Nico, can you tell us more about yourself?
After my education in industrial electromechanical engineering, I started working in a technical-commercial position. This was a conscious choice, because I wanted to combine my technical training with a strong social component. After all, I love working with people. It really appeals to me. I really love helping clients. I prefer helping my clients personally but I don’t mind referring my clients to someone else who can help them if I can’t. To me, the customer always comes first.
How did you get involved in the automotive industry?
I made the shift to the automotive industry early on in my career. I started with one of the suppliers of a major car manufacturer and ended up working for the car manufacturer itself. I’ve always had a passion for cars, so that was a bonus. Gradually I specialized in site management; it was my job to prepare the factory for the arrival of new cars. This always happened at quieter times: at night, during weekends and holidays.
“I’ve been fortunate to work in performance-oriented rather than time-oriented work environments.”
That seems like an intensive job!
Indeed it was. Between 2003 and 2008 I worked an average of 35 weekends per year, as well as all regular holidays. But this was counterbalanced with flexible working hours. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work in performance-oriented, rather than time-oriented work environments. This way I could balance my professional life and my private life. On average I accumulated ten weeks overtime each year. Obviously I could not claim all of this overtime. That’s why I could often stay at home a few days during the week. In practice, however, I often had to give a presentation on Monday, start planning for the next week on Tuesday and Wednesday, and have meetings to plan the weekend’s work on Thursday and Friday.
“My work feels like a hobby to me.”
Did the workload ever get you down?
No. My work feels like a hobby to me. I’ve always been obsessed with cars. Before my marriage and the birth of our children I bought and restored six vintage cars with a friend – mostly American Chevrolet Impalas from ’77: cars with big engines. We were working on our cars whenever we could. We made them fancier and better and we used them for ceremonies such as weddings. Now we are selling our cars one by one because we don’t have time to look after them any more.
What else do you do in your free time?
Besides my passion for vintage cars, I have a passion for fast cars. I spend as much time as possible on the race track. I love karting and I love to race on race tracks such as the Circuit Zolder. I love to race with friends. It’s a great way to relax after a long day, or a period of hard work. I also volunteer for ANVASPORT, an association dedicated to enabling sports for people with physical disabilities. What you get back from such volunteering work is priceless.
How did you get in touch with Pauwels Consulting?
Pauwels Consulting contacted me in 2013 regarding an opening at a truck manufacturer. At first I could not accept this offer; I was still working for my previous employer on a project in the final stages before delivery. But at one point the situation became urgent: someone had to jump in immediately. So I jumped.
Would you ever work in a different sector than the automotive industry?
Yes, I’m sure I would. For the last 5 or 6 years I have been concentrating not only on executive aspects. I now also handle projects at a higher level: I set up master plans, I draw up project plans with milestones and I source, contact and follow up the line builders. This experience is also useful in sectors outside the automotive industry. In any other project, actually. But I don’t see myself working in just any other sector. The food sector, for example, doesn’t appeal to me. Not that that would prevent me from taking up a temporary project in the food sector. Sometimes it is good to explore other environments. This creates additional challenges. But a long-term project in a sector that doesn’t really appeal to me? No, rather not.
“I really love the variety. Every day, there are unforeseen issues.”
I really love the variety of my job. Every day, I have to handle unforeseen issues. There can always be a breakdown with a major impact. At such times, you have to think of solutions to fix the problem within a reasonable and realistic time slot to minimize the impact on the production. I also love working with people. As long as there is chaos and people, I am happy (laughs). I love fixing problems, but I also enjoy making sure that the machines run perfectly and that my colleagues function optimally. The impact of operators on productivity remains huge. This is an everyday challenge. One colleague may be a morning person, the other one may be an evening person. Disputes may arise at any time, and they can have a serious impact on the plant’s productivity. However, as interesting as I find it, I could not work exclusively with people. I could not work exclusively with technology either. I like making the combination work. That’s really my thing.
“Often, the key is in getting people to work together differently.”
What are your ambitions for the longer term?
In the future I would like to operate on a general management level. I would like to help a small business or a family business develop new strategies to run their daily business in the best possible way. I always try to reach higher efficiency levels with the same resources. Often, the key is in getting people to work together differently, rather than in cutting and pruning resources.
“If you can combine flexibility, rewards and a challenging work environment then you’re doing well.”
What is your golden advice to students and new engineers?
Three things come to mind spontaneously:
- Don’t focus on your salary and other financial benefits. It is important to ask yourself what you can learn at your new employer, and to see whether the company can be a good stepping stone to your next career opportunity.
- Look for a company that really fits you, where you can think outside the box and where you can be yourself. Anyone can adapt for a short term, but changing yourself is difficult. If you can’t be yourself it will surface at some point.
- Find flexibility that works in two directions. I personally prefer working in a performance-oriented environment rather than a time-oriented one, because it often entails additional flexibility in working hours. Despite what is claimed in the media, the traditional time-oriented culture is still alive and well in most of the business world.