Change is the only constant for a New Zealander helping to steer Ford through challenges ranging from clean technology to Covid-19. By Clare de Lore, New Zealand Listener.
Kay Hart laughs as she recalls her shock when her father suggested she take up a job with Ford. "Really, a car company, Dad? Hello, I am a female, what do I know about cars?"
Twenty years later, Hart, 42, is still with Ford and has learnt an awful lot about cars, vans, trucks and buses. Despite her initial reservations, she quickly fell in love with the automotive industry. Ford returned the love with swift advancement through its ranks – Hart has worked for the company in seven countries, most recently as CEO for New Zealand and Australia, based in Melbourne. She was recently back in New Zealand en route to a new global role based in the UK, as Enterprise Product Line Manager, Van and Bus. It's the latest in appointments that have also taken her and husband Stephen Bell to Thailand, China, the United States and the Philippines.
Hart grew up in Auckland's eastern beach suburbs with her brother, Chris, and parents Judy and John Hart. It was a rugby-dominated home in a great era for Auckland rugby – John Hart was the Auckland and then All Blacks coach. Kay Hart graduated from AUT with a degree in marketing and business.
These days, still a rugby fan, she is happiest behind the wheel of her favourite car, a Ford Mustang. Her new job, which she started in quarantine in a Hamilton hotel, is heading a team anticipating the future needs of Ford's van and bus customers, the technologies that will power those vehicles and the environments in which they will function.
Your father set you on what has become a career path with Ford – how did it come about?
It began through Ford's sponsorship of the All Blacks at the time. Once I started, I got absolutely hooked on it. There weren't many females in the industry as I was working my way through. But I have never felt male-dominated, maybe because I grew up in rugby circles. I've thrived on the opportunity of being one of the only females, because diversity of thought is so important in a business, be it culture, gender or age. You need to understand your customers, and our customers are so diverse.
What lessons did you take from your father's rugby coaching to the work you do with teams at Ford?
The importance of a team and pulling a team together. I was always inspired by the different teams Dad was involved in, how he engaged with all the team, be it players, staff, wives or partners. It was about the whole environment and culture of a team, and I have tried to use that in my career. Another lesson is making sure you're very clear in terms of what is personal and what is public. I don't do a lot of the public stuff and that's probably because I hated what happened [John Hart was vilified by some fans after the All Blacks lost to France in a semi-final of the 1999 Rugby World Cup]. I don't want my life to be out there on display.
You're headed towards a storm of sorts in the UK, with political instability and a pandemic – does it make it harder to take on this role?
It brings new challenges, but the automotive industry has gone through so much turmoil and change since I've been involved in it, and will still in the future. In fact, I'd say I love change, managing and working through change. And I like thinking about what's coming next. This role is about thinking about what will a van and a bus be in the future.
As battery-electric vehicles, BEV, are developed and becoming more widely used, what's the essential selling point to win over a customer who's spent most of their life driving a petrol car?
Trust and knowledge that I can get where I want to easily. If I drive a petrol or diesel engine, I know there will be a gas station somewhere along my journey – you don't even think about where they are because you know they'll always be there. From an electric standpoint, in the past there haven't been charging stations everywhere, and to charge a car takes a lot longer than to just fill a car with petrol. So, it's that trust and the knowledge that I can make it where I am going in the time I need. People need range and to be able to charge. The future is definitely electric.
Several car manufacturers helped solve the worldwide shortage of ventilators and other equipment in the early months of the pandemic. What was Ford's contribution?
Ford was very involved globally in manufacturing medical equipment and PPE during the past six months. Our factories started producing ventilators – in the UK, in partnership with McLaren. Even in Australia, we had our team who usually worked on modifying Mustangs transition to making face shields. We produced 250,000 shields for Victoria. In the US, there were ventilators, masks, gowns, face shields, respirators, you name it. Car companies manufacture really complex things very fast, so we are used to scale. We didn't know how to build a ventilator, but we could use our skill in producing at speed and scale to manufacture them very quickly. It was pretty amazing.
Auckland recently battled gridlock after damage to the Harbour Bridge. How does it compare with where you've lived in terms of the balance between private vehicles and public transport?
I've always been shocked or frustrated by how bad Auckland's traffic is relative to the population it has. I've lived in cities such as Bangkok and Shanghai where there is a lot more traffic but it seems to flow better. Shanghai, for example, has a fantastic public transport system and it also has vehicles. There is a lot of focus on how to get from point A to B using both means. That's going to be crucial in the future, because autonomous vehicles obviously need to integrate with the infrastructure of a city.
How far away are we from autonomous cars?
Scarily, not far away. Think about the cars we drive today – there is so much autonomy in vehicles already, be it braking alerts, blind-spot protections, self-parking or adaptive cruise control, which is the most brilliant feature.
How do you persuade people that an autonomous car is as safe as, or safer than, them being at the wheel?
It's all about trust. It is literally putting your trust in the automakers in terms of the safety, quality and testing that they put into these vehicles. Safety is at the forefront of everything we do. It took me a long time to get used to the self-parking. Really – I just hit the accelerator and push a button and the car will park itself? But it does and it is so easy. I use it and I trust it.
What do you like to drive?
I just love the Mustang. For the last year, I also drove a Raptor, the big Ranger pickup truck, and absolutely loved it, too.
How important is colour in influencing a car buyer?
Well, I always choose black; I take my Kiwi heritage with me. Everyone chooses the colour they want; colour is important, it is a statement. Each car company has a signature or hero colour. Ours is always a blue of some description. I am biased, but we have great blues. Other companies use red a lot. You will find automakers generally have black, blue, white, red or silver.
How do you relax?
I am a very social person, so I like to hang out with friends and family while I am visiting New Zealand. Right now, I spend so much time on work phone calls that just having time with my friends is important. It relaxes me, because I can step back from work. I've got to admit I'm a bit of a fan of shopping – handbags, shoes, clothes, sunglasses, you name it. And I've lived in some amazing places to try new things.
Did you get a chance to read during your time in managed quarantine?
I'm reading The Infinite Game, by Simon Sinek, which I found completely absorbing. It's about never reaching the end of a challenge, because you can't. You'll always keep going but how do you keep going, what are you aiming for? The automotive industry changes constantly, be it technology, competitors, the cities you're working in, or looking at the future of transport. All this is changing so where are you headed? It is an infinite game and it is fascinating.