Ali Woodley, 57, has worked at Honda of Canada’s manufacturing division for more than three decades. She started in the paint department in 1986 and is presently Line 1 plant manager in Alliston, Ont. In North America, she is Honda’s only female plant manager.
I wasn’t a car girl growing up. My father worked for Ford and then switched to General Motors in Oshawa. While he was at Ford, he went to the war in England. He’s an engineer and worked for the Canadian military headquarters there. My mother was a war bride.
I was born and raised in Oshawa – very much a GM town and GM family. I have three older brothers and nobody went into engineering or automotive. I have two sons, 30 and 27, from my first marriage. They didn’t go into automotive, either.
My first job was as a student at GM on the line. I did that for two summers to put myself through college. I took a forestry diploma at Sir Sandford Fleming College in Lindsay, Ont. I wanted to teach outdoor education.
When I started at Honda I was quite worried, working for a Japanese company. I had to struggle with some Japanese cultural situations. Women are different in their culture. I had the same challenges with Canadian men, but I didn’t let it hold me back. The pace was so fast; I didn’t let it stop me. You didn’t have time to wallow about what someone said to you – you just have to get past it.
One lesson I’ve learned over 33 years: Pick the battles you’re going to fight. Maybe ignoring those stereotypes or prejudices is not the right thing, but sometimes you have to pick the battle. I certainly wouldn’t let people get away with things, but sometimes they’re not worth the time.
I didn’t manage work-life balance well when I was younger. In my 40s, I was also taking care of my elderly mother. She lived on her own but I did her groceries and took her to her appointments. I had two boys at that time. I was always tired.
Now, I’m exercising more, I’m sleeping better. My mother has passed away, my children are grown, and I can sit back and do more things for myself. But you didn’t have those opportunities in your 40s when you were doing everything.
The Japanese have been my biggest mentors, my biggest teachers. I’ve only had a couple that wouldn’t acknowledge my presence. They were very old school. But basically, in general, they’ve been super supportive of me. I did my job. I proved myself.
My mentors have all been men. They challenge you. They offered a lot of support and pushed me. They put me in challenging jobs. I tend to be a bit reserved, so they pushed me: ‘You can do this. Stop it. You can do it! Get going.’
What keeps me up at night is this new paint shop we’re building – a $110-million paint shop. With this new paint process we’re able to eliminate one oven and change the environmental impact, so we’re always looking to improve on what we have. And I have to launch the new ‘21 model Civic.
We had a retirement curve. We lost 300 people last year and it’ll be about 400 this year, so succession is huge here, all that know-how and all of the people like me who grew up here. It worries me, our skill level. To launch all these models, it’s going to be tough on the engineers and the new supervisors because some of them haven’t been through a new model launch or the launch of a paint shop. That’s the challenge that is coming this year.
Women think they have to be perfect at everything, their house, their job, and they get into that mode. You definitely get tired of that. So it’s nice when you get to an age – I’m 57 now – I can take some time to myself. I’m still working the long hours, but I can get more sleep and I can exercise. So it’s good.
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