Some say he hobnobs with business titans, and that he’s a slave to his life-sentence block. All we know is he’s called Simi.
Meet Chris Simpson, Driveline lease consultant in Hawkes Bay. From Wellington mechanic to global adventurer to Hawke’s Bay IT expert and now Driveline lease consultant, Chris Simpson has followed his passions through two industries and many, many adventures.
Born in 1969 in Plimmerton, a once quiet seaside suburb of Wellington, Chris soaked up the sights and smells of the motor trade early on. With a car dealer father it was only natural for the motor trade to beckon.
The family moved around a bit, from Plimmerton to Johnsonville, Kelburn and Khandallah. As a 10-year-old schoolboy Chris would help his father open his Wellington CBD service station each morning before school, and fill cans of oil and pump petrol. This early exposure to the automotive world led to a life of tinkering under the bonnet.
In between school and the service station, Chris was loose on the streets of central Wellington, exploring any shop selling electronics, finding the tallest buildings and lift surfing. At that young age he knew the city like the back of his hand, every nook and cranny – and lift, escalator, most of the building names, even what businesses were on what floor of each building!
His work ethic came to the fore when he got a paper round delivering The Evening Post. This progressed to working Friday nights at a hardware store as a young teenager and then, after getting his drivers licence, weekends at Monty’s Carwash then an after-school job at Motor Specialties, now Repco.
Rebel With a Wrench
Though strong in languages and maths at Wellington College, Chris struggled under the academic strictures.
“Teachers and I just didn’t seem to get on very well. I think I’ve probably got a bit of a thing for authority. I didn’t particularly like being told what to do, but I slowly learned to live with it,” Chris shares.
So when offered a mechanics apprenticeship at age 18, Chris jumped at the opportunity to ditch school for the workshop.
“It was a great idea to get out of there and get a job. So I did that apprenticeship for the 8,000 hours or whatever and really enjoyed it. It was something to do with cars and something I’d already had an interest in.”
Not just any cars – European thoroughbreds. At Shelly BMW Chris gained expertise on Beemers along with Citroen, VW, Audi and Porsche. He took top marks nationally at certification, thanks to his affinity for the meticulous German approach.
“I love that German way of thinking, they’re very structured, everything’s very detailed, everything was accounted for down to five-minute increments.”
This early stint also gave Chris his first taste of chauffeuring Wellington’s business elite, already honing his client care skills.
“It was pretty cool for someone that’s just left school to be driving around in flash cars having conversations with business titans while you’re driving them back to their offices in the morning.”
Leasing Up a Storm
After leaving Shelly BMW, Chris moved to Auckland and became a fleet controller for a vehicle leasing company. Funnily enough, that’s where Chris met Lance Manins, his future boss-to-be.
Chris’ team handled all of the maintenance authorisations for a fleet of 12,000 vehicles. A big part of the job was managing all the repairs for those vehicles, issuing work authorisations, and making sure the repairers weren’t ripping them off.
“I suppose that’s another reason I do my own maintenance now, because I know how many sharks there are out there and how much it can cost you if you don’t manage it properly or you don’t have the skills to know what’s going on.”
Joyriding Through Europe
With a thirst for adventure, Chris set off on a wandering odyssey crisscrossing Europe in a 300 quid Fiat Panda with mate Steve. From a mining village in Wales to an overheating car in London and getting stuck 150 metres underground in a Hungarian cave, the young Kiwis embraced the unknown.
The World’s Most Expensive Radiator Water
Chris recalls setting off in the little Fiat from a mining village outside Pontypridd, near Cardiff in Wales.
“As soon as we got into the City of London it bloody overheated and spewed out all its water. So I had to go and buy this bottled water from a shop in the middle of London, and in English pounds it was f***ing expensive!”
As soon as he got it cooled down he fanged it out of London and straight to Dover to catch a ferry to France.
“We drove that little Fiat all the way from Wales to Santorini in Greece and back again,” says Chris.
The 3 Petite Sisters
Generous strangers and chance encounters saved the day along the meandering path. Like Gwen Petite and her two sisters who provided refuge when the Fiat broke down in Belgium.
“We broke down in a little town called Neufchâteau in the south of Belgium. It was Easter weekend and it was dark when we stopped and we saw all these lights coming towards us. It was a huge crowd of people wearing white robes with hoods and holding candles and carrying crosses and everything, and honestly, it looked like the Ku Klux Klan coming towards us!”
They survived that scare and found a Fiat garage with a light that was still on. Even though it was Easter and likely to be closed, the brazen Kiwis knocked on the door and discovered three sisters living there whose parents were away in France, on holiday for Easter.
Gwen Petite, the senior sister, invited the wanderers in to camp in the garage over Easter, and helped them nurse their Fiat back to health. Chris’ mechanical skills came in handy as he replaced the head gasket and got the head machined.
“I’m still amazed that she saw these two bedraggled Kiwis on the side of the road in a shitty little car and took us in. I’m still ever so thankful to Gwen Petite and her two lovely sisters. They were amazing, very hospitable, and honestly, we wouldn’t have got all the way through Europe without them.”
When 2 Wanderers Became 5
In Prague they picked up three big Australian football players who were hitchhiking their way to Greece.
“We squeezed all five of us into this little Fiat 1000 2-door with five packs strapped to the roof with ratchet tie downs, and took them all the way from Prague to Santorini.”
Chris Simpson’s Nightmare 150m Underground
On the way through Budapest they did a clay caving adventure, which Chris describes as frightening.
“It was a good 150 metres underground and it didn’t look very professional. But we were young and stupid and did it anyway. Half way down you had to slide down a clay chute that was no wider than your body and super smooth and slippery. It was like a tubular slide but they didn’t tell us how wide it was, and I got stuck halfway down.
“And then I have four other people come down the chute and crash in behind me and we’re all trapped. Your arms are stuck next to your side and you could only wiggle your body and use your fingers to get back up. In the end we got out, which was unbelievable. I’m never going caving again. I wasn’t claustrophobic then but I am now!”
Stylish Italians vs Hobo Kiwis
Chris recalls waking up on a causeway in Venice one Sunday morning and feeling very out of place.
“It was hilarious… there’s all these dapperly dressed Italians out for a Sunday walk, and then us two Kiwis and three Aussies in bare feet looking all bedraggled. We couldn’t have looked more out of place!”
Getting Trolleyed on the Ferry to Santorini
The intrepid wanderers caught a ferry from Italy to Greece, then drove to Athens and caught another ferry to Santorini. After far too much to drink, and not knowing how long the ferry ride was, they fell asleep.
“We woke up at Santorini with them calling our names. They’d picked our little car up and moved it aside because where it was parked was blocking everyone trying to get off the ferry. And then they’re about to leave with us still on board! We raced down and got the car off just in time.”
With only each other, a paper map and pure pluck, the two somehow piloted that rattletrap Fiat over 15,000 km before finally selling it to a wrecker back in the UK.
Trading Wrenches for Lines of Code
Chris landed a job with an innovative London startup called Abel & Cole. Founders Keith and Paul delivered hearty fare like eggs, potatoes and organic produce around the city in a grassroots effort. Chris started as a delivery driver before working his way up to handle IT, installing computers and servers to help manage the fast scaling business.
“They essentially gave me carte blanche. And so I completely rebuilt all of their computers, I rebuilt their server, and I rebuilt their network, all in a reasonably short space of time.”
Seizing this unexpected opportunity, Chris taught himself website development and designed Abel & Cole’s first online presence. He earned press in The Times for his novel use of Flash animation in 1997.
“I designed their first website and launched it in 1997. I had a friend who had Dreamweaver and I used it to create a site and then put a whole lot of flash animations in it.”
Abel & Cole became the UK’s largest organic delivery firm before selling for 30 million pounds. Chris’ versatility took his career down an unmapped road from mechanics into IT and business.
Chris returned home to New Zealand with girlfriend and soon-to-be-wife Sarah in 1999, buying a coastal pad in Raglan. After renovating and selling at the market’s peak, the big city expats yearned for a little more bustle and relocated to Sarah’s hometown of Hawke’s Bay.
They snapped up a vine-fringed lifestyle block where the family still resides today. With a baby due and both out of work, Chris took a friend’s advice to heart…
“Just start up your own business. Go out on your own. You can contract to us. Those guys that you put us on to when you left are useless.”
That’s how Chris came to launch his IT consultancy Net Manager from home, counting Driveline as an early client.
“It was one of the best bits of advice I was ever given. So I stopped the job hunt and started Net Manager and Driveline came on as a client and then I got some other clients here in Hawkes Bay. I never really pushed it, it was all word of mouth.”
In 2016 Chris lost his foundation client, who accounted for 50% of his income. Chris’ client had sold his business to a multinational, which had its own IT staff. It coincided with Driveline needing a new Hawke’s Bay manager, and Chris’ inside knowledge of the business made him the natural choice.
Full Circle Back to Cars
Chris welcomed the change from IT support to the buzz of vehicle leasing.
“It’s so much more rewarding. Yeah, I almost wish I’d been doing it 20 years ago instead of being in IT,” Chris laughs.
He loves phoning new clients, building rapport, and quickly delivering the perfect vehicle.
“I love just being able to get a call and in three or four days have it all done and dusted and they’re in their new vehicle.”
Chris handles a wide spectrum, from tradesmen to developers, consultants to farmers. With Kiwis’ enduring love for utes, they dominate, followed by SUVs and EVs for city driving.
Recent deals include a Mitsubishi Triton for a Māori development corporation, a Kia Carnival for a construction technology firm owner, a Ford Ranger Raptor for an earthworks company, and a VW Transporter for a local joinery business.
“You get to see so many different businesses, it’s actually really quite exciting the way you get to know all the different things people are doing out there.”
Going the extra mile behind the scenes to ensure a smooth process makes clients loyal fans. Many become recurring customers and refer friends, fuelling Chris’ fulfilment.
“People’s choice in vehicles have changed and everyone wants a ute or an SUV. And electric cars are becoming more popular, so that’s what people want in that order – ute, SUV and then EV or a small, cheap, petrol powered car, especially in Wellington where the streets are so narrow and tiny that people don’t want a big car to drive around, they want something that’s small and easy to park.”
Chris’ blend of empathy, passion and responsiveness creates loyal customers and lasting fulfilment.
Homebody at Heart
Outside work, Chris embraces homebody pursuits like tennis, boating on Lake Taupo, and tending his “life sentence block.”
With two teenagers who both lean artistic, Chris occasionally ropes the boys into hands-on projects like servicing the family’s four BMWs. But they largely leave dad to his mechanical passions.
“It’s quite a cool skill to be able to teach my kids and pass on as well. Neither of them are angling towards doing anything like I’ve done in my life. They’re both very design focused. One will probably be some kind of designer and the other one probably will be another type of designer. They’re both quite arty.”
After years abroad, Chris treasures laidback weekends at home surrounded by family, playing tennis with mates, and slowly taming the land one mower width at a time.
Wherever the road leads next, Chris will navigate it with humour and grit, doing what he loves.