Profile: Chris Heaton

Chris Heaton’s journey at Terra

At first glance, Chris Heaton’s journey from apprentice technician in Nelson to CEO of Terra, New Zealand’s Caterpillar dealer, seems like a remarkable climb.

Chris left school at the young age of 15 to pursue a career in fixing machinery. He had an innate curiosity about how things worked.

Chris Heaton

"I loved helping my dad out on the orchard, particularly around the machinery, riding my motorbike, and pulling things apart while wondering why they worked so well. They never quite worked as well afterwards," laughs Chris.

Chris’s father offered him a valuable piece of advice: "It doesn’t really matter what you want to do; just be the best at it." He thought he’d end up fixing trucks, but ended up visiting Gough, Gough and Hamer’s Nelson branch and asked for an apprenticeship.

An apprenticeship and a leap of faith

Securing an apprenticeship in Nelson saw the teenager sweeping floors and getting the smoko – but also interacting with adults, a valuable experience for a young technician.

"I particularly enjoyed interacting with the team there as there was so much to learn," Chris says.

His path wasn’t without challenges. To complete his automotive engineering heavy equipment certification, he had to undertake correspondence courses due to the absence of a polytechnic in Nelson back then. This wasn’t ideal for someone who couldn’t wait to leave school. Despite this hurdle, Chris remained determined and successfully completed his apprenticeship in just over three years.

A pivotal moment in Chris’s career occurred when the Nelson branch was considering reducing employee numbers due to tough times. Chris intervened, suggesting he transfer to another branch. Soon he found himself packing his bags for Hamilton, where he would work on mining trucks, setting the stage for international experiences to come.

"Within a few months, I was left in charge of these huge 785s, which was mind-numbing," Chris laughs. "I particularly enjoyed it because the amount of overtime was just enormous, not so much for the money but because I just loved working on these machines."

A six-month OE ended up as 25 years in England, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Australia, and Indonesia. His roles ranged from managing mine maintenance to heading mining operations within several Caterpillar dealerships, each experience shaping his leadership style.

Taking chances

In the early days, as Chris grew weary of bartending in London, an interview for a job fixing automatic transmissions in the iconic black taxi cabs set the stage for a life-altering adventure.

"I had a phone conversation at 10am, and the recruiter found out I was Caterpillar-trained," Chris recalls. "He said, ‘if you’re here by 12 o’clock, we’re interviewing for a dealership in Saudi Arabia.’ So, I jumped on a train and interviewed."

Within a week, Chris found himself in Saudi Arabia, a place he knew nothing about. This provided him with invaluable experience in cross-cultural communication and taking responsibility in challenging situations – like keeping the power going on an offshore oil rig. "It taught me about different cultures and different expectations," Chris reflects. "But it also taught me about taking responsibility because there was nobody else."

Chris also found himself working for the Caterpillar dealership in Indonesia for 16 years, after his wife Lesa accepted a job in the jungles over the phone while Chris was off-site. When they were together again that evening, Lesa asked, ‘where is Indonesia, because I think we’re moving there?’ ‘Fantastic, let’s go’, Chris had replied enthusiastically.

As their two children grew up, Chris and Lesa returned home. Luxury boat building was their next venture, initially in New Zealand and later forming a joint venture with Mustang in Australia, employing over 500 people. This experience exposed him to the complexities of different industries and taught him valuable lessons about customer experience. The global financial crisis ultimately led to the closure of the business, prompting Chris’s return to the world of heavy machinery, back in Indonesia.

Building a customer-centric future

In his current role as CEO of Terra, Chris’s vision is to further transform the organisation to put customers at the centre of everything.

"I was successful as a technician, not because of my technical capability, but by default because I listened to customers and tried to understand what their expectations were," Chris explains.

Terra’s role is to simplify the complex world of Caterpillar products and services for customers, says Chris, and to be easy to do business with.

"Our customers’ lives and operating environments are complex, regardless of the industry, so we need to provide a layer of simplicity."

Terra’s hugely engaged and experienced workforce, who want to do more for customers, offers a strong platform for growth and change.

"The most valuable asset we have here at Terra Cat is the world-class level of engagement we have from our employees."

Finding balance

Outside of work, Chris recharges and clears his mind by motorcycling and tending to his lifestyle block near Nelson with Lesa, replanting it with native bush.

Chris’s journey from apprentice to CEO shows the power of seizing opportunities and embracing change and challenges. His experiences across the globe, his entrepreneurial endeavours and his dedication to customer-centric values are shaping the next phase of Terra’s journey.

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