From tradesman to the top! Time to think, time to do!
Sean Stevens has been promoted to VINZ’s chief executive officer after acting in the role since September 2019.
The chief executive officer of Vehicle Inspection NZ (VINZ) is proud to have progressed to the pinnacle of the business after starting his working life as a tradie.
“There are people in this world who are doers and there are others who are thinkers,” explains Sean Stevens.
“I wasn’t a great thinker at school, so I was always destined for a trade when I left. I enjoyed electrical and was drawn to the automotive electrical trade. I enjoyed it and still do.
“I don’t do anywhere near as much work on my own cars and my friends’ as I used to do, but it’s nice to know that I could do that work if I wanted to.
“Having a trade is a great career. The motor-vehicle industry is great to be in because it’s constantly changing and evolving. There are challenges in any business, yet I still can’t wait to get in my car and drive to work every morning.”
Stevens left James Cook High School in Manurewa, South Auckland, at the end of the fifth form – or year 11, as it’s now known – to start a four-year apprenticeship.
However, as a 20-year-old he was restless and shifted to Australia and spent the next four years doing all sorts of odd jobs “just to try new things”. These ranged from bar work, waiting tables and bit-part acting jobs in television, to working in a bookshop and doing casual auto-electrical jobs.
“It was a good lifestyle for a single person living in Sydney,” recalls Stevens, who returned to New Zealand in 1994 and started his own mobile business installing security systems in cars.
“After a few years, I decided it was much easier to work for someone else and became a sales rep for Transport Wholesale Ltd and PartzCo.”
By mid-1999, Stevens was off overseas again, this time the UK where he drove trucks for the film industry for about a year before going into customer service at a Volkswagen dealership.
He met his wife in the UK and he became an Audi technician with Continental Cars in Auckland after they returned home in late 2001.
“I worked up to service manager with Peugeot and left in 2007 to take up the Citroen national service manager role for the Ateco Group.
“My experience was on the retail side of the business but I wanted to try the wholesale side with Ateco. I started with Citroen and eventually oversaw that brand, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Great Wall and Chery.
“A highlight of my career from back then was Great Wall arriving in New Zealand. It was the first Chinese-made brand to be imported here and retailed through our network. It’s rare to get the opportunity to set up a service brand from scratch, so it was great to be able to do that.”
Stevens moved on in 2015 to get more exposure to higher management.
“When I left, I was Ateco’s after-sales manager but without a sales background I felt this was the limit. I wanted to refocus and was also interested in regulatory. The national manager of delivery position came up at VINZ. It was a role that included regulatory and more opportunity.”
Stevens has been with VINZ ever since, moving up to general manager of operations then acting chief executive officer in September 2019 before his appointment at the top was made permanent in February.
“VINZ is fantastic to work for. We have a great team of people across our network, which makes my job easier. The bottom line is that we do our best to put safe vehicles on our roads.
“One of the key things for me is to instill great customer service. It’s important all customers feel they’re getting value for their money and are happy to use our products and services.
“A part of my new role is to continue to develop VINZ’s vision and how we move forward with that.
“I would like to continue the great work Gordon Shaw has done over the years, and to carry on improving health-and-safety measures and staff well-being while keeping business profitability front of mind.
“I’m still involved daily with the operational side but once we have this position filled, I will be spending more time on the strategic side.”
Part of Stevens’ role is to work with government departments and agencies in the inspection space, and to ensure vehicles entering and already in the fleet are safe for our roads.
VINZ has its own “rules of engagement” for its inspectors, who all work under an inspector code of conduct with NZTA.
The agency’s past history in enforcement has been well-documented, and it’s now pro-actively taking action when it comes to inspection and certification.
It has extended notice of appointments in these two sectors for service providers, including its key service delivery partners – VINZ, VTNZ and the AA – until June 30 when successful applicants will be awarded fixed terms of between three and five years.
The decision to go ahead with this process has given the inspection industry some degree of certainty moving forward.
It’s understood the NZTA is looking to clarify some “grey areas, which will certainly help – not just us, but all inspectors with consistency of decisions so everyone is inspecting at the same level”.
“At the moment, I don’t think there are many inspectors who don’t understand the rules, but they may apply them slightly differently,’ says Stevens.
“The NZTA is doing some good work in this space. It has always engaged with us, we’ve had a lot of discussions about what needs to happen and where standards should be at, and I think it’s on the right track to helping the industry ensure vehicles are safe.
“The agency is looking to have more information collected from inspectors, but the bulk of requirements are already collected albeit in differing systems. This hasn’t been provided to NZTA yet because it hasn’t been a requirement, but it will require it later this year.
“There are professional businesses out there that do things well and with good systems in place. Then there are others that don’t do such a good job.
“A few of them got caught last year with not having good practices. Some people may have intentionally failed to follow the rules during inspections, while others would have carried them out without a good understanding of the rules.
“We know July 1 is when the new contracts will start from, but we don’t have any timeline on application processing as of yet.”
Stevens is keen to acknowledge there are always systems that can be improved in any organisation, and one of the main steps the agency has taken is recognising areas that weren’t so good and doing something about them.
“We’re starting to see a lot of progress coming through. If the NZTA continues in this way, we will end up with a robust process and a great network providing safer outcomes.”
INDUSTRY FACES CHANGE
As for the bigger picture, Stevens notes technology in vehicles continues to move forward rapidly and is the major change facing the industry.
“One of the challenges is keeping pace. When franchise dealers sell a new car, often they will have just received the equipment needed to test it, and NZTA rules and regulations need to ensure they reflect the new technology so vehicles can be tested effectively for the market.
“Technology for testing vehicles has also evolved and there are ongoing improvements. For example, we’ve moved from hydraulic to cordless electric pit-jacks, and to raising bed weight simulation over older hydraulic pull-down systems.
“The accessibility of vehicle information is a disrupter to the automotive market. This probably makes it harder for established traders to continue when anyone can go online and research and purchase vehicles.”
As for VINZ, it has a workforce of about 200, and the cost to employ staff is rising in-line with minimum hourly rates and living costs. On top of that, there’s the cost of land required to inspect vehicles, particularly heavy vehicles that need plenty of space.
“There will need to be changes in the way some vehicles are inspected in the future to accommodate volumes,” says Stevens.
“There’s new technology coming through that will aid the industry as a whole and should help customers because inspections have to be done. If we can make that as easy as possible, then that’s a big win.”
<sidebar>Teenager with eyes on vans
Sean Stevens was 15 when he bought his first vehicle in 1984. The 1965 Ford Anglia van was white with bronze stripes. It set him back $600.
“I had been working on an egg farm during the holidays doing the dirty work,” he recalls. “It wasn’t the nicest job in the world, but it allowed me to save up for my first wheels. I also worked on a milk run when it was delivered in glass bottles into letterboxes.
“I always wanted an Anglia van – it was my first dream vehicle. It needed quite a bit of work. I tidied it up and drove it for about six months before selling it.”
Another of Stevens’ past favourites was a blue 1959 VW Kombi, which he bought from his grandfather.
“It was in mint condition and had only done 49,000 miles. I loved it and had it for about seven years, the longest I’ve ever owned a vehicle.”
He had fun in a 1974 purple Mark II Ford Capri he bought for $12,000 when he was 19, “one of my boy-racer cars”.
“I would buy a vehicle, work on it, flick it on and use the profit to buy something better. That was how I worked my way up to more expensive cars. I haven’t owned one since the mid-1990s because I’ve been fortunate to drive company cars.
“But if I did decide to buy another for a project, it would be an old VW Beetle having owned three in the past. Volkswagen is in my blood. My uncle was a dealer and family members always owned them. Original Beetles are a little bit quirky with their rear air-cooled motors but I really like them”.
“If I had to buy a new car, it would probably be a Model X. I like the styling of Teslas and they’re good for the environment.”