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Chrishan Villavarayan, BENG '95

Global opportunities help design his career

 

Two decades ago, Chris Villavarayan joined global drivetrain supplier Meritor as a site manager for a plant in St. Thomas, Ontario.

In February, the civil engineering grad’s meteoric rise through the company will land him in the CEO’s chair, overseeing the $4 billion company and its 8,000 employees in 19 countries.

His career has surprised even him, admits Villavarayan, who humbly attributes his success to a love of learning, sense of curiosity and willingness to be very mobile.

In the 20 years since he joined Meritor, he’s worked in Canada, Detroit, North Carolina, China, Europe and India – “pretty much every region that Meritor operates, with the exception of Australia,” he says.

By following opportunities in the first decade of his career, he was able to expand his knowledge of the operations of the company – a global supplier of drivetrain, mobility, braking and aftermarket solutions for commercial vehicle and industrial markets.

In 2009, he shifted his focus to the business side of the company with a move to India to run Meritor’s operations in that country.

The two-and-a-half year stint gave the Sri Lankan born Villavarayan a chance to explore his heritage with his return to a part of the world he left in childhood.

Since his 2012 return to the company’s Michigan headquarters, he has rapidly climbed the corporate ladder.

With electrification, autonomous vehicles and connectivity driving rapid change in the industry, Villavarayan says it’s an exciting time to lead the company.

“There’s a dramatic sea change that’s happening,” he says. “It’s probably the first time that transportation as we’ve known it has changed in 100 years.”

“It’s a really amazing time to be part of this industry.”

An admittedly reluctant engineer – “I’ve always wanted to be an architect; I’ve always liked design” – Villavarayan says his career offers a lesson of hope for students who lack certainty.

With little firm direction, even at graduation, he took his first job at Meritor because it offered a chance to plan a brand-new plant.

“I loved it because it was design in its own sense, I had the opportunity to lay out the facility and the equipment and the flow,” he says.

His ascent to the upper echelons of the company has offered some of the same opportunity to imagine the big picture in the face of changing times.

He urges students who are uncertain about the future to stick with engineering and have faith in the opportunities ahead.

“If you are unsure, don’t feel bad because you will certainly figure it out. The most important thing is just to finish the degree,” Villavarayan says.

“You can go into something that looks incredibly traditional – like a company that’s 110 years old and beats metal and builds axles – and be able to transform it into something that will change trucking forever. That’s just out of this world.”

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