Aine Denari, 48
Senior Vice President, Advanced Driver Assist Systems, Electronics and Advanced Driver Assist Systems Division, ZF Group
Location: Northville, Mich.
Education: B.S., mechanical engineering, University College, Dublin; M.S. engineering, Purdue University; Masters of Engineering Management, University of Detroit Mercy; MBA, Northwestern University
What drew you to the auto industry? I suppose that started way back in high school. I liked math and physics most. That drew me into engineering, and the pieces I was most passionate about was thermal dynamics, fluid mechanics and combustion. So, of course, that was geared exactly toward the auto industry.
First automotive job: I hired into Ford in 1996 doing combustion research.
Big break: Three weeks after I joined TRW — I hadn’t even moved the family yet — boom, here comes ZF (which acquired TRW). So that was a bit of a surprise. But John Plant, then the CEO at TRW, asked me to take the lead on integration from our side. I think that was a big break, because I got to know every part of the combined company.
NEWSLETTER: Sign up for Lead the Way, our monthly Leading Women Network newsletter highlighting ways to educate, mentor and empower women in automotive.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? I’ve moved around quite a bit — companies, industries, functions. One of the big challenges is getting up to speed and adding value in a quick way. I see that as a challenge, but I embrace that. It allows me to always be doing something new and interesting and continuing to learn.
You’ve been in the industry 16 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? We’re starting to see people understand the benefits of diversity and start on that journey. Certainly within even the last six months, it’s been hugely encouraging for me to see the most traditional parts of the auto industry see there’s benefits to that, and you have to be very intentional and thoughtful about how you build that diversity. It’s great to see the change. We’re in the early days of the process.
What work achievement are you most proud of? Back to my first job at Ford, I spent time working on exhaust systems, and when I’d see a vehicle on the road with the exhaust system that I was design-and-release engineer for, that was pretty exciting. Now, every time I see a car that has one of our cameras or radars on it, I tell my kids “Look!” and they do not care. And that’s OK.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? ZF is a very large company and has a tendency to be a little slow in decision-making and needing X number of approvals to get things done. One of the things we’ve learned is we have the ability to make things happen much more quickly, and the ability to be more agile and flexible. Another piece is that I’ve spent the last six years of my life traveling a lot, and maybe we don’t need to be in person as much as we thought to be effective and productive.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? It starts in K-12, and encouraging women to get more interested in STEM careers, getting them involved in FIRST Robotics and some of those organizations. In college, I had the opportunity to do my first master’s at Purdue, and they have a phenomenal Women in Engineering Program. Those are great examples of where you can really help people understand what it means to be in the auto industry and give them a support system so it doesn’t feel like you’re doing something on your own.
What’s the best part of your day? With all the traveling I do, I don’t see the kids or my husband nearly as much as I’d like. The last five months, I’ve seen them and put the kids to bed every night, and gotten a chance to ask them about their day.
Tell us about your family. I have a wonderful husband, and we’ve been married for 16 years. I hope I have that right! We have a 15-year-old girl, a 12-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl. They’ve all been born in different places, Chicago, Dublin and Indianapolis. They all have two passports.
What’s your favorite weekend activity? I always like to go for family walks, the kids not so much. We make a deal. When it’s Mother’s Day or my birthday, they have to go on a no-complaining family walk. I also like to run, and that’s a good stress reliever, living here in Michigan with all the beautiful scenery.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year, and what did you get out of it? Gosh, I love to read, so that’s a tough question. There’s one I read recently from Robert Quinn, a University of Michigan professor, called The Positive Organization. Through this COVID experience, we’re all a little stressed and don’t have the interpersonal interactions. The Positive Organization is focused on how effective an organization can really be when we’re focused on the positive side of things. It has really tactical advice.
If there were 25 hours in a day, how would you spend your extra hour? Probably family would be No. 1. More time with them, and making them go on family walks.
— Pete Bigelow