Rising through the ranks: Waterloo Engineering student's journey to CEO at Woodbridge

Thursday, February 15, 2024

John Zianis with a group of Woodbridge staff and Waterloo co-op students

Waterloo Engineering student climbs up the ranks at Woodbridge and goes on to develop future leaders in the process.

By: Namish Modi (he/him)

In 1992, John Zianis (BASc ’97) began his journey at the University of Waterloo as a Chemical Engineering co-op student. For his third co-op work term, he worked at Woodbridge, a global provider of innovative solutions primarily in automotive manufacturing.

That journey has taken him from an eager co-op student to CEO and the president of the company. Starting in the chemical research and development lab, Zianis gained experience in how to make polyurethane foam and other products.

Upon graduation in 1997 he was hired into a full-time role with the company where he blossomed into his leadership role. Zianis held the role of vice-president and president of other business units before taking on the role of COO. He then became Woodbridge’s fourth president and CEO since the company’s inception in 1978.

“I did four work terms with Woodbridge and fell in love with the company from the get-go,” says Zianis. “I loved the company, so I looked for an opportunity to come back for another work term within the corporate engineering department.”

Exploring the world through co-op

As part of his work terms at Woodbridge, Zianis travelled to Germany, England, Mexico and throughout the United States (U.S.) and Canada. While in England, he installed and relocated equipment from one facility to another.

“I kind of won the lottery a little bit,” says Zianis, about his opportunity to travel the world as a co-op student. “Because of the four co-op work terms that I worked for the company, once I started working at Woodbridge full-time, I hit the ground running with a big project,” says Zianis.

As a full-time employee in the corporate engineering department, he spent eight months in Manchester, England assisting in building a new facility. After working in the corporate engineering role for three years, Zianis' next roles at Woodbridge were in operations, which included process engineering and production management. Later, he became a plant manager at the Kitchener, Ontario location.

His career journey took on several more roles before leading to his position as CEO. “I got a good sense of what the company was about, what the people were about and what the technologies were about,” says Zianis, regarding his lengthy journey at the company. “It just gave me a very good view of what Woodbridge is, and kind of allowed me to fall in love with the company at an early stage.”

The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, John Zianis and co-op students talking at an event. (from left to right)The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, John Zianis and co-op students at an event. (from left to right)

An advocate of co-op at Waterloo

Along the way, Zianis’ experiences made him a strong advocate for Waterloo’s co-op program and its students. He is also currently a member of the University of Waterloo’s Dean’s Advisory Council for Engineering.

He understands the value of co-op students and is a supporter of their journeys. He has hired students as both process engineers and project engineers from the Mechanical, Chemical and Computer Engineering programs at Waterloo.

top quote

I am always blown away by their capability, their skill set and how they carry themselves. Whether it’s a first-year student or a fourth-year student, you can see how their abilities and their capabilities have changed over the years.

- JOHN ZIANIS, CEO of Woodbridge

Co-op students currently working at Woodbridge work in roles in the company’s robotics, IT and digital enablement departments. “I’m very excited about seeing our emerging future leaders in action,” says Zianis. “Their capabilities are impressive. Students bring a lot of youthful energy and excitement to the company by bringing innovative ideas and approaches to solving some of our problems.”

At the end of each work term, students present their work to senior leadership at Woodbridge. Woodbridge has been part of the University of Waterloo co-op program for decades and has in some years hired upwards of 30 students in a work term.