with a trailer coupling come with trailer stabilisation (also known as trailer stability assist -"TSA"-) as standard (optional for 113 CDI only). An additional standard safety feature is the Hill-Start Assist.
“The Vito model range comes standard with a 2-year warranty/unlimited mileage, and is fitted standard with the onboard ASSYST system. This best-in-class offering with 30 000 km service intervals, is clearly shown in the instrument cluster. Taking into consideration the high mileage the Vito 115 CDI has travelled, much of which has been on rugged terrain, and the general wear and tear encountered since purchase in 2006, we believe we have a definite winner,” concludes Zulu.