There is a new chief executive at Oamaru-based motoring firm North Otago Motor Group but the apple did not fall far from the tree with the appointment of Lisa Wilson, business editor Sally Rae reports.

North Otago Motor Group is a family business in every sense of the word.

Not only do two generations of the Robinson family work together in both governance and management roles but other family connections among the 34 staff include husband-and-wife, father-and-son and uncle-and-nephew combinations.

As a child, the firm’s new chief executive, Lisa Wilson (nee Robinson), could often be found at the office on a Saturday morning, where she would erase her father Peter’s name from his business card and add her own.

Little did she know one day she would be at the helm, following in her father’s footsteps and working alongside her brother Michael, who is the new vehicles manager.

Now the third generation — Peter and Leonie Robinson’s four young grandchildren — could be spied there at weekends and it was “like deja vu”, Mr Robinson said.

Although, as his daughter pointed out, there was no television for amusement back in her day, like there was now in the customer lounge. Instead, she would write notes and pretend to sell cars.

Mr Robinson, who joined Wrightcars Oamaru, a GM dealership, in 1983, was chief executive of North Otago Motor Group, which has both Toyota and Suzuki dealerships, for 31 years. While his daughter officially replaced him in that position earlier this year, he remains both a shareholder and managing director.

Despite the business card defacing, joining the motoring industry was not something Mrs Wilson ever envisaged doing. When she left school, she wanted to be a lawyer.

Enrolling in a law degree at the University of Otago, she was advised to do a second degree so she did commerce as a “back-up”, having also enjoyed accounting. She enjoyed both degrees relatively equally and topped her accounting year, graduating with first-class honours.

She was offered a job in Deloitte’s Dunedin office and, while she had never intended to work for a large, corporate firm, the office had a small-firm culture with the benefit of big-firm resources, she said.

She was there for 11 years and became a manager in the tax and private team. Her work included helping clients with business plans.

When a colleague asked what would happen when her father retired, she had not really thought about it. But, with her husband also originally from Oamaru, it got her thinking.

North Otago Motor Group was a good company that she knew well. She might not know the automotive industry but she knew the business, so she told her father to let her know when he was looking at succession planning.

For Mr Robinson, the plan had always been to retire early. He and his wife had built a home in Cromwell — where the entire family enjoyed holidaying — and it looked like the business would be sold. But when his daughter came along, that “opened the door” to a change of tack.

Mrs Wilson has been acting chief executive since June last year and, prior to that, was its chief operating officer. She also worked in the business during school and university years before returning in 2020 as administration manager and chief finance officer.

When she and her builder husband Mike first moved back to Oamaru, their daughter Annabelle was 3 and son Ethan was 5 months. The family lived with Peter and Leonie for nine months while Mr Wilson built them a new home. Then Michael and his family moved in with his parents for a similar stint while their house was built.

After three years in Dunedin with no close family support, it had been great to move to a town where there were four grandparents who could help out and attend the likes of school assembly trips, Mrs Wilson said.

A family roast dinner was held every second Wednesday at Peter and Leonie’s home — Leonie was previously involved in the business for 20 years — and every other Wednesday they went to Rotary.

Mr Robinson was now spending three-day weekends in Cromwell and was able to help out where needed at North Otago Motor Group, particularly filling any gaps. When his daughter was away, he could pretend he was the boss, he joked.

He was still heavily involved in the local community, including as chairman of Observatory Village Lifecare, on the project board for the town’s new stadium, and also Rotary.

Mrs Wilson saw her job as being available and helping problem-solve. There was a lot going on with the various divisions — vehicles sales, paint and panel, Novus Glass, the service department, parts and accessories and administration, and she had to be across all of those, she said.

Asked what her plan for the business was, Mrs Wilson said it was “to continue to serve the community here like we have for the last 30 years”.

She acknowledged it was a little intimidating to take over from her father, who was well known and respected in the community as well as by the staff.

She wanted to provide the motoring needs for North Otago and support the community while working and playing in the town.

“It’s a great place,” she said. An annual dinner for staff and partners was held — the 31st dinner was held this week — and staff were told about the previous 12 months’ performance and service awards presented.

There had alway been a focus on giving staff information about the business. That empowered them and they understood why they were doing what they were doing.

“I’m a big believer in looking at the big picture. It’s understanding where you fit in and how your actions fit in,” Mrs Wilson said.

She was also a fan of supporting local businesses, as it was business which drove the economy and local businesses were needed to make the local economy work, she said.

Mr Robinson said North Otago Motor Group had always punched “way above” its weight and it was runner-up for the Toyota supreme award for the past two years. Those dealer awards were being held today and it would be nice if his daughter was on stage, he said.

Mrs Wilson was also on an advisory panel which helped set policy, procedures and strategy for Toyota New Zealand and that was “pretty unusual” to be on during her first year as chief executive, her proud father said.

Mrs Wilson said the past several years had been very disruptive in the industry and it would be an interesting road ahead.

“The automotive industry is like no other. Until you work in it, you really have no idea — there’s so much going on in it,” she said.

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