Priyani Withaanarachchi | WinA Member of the Month
This month we are so proud to feature a woman who has paved an incredible path in the Australian and international automotive supply chain industry, Priyani Withaanarachchi.
Falling into an automotive finance role after the birth of her second son, Priyani realised her passion for the industry. From pioneering industry first supply chain transformations, to being invited to work with industry giant, Nissan, at their Bangkok Regional headquarters, Priyani’s stories are not ones to be missed.
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Tell us a bit about your current role or involvement in the automotive industry.
Priyani: At the moment I’m not working, but my most recent role was at Nissan’s Asia Oceania Regional Headquarters in Bangkok.
I was the General Manager of Regional Strategy and Governance, responsible for projects in seven countries across the region. It was a very refreshing environment. For the first time there were more females than males in the workplace as well as a very multicultural team. I worked closely with senior executives, learnt a lot from them and made strong relationships. The experience was very much outside my comfort zone. Not only was I living in a new country, but I was in a new workplace, and in a new role. I made use of these new opportunities to form many new friendships through networking and volunteering locally.
What was your first professional experience within the automotive industry?
Priyani: I applied for a short-term management accountant role at Honda Australia after I had my second son. After that initial short-term role, I was invited to stay. I loved what the company and brand stood for, so it was an easy decision. That was over 20 years ago, and I have never bought a car since then! After 7 years working in the finance team I asked for a lateral move, and it just so happened that a colleague in the Sales Distribution team was about to start maternity leave, so I was offered the opportunity to cover her position there.
Do you think you have experienced challenges within the industry that your male counterparts haven’t?
Priyani: Yes. For a start, working mothers didn’t have the flexibilities that we have today (although there is still a long way to go), because it was rare for mothers to hold leadership roles to influence that thinking. So as a working mother it was a huge challenge especially when my sons were younger.
As I moved into leadership positions, I would regularly be the only woman, or one of very few, in the room. Regardless of my attitude and mindset, it was very intimidating. I was made to feel like I was there in place of someone else, rather than in my own capacity and capability. In addition to that, my cultural background which I am proud of, also often adds another dimension to who I am but also how I am perceived. We still have much to do when it comes to unconscious bias in and outside the workplace.
I have always felt that I needed to do more and work that much harder to prove myself. For example, one of the motivators for me to take on my Master of Supply Chain, was because ‘not having the technical qualification’ seemed to be the only roadblock for a promotion I was otherwise entirely eligible for.
As I progressed in my career it has been tough being my authentic self. Thankfully, I have been able to lean on some amazing women who also know what it feels like. I also had the support of male leaders who trusted me. While I've certainly had challenges as a woman working in automotive, I have also had some amazing allies. So, you can see how critical it is to actively nurture diversity in the workplace for women to grow.
What is your biggest achievement in auto, personal or professional?
Priyani: I have spent two decades working in automotive, across Supply Chain and Finance.
I have had the exceptional privilege of working for two iconic global automotive brands, Honda and Nissan during that time. Supply Chain was where I found work most rewarding, because of the huge opportunities to make a difference. I enjoyed collaborating with stakeholders locally and globally. I was able to influence leaders to shift thinking.
The first vehicle handling manual I implemented at Honda is still one of my proudest achievements, bringing global best practice to how we did things in Australia. There are so many touch points from when a car arrives in port to when it is delivered to the dealership. The handling manual I created streamlined that process by setting standards and accountability. It improved the quality of our supply chain; we saw a marked reduction in damages, and importantly we delivered cars to our customers sooner. It really helped build my confidence and gain credibility, across local and global stakeholders. Of all the projects I since championed, the Alliance National Distribution Centre combining Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi would be a highlight. It was a very tough project and high profile because it was a global first for parts and accessories for all three brands to share a single warehouse.
Professionally, I hope I have raised the profile of supply chain as a function that adds value to customers. It’s not just about moving the metal, it’s how you move the metal that makes the difference.
Personally, I have had fabulous opportunities to learn and grow. I also took every chance I could to see and learn how supply chains work overseas, even taking time during my personal travels. Receiving my Master’s in Supply Chain with Distinction while working full time and studying part-time was both personally and professionally fulfilling.
Do you have a favourite resource as a woman working in the automotive industry? Maybe a book, event, organization, mentor, or online platform?
Priyani: Mentors. For me mentors have been an essential support. Mentors can help by sharing their experiences to show that you are not alone in your struggles but also to highlight any blind spots or to look at things from a different lens. Having good mentors can make a huge difference throughout your career. For me, mentor relationships have been fantastic also because I left my entire network behind when I migrated to Australia.
Who is your inspiration as a female in automotive?
Priyani: The next generation. My two sons are my constant inspiration. They give me the hope to keep reaching higher. I am also constantly inspired by the next generation in the workplace. I am passionate about nurturing and supporting them to thrive. I have tried to use every opportunity to attract young people from diverse backgrounds into the industry. They have gone on to become incredible talent, bringing different thinking and new ways of doing things. Watching them grow and develop to doing bigger and better things, in life and work, is a real joy.
Finally, what is the best piece of advice that you have received or that you could give to another woman working in the automotive industry?
Priyani: To have the courage to be authentic, to stand for your values and do what drives you. When you are knocked back, be courageous to take on the challenge to go further and build your resilience.
Have the courage to also be humble, to reach out for support because everyone needs a hand at some point in their career.