Tech leadership executes in many fashions, but it’s rare to hear today’s effective leaders describe success without referencing the power of the people around them. True to form, this year’s CIO of the Year Award winner, Aaron Gwinner, leans hard on the crucial role his team has played.
In an interview with CGT, the CIO and SVP of digital business solutions for Reynolds American repeatedly points to both his team and company leadership as being instrumental in his success. Even when asked if he was proud to receive this award, he remained steadfast in his view that it’s a way to recognize his team: “They're the ones who do the work. My job is to set a clear vision, get the roadblocks out of their way, and empower them to deliver. When they deliver, and we get recognized for it, I think it's a great endorsement of my team and the fantastic work they've done.”
The CIO of the Year Award, now in its 10th year, is bestowed upon a company’s senior-most tech leader who has made the greatest demonstrable business impact within their consumer goods organization through the implementation and successful use of technology. Nominations are accepted from colleagues, peers, and business partners — and Gwinner’s accolades were both plentiful and derived from more than one source.
CGT: What is one piece of technology you cannot live without?
Like most, Agrawal can’t live without his iPhone. “Sometimes I feel like it’s a part of me or part of my body. It’s a one-stop shop for everything I do.”
However, Agrawal still spends 50% to 60% of his time on the computer and the rest of the time on his phone. “We’re trying to achieve ‘any time anywhere, any device’ … especially at a leadership level.”
CGT: What’s something your colleagues might not know about you?
He’s lived in 18 different cities. In fact, at 45 years old, Agrawal has had 28 different addresses. As a child, his father had a transferable job, so he moved a lot. Now, with his own kids getting older, the moving has slowed down, but his traveling has not. As such, his 10-year-old has been to 15 or 16 countries. “I like to meet new people [and] I like to see new places, so I love learning about new cultures.”
CGT: What is your favorite Chobani product? And non-Chobani product?
His all-time favorite Chobani product: Almond Coco Loco (also the No. 1-selling Flip product, he notes), but Agrawal’s new budding favorite is Chobani Vanilla Oat Milk. However, KIND bars (dark chocolate, nut and sea salt, to be exact) would also make the cut if Chobani is not available.
CIO of the Year Through the Years
Aaron Gwinner is a proud CPG lifer, having started his career at Coca-Cola after serving in the U.S. Army. As someone who spent much of his childhood overseas — his father was also in the Army — Gwinner was drawn to not only working for a global company, but also one that just so happened to be his favorite brand.
But after spending 26 years at the beverage giant — in which he visited more than 70 countries — he was ready for a change and found what he calls a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” at Reynolds American.
He leads a team of 400 internal and external IT professionals who touch every area of the business, and while his team leads technology for the company, IT is not a separate function. “The whole purpose of everything we do is to impact our business,” Gwinner says. “To do that, we have to be fully embedded with all the functions of the company, [and] operate jointly and collaboratively to deliver those capabilities.”
For his early success at Reynolds American, Gwinner credits both his time at Coca-Cola
and international experience as strong foundations. Like Coca-Cola, Reynolds American
has vast global reach — it’s sold in more than 180 markets — and the companies shared
a similar organizational structure when he joined. Though some nuances exist, the
exec was drawn to both the opportunity to grows as a leader and bring his experience
and best practices to a new role.
And while technology has its place, its ultimate purpose is about impact, a comparison
he likens to marketers who pledge to put the consumer at the center of what they do.
“For IT, people are at the center of our digital transformation and our technology.
You've got to understand what impact it will have and how it's going to be used.
And I think that's the focus that we've brought.”
“When you want to work in a collaborative environment, you have to understand a lot about people and culture. I've had the opportunity to work with people in all these different countries. Bringing that here and helping a U.S.-focused team understand how to work in a global environment was probably one of the biggest — or the first things — I brought to the role.”
What was your first job?
“I was a bartender. Everything I've needed
to learn in business, I think it started in my role as a bartender. You learn how to move quickly, listen, and interact with people in
a positive way.”
If you had to eat one meal every day for
the rest of your life, what would it be?
“My wife's fried chicken.”
What is something your colleagues might not know about you?
“I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie: motorcycles, skydiving, scuba diving, zip lines. If I can ever find a chance where you can get a little bit of that adrenaline rush, I go for it.”
Those who nominated Gwinner for this year’s award point to his tremendously positive impact on the company, driving transformation and helping develop a strong culture.
Strong Foundations, Strong Support
Indeed, his accomplishments on both the people of Reynolds American and its operations are numerous: In addition to launching a new e-commerce platform, Gwinner’s team has established a hub in Silicon Valley to partner on new technology innovation, as well as replaced all aging marketing platforms/websites and led the building of a new data science and e-commerce team.
As a result of his efforts, the company has recorded five-fold direct-to-consumer e-commerce growth for non-combustible products, a 700% increase in e-commerce subscriptions, and improved mobile website performance by 500% — with a 35% mobile conversion rate and $200 million in benefits from data analytics.
Just as importantly, his work to rethink the company’s mission and structure resulted in an 80% shift in leadership roles and the development of a more diverse talent pipeline. This includes having 33% female representation in management roles, with 85% of those promoted this year being women or a racial minority.
The company has also increased its number of new positions in order to recruit more entry-level talent and develop the next generation of leadership. “When you've got the best of the best coming out of that pipeline, that is your future,” says Gwinner. “Those are your future leaders.”
“The equation that we have to figure out is cost and value. It's not always about the best technology; it’s about what value am I going to get, and what's the cost of delivering it? Doing that commercial focus is something I think IT people have to do, because sometimes you don't need a Mercedes to do everything. You need to get the right tool, the right platform, at the right cost, but it has to deliver the value proposition that you're going after.”
Gwinner’s Tech Selection Process
As part of this, Gwinner’s U.S. team led a 38% decrease in printing rates and moved 68% of its data hosting from on-premise data centers to the cloud, while his leadership in charitable giving resulted in a 31% increase in giving and a 21% increase in volunteer participation. Reynolds American digital business solutions employees donated more than 150 hours of volunteer time.
“Our commitment as a company is to reduce the health impact of our products and our business. That's our mission. It's to deliver a better tomorrow — that's what we all believe in,” he says. “And to do that, we have to build a pipeline or a portfolio of multi-category products that are non-combustible. If that's our vision of [generating] those new category products, that requires new investments in R&D, data, and technology. My team is focused on that new category growth: How are we going to get there? And how do we support our business to get to that better future?”
And perhaps unsurprisingly, Gwinner’s view of his biggest accomplishment at Reynolds American isn’t about technology, projects, or even execution, but rather the understanding that the leadership team sees value in their work.
“Sometimes we get so focused on the technology and the projects, but we forget that the reason that we leverage technology and data is to drive business value,” he notes. “Over the last three years, the sponsorship, the support, the interactions I've had with all the different functions of the company, we’re now seen as a value contributor to a business, not just an IT function.”
Buy before you build and reuse before you buy. We’re in the business of food, not in the business of manufacturing software. We try to buy things that suit a need off the shelf and incorporate them in the business.
Reduce data replication and unify the data.
Every new front-end technology needs to be part of the business transformation. Do not lift and shift technology without business process improvement.
Don’t go after bright and shiny objects (software). A complex software ecosystem is difficult to maintain. (Have that clear strategy and make sure the tech selection falls within that strategy.)
Educate key stakeholders and ensure they’re thinking about the business value and not the tech. You must bring everyone along on the journey — business transformation should be enabled by technology.
Incorporate power users to help with change management roadblocks. Instead of IT talking to users, have power users talk to their peers to achieve higher user adoption.
2021: Parag Agrawal, Chobani
Mike Crowe, Colgate-Palmolive
Rekha Ramesh, Tupperware
2020: Mark Vaupel, Hormel Foods
2019: Sandeep Dadlani, Mars Incorporated
2018: Jane Moran, Unilever
2017: Manjit Singh, The Clorox Company
2016: Sai Koorapati, Callaway Golf
2015: Mark Dajani, Mondelez International
2014: David Stahl, Hillshire Brands
2013: Ralph Loura, The Clorox Company
Gwinner’s colleagues also praise the work he’s done to upskill employees as they execute upon Reynolds American’s mission of “A Better Tomorrow,” which strives to reduce both the health and environmental impacts of the tobacco business.
On Achieving Corporate Buy-In