Inspiring engineer says bye

21:06, Jun 22 2014
Willie Vance, chief executive for the NZ Institute of Highway Technology is retiring after 18 years.

It is time for new adventures for Willie Vance after 18 years at the helm of the New Zealand Institute of Highway Technology.

Vance retires as NZIHT's chief executive after spending nearly two decades growing the institute from a company with a $1 million turnover in 1997 to one pulling in $5.5m in 2011.

All programmes and courses offered by NZIHT, a civil engineering training provider, are delivered under the Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki's (Witt) accreditation.

Vance, 73, was working in South Africa when he received a call from NZIHT asking if he would be interested in the position.

"There was a South African working there and they asked him to talk to me while he was in South Africa for a holiday," Vance said.

"I came, I had a look and I said OK."


Vance said 18 years was enough and NZIHT would need "somebody younger" to take over.

There was a mixture of both pride and humility when Vance spoke of NZIHT's achievements over the last two decades.

Vance's career highlight was when the institute received the accreditation to deliver the three-year Bachelor of Engineering Technology (highways) degree.

"It's the first for New Zealand and the first for Southeast Asia. We deliver it part-time, which is unusual in itself because no other institutions did that," he said.

"So that was a big highlight."

Vance showed the Taranaki Daily News a news clipping of the handover of keys in 2003 when NZIHT moved from Devon St East to its present Young St site.

"We decided to stop paying rent and this building came on the market so we bought it," Vance said.

NZIHT has about 400 students enrolled in its diploma programme, with another 60 in its degree and post- graduate diploma programmes, all delivered in its Hamilton campus.

Short courses are delivered from its New Plymouth campus.

"We run a lot of short courses throughout the country," he said.

Vance was born in Ireland and attended the Queen's University in Belfast, graduating with a degree in civil engineering in 1964. He went on to complete a PhD in civil engineering at the same university in 1968.

"Then I decided to go to South Africa on a two-year contract," he said.

But the two-year contract turned into a 28-year stint in South Africa.

He spent 22 years in civil engineering contracting and the last five years as the chief executive of the South African Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors.

Vance was 55 years old when he started work at NZIHT on May 23, 1996.

"I had never heard of New Plymouth," he said. "I had to look at the map to see where it was."

Vance arrived in New Plymouth first and was later joined by wife, Jenny, in July. "And we've been here ever since."

Vance said his boss was not "too happy" with his decision to head a million miles away in pursuit of a new job. "But he said, if that's what you want to do, you do. So we came."

Landing at the New Plymouth airport was not without hiccups.

"There was a cow on the runway," Vance said. "We were coming in to land and next minute, the plane started going back up again.

"The captain said 'sorry, we cannot land because there's a cow on the runway'.

"I thought it was a grass runway with the cow grazing. But it had come through the fence and they herded it off."

Former Witt chief executive Richard Handley said Vance was "a good friend, a good colleague and an exceptional chief executive".

"He developed the subsidiary from a very small company into a very significant contributor to Witt," Handley said.

"He earned the respect of the industry and had many valuable relationships that supported the teaching of the company."

NZIHT is a very important part of Witt and Vance did a "pretty amazing job".

"I wish him all the best," Handley said.

Vance's last day at NZIHT is on June 30 and he is heading off to South Africa to spend three months with family.

Taranaki Daily News