When Richard van den Engel regards the Ebbett Automotive’s present-day business, two words come to mind – stewardship and responsibility.
Throughout its more than 90-year history in Hamilton, the automotive business with Waikato roots – and now a North Island-wide network – has always had family, and family values, at its core.
As doors have been opened over time, Ebbett Automotive has grown to about 550 staff collectively representing 20 automotive brands across 19 North Island dealerships.
From where he sits as Ebbett Automotive’s executive director, Richard has no doubts the Lord’s hand has been on the company’s journey.
Biblical principles of striving for excellence, doing the right thing, treating others as you want to be treated and going the extra mile underpin the company and inform every decision the team makes.
Natural growth aside though, Richard is acutely aware of a ‘bigger picture’ at play.
Amongst expansion and opportunities for growth, his heart’s desire is to be a good steward of what he feels they’ve been entrusted with and let “actions speak louder than simply words”.
Now, as Ebbett Automotive prepares to open its first South Island dealership later this year, I sat down with Richard to talk about family, business and how his desire to display Jesus informs all areas of his life – including both his approach to business and his love of seeing others succeed.
Firstly – because I think your faith is evident in how you approach all the other spheres of your life – how did you come to know Jesus?
I grew up in a Christian home. On reflection, there certainly are experiences I’ve walked through which have deepened my personal faith in Jesus. I was always familiar with Christian values and Bible stories, but I began to realise my faith needed to become my own. That process has happened ‘along the way’, rather than in one defining moment. A key experience for me was when – as a teenager – I took part in a course held at church in which we examined proof of the gospels.
At university, I went to several classes to learn about other faiths, my desire being to examine why I believe what I believe. That experience helped me see that Jesus and the gospel story made sense. Then, when my wife Ilda and I lived in London, we attended a small Anglican church. The church was on the border of a wealthy suburb and a housing project – the congregation was a mix of people from all walks of life. The way our vicar led that congregation was so transformative for me. I began to see what practically living in a community as Jesus would have done looks like.
Who has had the biggest influence on your faith?
My dad, Ben – Ebbett Automotive’s managing director. He’s been a rock-solid guide. When I have to make difficult decisions, I always talk to him. Ebbett Automotive’s values are, to a large degree, based on Dad’s personal values. Whatever the situation, he asks, “…what’s the right thing to do?” He always points me to scripture and is never afraid to challenge me, in a good way.
How important is it to have people like that in our lives?
No man is an island, right? Having someone who takes an interest in seeing you grow, excel, achieve, and who holds you accountable is one of the greatest gifts you could ask for. Sometimes mentors aren’t particularly forthright. You have to humbly say, “…I need guidance…” and be open to being held accountable. Seek out Godly people who are willing to invest in you. They might be different people during different seasons of life – but having them is critical.
Before we chat about the business sphere of your life, can you tell me about your family?
My wife Ilda is my high school sweetheart. We married in our very early 20s and we have two girls – Abby (10) and Issy (7). Ilda and I have previously lived in Wellington, Auckland, London and Hong Kong. In 2013, around the time Abby was born, Ilda and I returned to Hamilton – which I initially left when I went to Victoria University at 17. When we did return to Hamilton, we felt the timing was right for me to join the family business. Importantly too, Ilda and I were blessed to have our grandparents close by when we were growing up, so we wanted our kids to also have that. Both sets of their grandparents live here in Hamilton – it’s such an amazing gift.
What’s your favourite thing to do to spend quality time together as a family?
We love winter sports and travelling! The kids are starting to really enjoy snow skiing – in terms of family time, you can’t get better. There’s no devices and we’re outside doing exercise in creation in some absolutely beautiful parts of New Zealand. Our favourite spot is Cardrona in the South Island.
It’s been amazing to read about Ebbett Automotive’s long-standing Waikato history, spanning more than 90 years. Can you tell me about how the company began?
We’ve been a family business right throughout – we’re really proud of our history. Ebbett Motors was started in Hamilton’s Hood St in 1928 by Alf Ebbett, later joined by his brother Ron. Richard Ebbett is our current chairman. In 1938, General Motors separated its two product lines – Waikato Motors Limited was formed to operate the Vauxhall and Bedford franchise from the original Hood Street premises. Ebbett Motors – representing Oakland, Pontiac and Chevrolet – moved to a newly-built dealership on the corner of Hood and Anglesea streets.
Dad’s been with the company for just over 50 years. He left school in fifth form – year 11 – to get a trade and he liked cars, so he wanted to be a mechanic. He joined Ebbett Automotive as an apprentice in the 1970s. Over time, through opportunities God has given him, Dad was able to buy a 50 percent ownership stake in the business, and was general manager during the 1987 stock market crash. Dad’s early days of ownership were a massive faith step – at times quite a challenging season. The business was then consolidated down from a number of branches and hundreds of staff to 30 people in one Anglesea St dealership.
Ebbett Automotive certainly has family values and connections at its core. How many family connections run through the company these days?
Dad’s our managing director, my uncle, Walter van den Engel, is a shareholder and company director. I’m the oldest of four boys. My brother Hadleigh is Dealer Principal of Ebbett Taupo, Michael is Dealer Principal of our Hamilton-based Ebbett Škoda dealership and Anthony is a teacher in The Philippines.
What’s it like reflecting on Ebbett Automotive’s present-day scale?
I have to say growth and expansion has simply happened not by accident, but close to it! Rather than a grand growth strategy, opportunities have presented themselves along the way and made sense at the time. Ebbett Automotive now represents 20 brands across 19 North Island dealerships – from Pukekohe in the north to Wellington in the south. We have around 550 staff. Whenever I consider that, what comes to mind more than anything is a sense of responsibility for the people who rely on Ebbett Automotive for their livelihood.
The company’s core values are excellence, integrity, respect and care. Those are absolutely Biblical – how are those principles being outworked practically on a daily basis?
We’re not seeking recognition for the way in which we do things, as such – we just have a foundational conviction regarding striving to do the right thing by the people who come across our path. It’s a daily walk of putting one foot in front of the other – going the extra mile for people and treating others the way we’d want to be treated. Our aim is absolutely to display Jesus in the ways we interact with others, but we also know we’re not perfect. We’re on a journey, over time, of our actions speaking louder than words.
How do you ensure that Jesus – and those core values – remain at the centre of all that Ebbett Automotive does, no matter the size?
When the business was in one location with 30 staff, naturally it was perhaps easier for the values to be part of all elements of the business. Dad could personally be across everything. As you grow, some of the people steering the ship aren’t always across everything that happens in person. Long before we wrote our values down, they were lived and breathed as daily habits. Reaching a certain scale meant that process became necessary. By no means were we implying ‘perfection’ when it comes to our values, we simply knew what we were aiming towards each day. We were well aware too that writing them down brought with it increased accountability. So, we asked our leadership team what values they felt were important “around here” – incredibly, everyone gave the same answers in different words Subsequently, we built our values into all aspects of our company’s DNA – making them part of our job descriptions, career growth plans, key performance indicator (kpi) scorecards and the way we reward, uphold and support people.
I get the sense Ebbett Automotive really is a ‘company-wide family’…
Hearing that makes me so proud, though I don’t think that’s anything ‘strategic’ as such. Certainly, from the outset of the time Dad has led the company, as a Christian, he wholeheartedly believes in serving God and the people around him, and in doing the right thing with integrity. And those of us in the teams around Him want to live out those values too. Our faith is the basis from which we make every decision.
You’ve been in your current role as Executive Director since 2018, but your history with the company goes back almost a decade. Among other roles, you’ve been Dealer Principal of both Ebbett Prestige and Ebbett Volkswagen and CEO of Ebbett Toyota. In all of those chapters those dealerships were either Dealer of the Year, or finalists to receive team or leadership awards. How does your faith inform both the way you approach business and how you lead people?
Great question! We don’t set out to receive awards or accolades really. We simply aim to intentionally tread a path of integrity every day. As such, our actions should outwardly display our priorities. There are a lot of ideas out there as to what good leadership looks like. I value servant leadership the most because it turns things upside down. Those of us who are in leadership positions – wherever we are – are simply there to serve and equip others to be the best they can be. After joining our Toyota business three years ago, I communicated it to our team like this. On the frontline, our job is to serve customers, a manager’s job is to remove any road blocks so our frontline staff can do their job well. Then, my job as CEO is to remove any road blocks which are in the way of the managers. If we know we’re all here to serve in some sense, results will follow. Look after your people, they’ll look after your customers.
I’m passionate about helping people define and quantify what success looks like in their role, so they’re well equipped to achieve. At Ebbett Automotive, while we don’t necessarily overtly talk about being Christians, we’re not hiding anything. We may not sit down as a team and read Bible verses and pray together with our people, but in my mind our core values demonstrate what it’s like to live out running a business as a Christian. We often use the word strive around here – recognising that we don’t always get things right and we do make mistakes along the way too.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard regarding business and leadership?
I’m a big fan of Jim Collins’ books, particularly ‘Good to Great.’ Collins has an amazing ability to draw comparisons across high performing businesses from a range of industries, pick out the common threads and boil those threads down to simple illustrations like the “20 mile march” or “ the flywheel”. You’ll have to google those concepts, but they have been instrumental in helping me focus our business and keep it simple. Another nugget I remember picking up from a Waikato Chamber of Commerce breakfast event is, “…steal with pride…” Business-wise that means that if you see something done well by another business in another industry, don’t be afraid to incorporate aspects you like into your own processes.
You’ve also worked as both an architect and an accountant. What do you like most about those skill sets and how has what you’ve learned in your other roles helped equip you for your current position?
At school I was good at maths and I liked art, so that led to me deciding to study architecture. It’s a five-year programme, made up of two Bachelor’s degrees; a three-year Bachelor of Architectural Studies, followed by a two-year Bachelor of Architecture. After three years, I stepped away from university to get some practical industry experience as a draughtsman. Looking back now, in my current role I’ve been involved in the process of developing four new dealerships. Had I not had that experience, that job would have been much harder. I love that architecture is essentially a client approaching you with an idea or problem to solve it in a creative way.
Having worked as a draughtsman, I realised that architecture was not for me, and I rang Dad to talk about joining the family business, he joked, “… I don’t need any architects, … but I’ve always had to rely on accountants and lawyers. While you’re young, studying accounting and commercial law would add real value in the long run.” So I did a Bachelor of Commerce and Administration (BCA), majoring in accounting and commercial law. Ilda and I had then intended to return to Hamilton, but instead we booked a flight to London intending to do the classic overseas experience. Global accounting firm Deloitte was recruiting in New Zealand for graduate roles in London. We’d already booked our tickets when I went to the interview, and – ultimately – got a position. Deloitte reimbursed our flights and put us up in accommodation. Ilda and I wanted to be in London for six months, but Deloitte’s opportunity was contractual for at least two years. In the end, I signed on and, in reality, we loved it so much we stayed three! We came back to Auckland, for two-and-a-half-years, before shifting to Hong Kong, where I worked for Deloitte China. At Deloitte I worked in auditing, which gave me massive opportunities to sit in the boardrooms of many companies and ask some big account-related questions. You get incredible insight into the inner workings of a business, what works and what doesn’t.
Can you tell me about Loop Carshare?
The motor trade hasn’t changed all that much in decades, but we expect plenty of change in the next decade! Combustion engines will be replaced by electric ones, distribution models are changing to agency models and consumers are moving from showrooms to online. One of the biggests shifts we are seeing in more urban areas around the world is a shift from owning cars to “buying mobility”, or paying by the minute or hour. We set up Loop Carshare as an experiment to learn about selling mobility – and to discover whether Hamiltonians were ready for it. Carshare is the idea that there are a bunch of shared cars available in public spaces which members can access at any time by simply swiping their app and paying for the hours they use. While we learnt a lot, there came a time when we had to either invest big and go national, or divest. We sold the business to Mevo – a Wellington based carshare scheme – and signed an agreement to supply them vehicles. This meant both Mevo and Ebbett could play to their strengths.
How do you ensure you keep a healthy balance of family and business life and what advice would you have on that front?
At times, aren’t we all tempted to do too much at once? Of course, I don’t always get that balance right – but what I strive to do is be 100 percent present in the moment and give my full attention to whatever task is at hand. Another little book plug – The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr expands on this idea. Often I don’t have a lot of ‘free time’, but I aim to be intentional in the moments I do have. At home, I strive to be 100 percent focused on family. I try to be home for dinner with the family every night and I do my best not to take work home on the weekends. Also, put the phone down and don’t let social media get in the way!
The Ebbett’s team – and yourself and other staff individually – have regularly received awards for leadership and staff culture. In March, Ebbett Toyota won the Toyota Parts Excellence Cup and the Excellence in Leadership Award at the Toyota New Zealand Limited Business Excellence Awards. In 2020, you were awarded the Bob Field Leadership Excellence Award. What’s it like when Ebbett Automotive is recognised for the work it does?
I’ve had the privileged responsibility of representing the business on some of these occasions – it’s a surreal experience. We make sure we celebrate as an entire team too – because being recognised in that way takes every single person not only striving for, but achieving, excellence within their individual roles each day. The reward for me is stewarding our teams and being able to serve people in a way that helps them achieve excellence in their aspirations too. Much of what gets me out of bed in the morning is helping other people grow and develop. It’s an honour having a part to play in that and, when we succeed together, it makes me proud!
Ebbett Automotive supports community groups and charities – including Hospice Waikato, Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter and Heart Kids – and once gave a Hamilton mum a new $40,000 car. Genesis 12:2 comes to mind – ‘blessed to be blessing’. How would you express the heart behind Ebbett Automotive’s support of those organisations?
We genuinely feel privileged to work within the various communities around New Zealand that we operate in – therefore we want to invest back into them. It’s not just an opportunity, but an obligation to do so. We love supporting our communities where we can.
The business world – and particularly the automotive industry – at times has ‘highs and lows’, uncertainty and challenges. How does your trust in Jesus sustain you through those?
In walking with Jesus, we’re never alone – God walks alongside us. In this life, we have an eternal context with which we’re called to live. As we walk in relationship with Jesus, prayerfully considering our steps, we’re not making decisions in our own strength. I certainly find that takes weight off my shoulders – in light of the sacrifice Jesus made for us, I’m safe in the security of being a child of God. Living as such simply gives us the freedom to use our God-given gifts for His glory.
Ebbett Automotive has navigated and progressed through everything from a depression, war and the subsequent recovery, a public listing, growth, contraction and the global financial crisis. Most recently was Holden’s New Zealand departure in 2020 after a nearly 70-year partnership, and then Covid-19. It’s been amazing to look at the progressive approach of growth and expansion Ebbett Automotive has always taken amidst challenges. How do you go about knowing both when to step out and which paths to take?
While the company itself has navigated through those things historically, I haven’t personally had to navigate through a recession or global financial crisis in my time at Ebbett. Though, Covid-19 was a challenge. I remember sitting in the boardroom after the 2020 lockdown was announced.
On average, a high-performing car dealership has a bottom line of about three percent profit, with very little room for error. The prospect of closing and shutting up shop for roughly five weeks was, initially, incredibly frightening. But, the first words out of Dad’s mouth were, “…how do we ensure our staff can continue to put food on the table?” Again, we went back to our core values, and the convictions we hold, to make decisions about how to proceed.
The years that followed that lock down have actually been robust for the motor industry. Interest rates have been low, house prices have been strong and the borders have been closed. With cheap money, the confidence that comes with strong house prices and nowhere else to spend their money it seems Kiwis flocked to buying cars, spas and kitchens. That’s all changed in the last few months though – house prices are falling, interest rates are up and the borders have been flung open. Consumer spending has fallen and, like many big ticket retailers, we will have to navigate carefully through the next season.
What’s an example of when you’ve seen the Lord come through at Ebbett Automotive as you’ve simply trusted Him?
Holden’s departure from New Zealand in 2020 should have in fact been one of – if not the – biggest negative blow to our business in its history. Right back when Ebbett started in 1928, it was with General Motors – which owns Holden – brands. When Holden announced it was leaving, over half of the new cars we sold across the Ebbett network were Holden. It might have looked like a potential disaster at the time. In fact, in hindsight, the situation has probably created many more new opportunities than any other event in our 93-year history – amazing doors opened for us to go and build relationships with new brands.
In March it was a year since Ebbett Automotive moved into its 25,000 square metre state-of-the-art flagship Te Rapa site. What does the premises house and how has its first year been?
The new facility has provided several key ‘wins’ for us. It’s a fantastic place in terms of customer experience, and, whereas in the past people like Dad, Walter and myself were all in different buildings, now we’re all together in an administration space directly above the showroom floor. That’s an intentional decision to be accessible. The facility includes two dealerships – Ebbett Volkswagen across the driveway and below the head office space is what was previously Ebbett Holden Hamilton. At Ebbett Hamilton, we represent GM Specialty Vehicles, SEAT, CUPRA, Isuzu, BYD and Opel – which is returning to New Zealand later this year.
We’ve looked a little bit at Ebbett Automotive’s history. What makes you most excited about the future?
Over the last century, the motor trade hasn’t changed too drastically in terms of the way cars are imported and sold at retail dealerships. That could all be about to change within the next decade. There are probably several key questions we’ll have to ask going forward – with trends like consumers doing most of their pre-work and transactions online. We rely heavily on building loyalty and good relationships with our customers, so, what will building that loyalty look like when everything happens online? Currently too, Kiwis own, on average, two-and-a-half cars. As demand for electric, autonomous and self-driving cars increases, will the market broaden and become more about selling ‘mobility’?
Some factors we undoubtedly can’t control – including product – because we don’t build or design the cars, and price, because everyone has the same margins. But, we have customer service. If we can deliver an experience people want to come back for, then whatever the future looks like we can be successful. Facilities and vehicles don’t drive success – people do. If we invest in our people, they will look after the customers.
Later this year, we’re opening our first dealership in the South Island, in Nelson. After Holden left, we included Kia and MG at our Pukekohe dealership, both Hyundai and Isuzu in Tauranga, Isuzu in Hamilton and GWM at our Taupo dealership. That meant we were then representing more brands in fewer locations, so we went about assessing how we could extend our reach with each brand. Discussions with GWM and Škoda led us to understand they were open to representation at the top of the South Island. We see a future with those brands, so it didn’t take us long to decide the timing felt right to take the ‘leap of faith’ across Cook Strait.
Is the electric vehicle space an exciting one?
Absolutely. I’d say within the next five years we’ll see a shift from the majority of the cars we sell being petrol and diesel vehicles to electric vehicles. We’re proud to be part of the journey of moving towards a more sustainable form of mobility. Currently around half our profit comes from after sales channels, service and parts. With an electric vehicle, there’s actually very little of that work to be done. So, that’s something we’ll have to adapt to. I really enjoy solving problems, adapting and growing – so seeing these potential changes on the horizon excites me rather than worries me.
Ebbett Automotive is called to be a light for Jesus in the business sphere, what would you say to someone who similarly wants to live an authentic Christian life wherever they’re called to be?
I probably don’t feel particularly qualified to give ‘advice’ as such. But I’ve asked myself at times too, “…is building a business glorifying God?” My answer is I’m working in a sphere that I’m passionate about, using the gifts God has given me every day. So, from that point of view, it’s about living your conviction, walking in step with Him using the gifts He gives us and basing all the decisions we make on His Word. We can all do that no matter where He’s placed us. One of the key words you’ve used is authenticity – I love that. And it’s about not being afraid to apologise when we get things wrong too. If I’m honest, the place where this is likely most apparent for me is at home. I probably apologise to my kids every single day!
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About the author
Jeremy Smith is editor of, and one of the writers for, Authentic Magazine.
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