After rest, Trainer takes Pepsi challenge

To hear Tom Trainer discuss the rigors he experienced as a global CIO, you’d think it was a stress factory.

“You’re like a football player who’s playing fatigued all the time,” Trainer says. “You’re struggling with jet lag from flying three to four times each week. You’re struggling to accomplish your leadership agenda. It’s a difficult job. You’ve got to want to do it because you’re tested. You’re tested every single day,” he says.

Trainer, 57, acknowledges that he looks 10 years older because of the strain he experienced as a CIO.

With that said, you might wonder why, after a three-and-a-half-year hiatus punctuated by trips to his vacation home in Provence, France, Trainer joined PepsiCo Inc. as its senior vice-president and global CIO last May. Indeed, the decision to go back to work full-time took Trainer a couple of months to reach. It turned out that early retirement was the best career move he could have made.

When Trainer left his last job, as Citigroup Inc. CIO, it wasn’t entirely planned. Sure, he says, he was “ready for a break.” But he left the company shortly after the retirement of his strategic ally, John Reed, Sanford Weill’s then co-CEO. He felt that his and Weill’s visions of IT didn’t square.

And so it was that Trainer’s sabbatical gave him some time and distance from working as a CIO (though he did serve as a board member for an IT startup called Enamics Inc.) And he realized how much he enjoys the challenge of the CIO role, the mental stimulation that comes with solving business problems. This drive, along with his time walking the golf course, made him feel fit for a new opportunity.

Meanwhile, PepsiCo was looking for a global CIO. “Pepsi realized it had some great talent in its divisional CIOs but didn’t have anyone who could step up to this role,” says Katie Graham, a recruiter with Heidrick & Struggles. Graham and her colleague Kelvin Thompson helped convince Trainer to take the position with PepsiCo. Thompson says veterans such as Trainer are needed to fill an IT leadership void.

Trainer’s reasons for taking the Pepsi challenge: He was rested and ready. Not only did golf and rest make him feel physically better, Trainer also felt that he had bandwidth to spare. It was also a good match. Trainer says his experience leading and managing organizational change enabled by IT was a good match for Pepsi’s strategic goals. He saw a path to success. Trainer was confident he could help PepsiCo. Trainer also forced himself to consider the downside of returning to work. He wondered if he was forgetting the hard times and remembering only the excitement and gratification that comes from, as he puts it, seeing the results of one’s own hard work in the achievements of others. “Ultimately, I felt I was ready,” he says. “I had the energy and certainly the ability and the willingness, and I wanted to do it, so I did.”

These days, Trainer runs from meeting to meeting keeping tabs on PepsiCo’s IT and business transformation initiatives. (He declined to discuss PepsiCo’s strategic projects.) Indeed, when CIO caught up with him by telephone, Trainer sounded short of breath. But in spite of the frantic pace, he doesn’t long for a return to a retiree’s open schedule.

“I find I’m reenergized by having had the time off and by realizing that I really love what I do,” he says. “I don’t like it every day. I don’t like every situation, but I really love what I do.”

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