Home on the Range

BOSTON (06/15/2000) - "And you may find yourselfliving in a shotgun shack And you may find yourselfin another part of the world And you may find yourselfbehind the wheel of a large automobile And you may find yourselfin a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife And you may ask yourself, 'Well, how did I get here?'" -Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads A career as a CIO is pretty all-consuming. Still, there's more to life than system uptime, interoperability and managing service providers. So we've decided to seek out and profile CIOs who in one way or another have changed their lives. First up in this occasional series: former CIO of Dell Computer Corp. and Pepsi, Jerry Gregoire.

Name Jerry Gregoire

Age 48

Last Job SVP & CIO, Dell Computer Corp.

Years in IT 26

Why He Got Into IT The love of technology Why He Got Out Didn't love management or corporate politics. (Besides, with millions of dollars and people falling over themselves to offer interesting opportunities, who needs a job?) Step Taken Retired to his 1,200-acre ranch outside Austin, Texas, in November 1999. Mends fences, plows fields and consults on technology and new business ventures.

CURRICULUM VITAE Kraft CDC, 1974 Was "the entire computer department" at this Kraft Foods distributor. Wrote applications for a Basic 4 minicomputer so that the company could unplug itself from its service bureau.

Dean Research Corp., 1981 VP of systems development. Developed Zilog computer-based control systems for custom materials handling systems, primarily for aerospace.

Pizza Hut/PepsiCo, 1986 Started as an application development manager at Pizza Hut, managing a team of about 30 people. Promoted to director and then VP; became CIO of PepsiCo's beverage group in '92.

Dell Computer, 1996 SVP and CIO, with 2,200 people, global responsibility and a $306 million budget.

Letting the Days Go By

Gregoire left Dell in November 1999 a wealthy man. His four years at the computer manufacturer were some of the most prosperous--and intense--in the company's history. (Like many successful businesses, Dell wrestles with how to hold on to the hard-working executives it makes rich--and therefore independent.) Over the years, his rise to CIO took Gregoire away from the work he loved most: the hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves creative business of writing code and building systems. "It was always about the technology for me," he says. He became adept at problem solving at Dean Research, where each contract presented a new puzzle that had to be cracked from scratch. Back then, he put in such long days that "my wife would have to call me at night and tell me it was time to come home." Work was pure fun.

The move to Pizza Hut seemed like a great opportunity to keep doing what he loved at a bigger, higher profile company. "When I went to Pizza Hut, I never thought I'd be anything but a project manager," he says. "But I kept getting promoted and getting bigger groups."

Gregoire's success has had as much to do with his people skills and leadership abilities as with his natural aptitude for technology. He's had staff follow him from one company to another; 36 people went with him from PepsiCo to Dell.

But while he was great at building teams and inspiring the people who worked for him, managing wasn't really what he loved best. "I found myself spending less and less time with what I was passionate about, and more time in staff meetings, interviews and performance reviews--things I was a lot less interested in."

Would he have done it differently if he had it to do again? Not at all. For one thing, "the money was great," he says candidly. "Not only at Dell, but also at Pepsi in the '80s, which was then the hottest stock on Wall Street. We were golden. I would have been an idiot to turn it down."

THE BEST PART The early stuff at Dean, writing software to control complex machines. "I worked on more spectacular projects later on, but in those days I could spend as much time as I wanted on what I was passionate about. Now that I'm retired, that's happening again."

THE WORST PART Having to fire people for things unrelated to their job performance. "There's nothing more discouraging than having HR tell me to fire someone who's really bright for doing something really stupid--like telling an off-color joke in a meeting."

WOULD LIKE TO BE REMEMBERED FOR The people he's been able to attract and hold on to. "As the problems got harder, [my success] had less and less to do with me and more to do with the collections of people I brought together."

THE NEXT STEP Jerry spends most of his days working on his ranch with his wife, Stephanie. Stephanie, a former grade-school teacher, is taking her own next step: After years supporting their daughter Megan's interest in horseback riding, she took up riding herself five years ago and is now raising high-performance American Paint horses and competing in reining competitions.

(Megan, a freshman at Texas A&M, is pursuing a career as a large-animal veterinarian.) The Gregoires are restoring the 1,000 wild acres they added to their spread a few years ago to what it was like before it became overgrown with brush and cedars, and they're building a new ranch house and stables farther into the heart of their land. They're building a second home on Kiawah Island, S.C.--the only place where Jerry really relaxes, according to Stephanie.

As a retired CIO, Gregoire's interests are eclectic. He still enjoys rolling up his sleeves and working with his hands. The difference these days is that instead of writing code, he's welding broken farm equipment, building furniture, plowing pastureland and painting fences. He's an avid reader (literature and technology), and he's writing a book about how to really evaluate the performance of an IS organization.

Gregoire sits on the boards of Bike.com and On Semiconductor, and he works with Texas Pacific Group, a venture firm, advising them on whether the companies they're interested in have the technology they need to succeed. He's on retainer to Cambridge Technology Group, and he speaks to boards of directors and senior management teams as a kickoff to large strategic development projects. "I'm the shock troop. I tell them what things they need to worry about."

Ironically, he says, "I'm more up to speed on the technology now that I'm retired because I have more time to spend keeping up with it."

ONCE IN A LIFETIME Gregoire has what most of us only dream about: the freedom and the money to do whatever he wants. "When I wake up in the morning, I get to decide exactly what I'm going to do that day, and I get to spend as long on it as I want. Anybody who isn't jealous of my life now ought to ask the person next to them to take their pulse."

But he isn't gloating. Ask, why him? and he'll tell you he's not all that special. "A lot of my success was just timing," he says. "I made a lot of mistakes, tried to do a lot of projects that I shouldn't have taken on. I made some mistakes with people that I still think about and regret to this day."

WHAT HE'S LEARNED Success as a CIO, particularly in a large organization, depends on so much more than technology. "If you don't care about people, you're not going to make it. A CIO personally has a lot less to do with the success of the work on a daily basis. You have to be able to motivate someone to give up their weekend and work 18 hours straight for a company that has no intention of paying them more. It's about creating a vision for the project and what we might do that day; keeping focus on the project rather than on the company.

"If [Disney CEO] Michael Eisner and the guy who wears the Mickey Mouse suit both decide not to come in to work tomorrow, who's going to be missed the most?

That's the way you have to think about everyone who works for you. You've got to maintain some perspective."

PARTING SHOT The current economic boom has made early retirement an option for a lot more people. But it's a mistake to put life on hold until that day arrives. "A lot of people in this business run their careers at 300 miles an hour, then when they retire they hit a wall. They've got nothing else in their lives besides their work and their family. For me, work has always been just a means to an end."

Have you or someone you know taken an interesting next step? Tell Editor in Chief Abbie Lundberg about it at lundberg@cio.com.

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