Richard van den Engel arrived at Ebbett Toyota 18 months ago during challenging times. Challenging enough that they had no chance of winning dealership awards at the annual black-tie Toyota awards evening, held at the Dunedin Town Hall at the start of March.
But things have been improving for the Waikato firm, and CEO van den Engel was given an unexpected leadership award in Dunedin.
The win was for the team, he says, after a year in which they reclaimed top spot in Waikato for car registrations, which they hadn’t managed for some years.
“We set out at the beginning of 2019, knowing that Toyota was number one nationwide and has been for 31 years, but hasn’t been number one in Waikato for a very long time. So we wanted to reclaim the prize. And we did.”
Van den Engel pays tribute to his predecessor who he says had done an “incredibly good job”. His own appointment was intended to be short term, after he switched from dealer principal at Ebbett Volkswagen. But he’s “absolutely loving” the new role, and isn’t in a hurry to do anything else just now.
He says with the difficulties the firm faced, the temptation could have been to trim sails and cut costs. Instead he and the management team looked for a different way.
“I shamelessly borrow the saying from Richard Branson: ‘If you invest in your people, they’ll look after your customers.’
“When we sat down as a management team at the beginning of 2019, we really embraced that. It took some deep breaths, because when you want to grow a business or when you want to perform better than you are, your natural tendency is to look for ways to cut costs or drive people harder, or be more aggressive.
“Instead of doing that, we said, let’s try and understand what our unique selling position is and build a strategy around that. And if we do that well, and have a singular focus and a singular vision, then we’ll trust the process and that the results will follow.”
He says they focused on customer experience, and giving people reasons to choose them rather than the competition.
That meant, he says, empowering frontline staff who are engaging with customers to deliver the best experience they can. “The role of management becomes to serve that frontline in terms of eliminating roadblocks, making it easier for them to serve the customers, to make the process efficient.”
The process involved trying to define up front what success would look like for each staff member.
“My attitude is, we all come to work and we don’t want to fail, we want to do a good job.
“We set a vision; we said, this is where we want to head, this is what we want to do as a team. And then we set about defining what winning looks like. We said, ‘in your role, how do you contribute to that overall vision?’
When it comes to the award, van den Engel says he sees it as recognition for the leadership team as a whole.
“I would accredit the award to the leadership of the management team rather than to myself,” he says.
“I guess as we look back on the year, we’re satisfied with where we’ve ended up, and the growth continues.”
The van den Engel family owns Ebbett together with the son of the founder, Richard Ebbett, and Richard van den Engel finally joined the family firm after initially setting out to do architecture, combining his love of art and proficiency in maths, then turning to accounting (when he initially sought to join the family firm, his father said: “we don’t need architects”). As an accountant he worked for Deloitte for some years, in London, Auckland and Hong Kong, and then made the transition to Ebbett.
With Toyota, he says he has joined a brand that he says has been No 1 in New Zealand for 32 years, with almost double the market share of their nearest competitor.
“When you look at a brand like that from the outside, you go, ‘wow, they must be doing some things right. There must be some things that are going on in that network that I can learn from.’
“I guess that was my attitude all along. I was excited to engage with the brand and learn what I could.”
He says Toyota is “incredibly focused” on investing in its staff. “People that I’ve met at Toyota New Zealand are absolutely passionate about the brand and where it’s heading.
“There’s a real connection with Kiwis. Toyota have a clear value proposition, that they’ve stuck to. They’re not changing it every year, they’re not even changing it every decade.”
The volume of sales also creates an opportunity in terms of service and parts, simply because of the number of Toyotas on the road.
Van den Engel says they are seeing a growing interest in lower-emissions vehicles.
“We’ve got consumers coming in saying: I want to own a hybrid, I want to do the right thing by the environment.”
That sees Toyota’s hybrids taking off at a surprising rate. The newest RAV4 model, released midway through last year, has a hybrid option.
“We expected If we were lucky, maybe every second RAV4 would be a hybrid. But it turns out the demand for hybrids is so significant, that number was more like 80-20 [80 percent hybrid].”
He says Toyota is thinking about the future in other ways as well, and has showcased its e-Palette, “which is essentially this autonomous electric pod, which can be used as a motel room or a shop or a shuttle bus or anything like that.
“So you’ve got Toyota thinking well into the future and asking questions around how will people get around in the future and what part can we play in that?
“It’s a really exciting future, and all sorts of ideas are coming through.”
As for the changes he has helped drive in his short time at Ebbett Toyota: “I’ve really enjoyed having faith in the process and actually seeing some results. Taking the plunge and saying, do you know what, we’re going to invest in our people. We’re going to start with the engagement of our people, we’ll trust that to follow on to customer experience and we’ll trust that to deliver the results – and it’s worked. That’s something that is incredibly exciting.”