Growing up in Charleston, West Virginia, Rob Painter (B.S. Finance, '93) flipped through the local paper to check the stock prices.
“When I was growing up, I was definitely always interested in numbers,” Painter said. “It was very clear to me what I wanted to major in.”
Now Painter is president and CEO of Trimble. He took on the post in January 2020—mere weeks before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. In spite of the uphill struggle, Painter persevered, and one year into his leadership, the company was named to the S&P 500.
“A pandemic is not in the marketing brochure for a new CEO,” Painter said. “I had the benefit of working at the company for 15 years. It would’ve been hard to be new, but I know the company and the people inside and out. It’s a ‘we,’ not a ‘me.’ It takes a village and goes back to the people.”
Trimble uses software, hardware and services to digitize essential industries such as agriculture, construction, transportation and forestry—in short, it works to enhance infrastructure at the nexus of the industrial economy and technology. Based in Sunnyvale, California, Trimble employs more than 11,000 people across 40-plus countries and does business in more than 150 nations.
“When I look at the people at Trimble, I feel like I work in the United Nations,” Painter said.
Painter has kept his nose in the books but his heart in the company culture. His journey to helm Trimble began from a very different place. After earning his bachelor’s degree in finance at West Virginia University, Painter went to Harvard University for his MBA and worked largely in management and strategy for several years. He started at Trimble in 2006 in corporate development, gradually learning the company’s industries and its business from the inside out.
“The markets that we’re serving are large, they’re global, they’re underserved, they’re underpenetrated. That naturally creates opportunities to grow, and when there’s a company context for growth there’s a lot of personal and professional context for that growth, and I’m a poster child of that,” Painter said. “What attracted me then and what very much still compels me about Trimble is people, purpose and opportunity.”
Painter was CFO when he was tapped to become CEO—only the third in Trimble’s 43-year history. That provided a stable base of strategic and leadership continuity, but also big shoes to fill. And that was before the added challenge of COVID-19.
He planned to weather the pandemic by focusing on first-principles thinking: establishing a set of guiding principles and leading with them.
“We looked at a few key principles: We’re keeping employees safe. We’re keeping customers in business. We didn’t want to cut any jobs, so we did some shared sacrifice,” Painter said.
“We established early on in the pandemic that we want to position ourselves to exit this on a stronger relative footing than we began with. We took pay cuts across the vast majority of the company at the beginning of pandemic. I think it strengthened our culture—and we restored pay and paid back lost wages. Now we’re able to do a bit of a bonus on top of that. It worked.”
The move, however, took faith in the company’s people, and it relied on the goodwill and positive culture Painter strived to maintain in the face of an unforeseen disaster. He focused on good communication and transparency. The management team ran the numbers to determine how they’d weathered past crises and how quickly they recovered. Knowing how much financial pain they could take, they shared that information with employees and got their buy-in to a plan that would involve short-term loss for long-term stability—and, in point of fact, gain.
“My view is, we spend more of our waking hours at work than we do with our family and our friends,” Painter says. “I want to do something that counts; I want to do something that makes a difference; I want to do something where I go to sleep every night feeling good about the work that I’m engaged in.”
Unsurprisingly, in a survey of global workplace culture by Comparably, Trimble ranked 15th out of more than 15,000 companies, based on anonymous employee surveys. It’s also earned accolades for its leadership, company outlook and CEO Painter’s commitment to diversity.
Today Painter, an avowed mountain person, lives in Colorado. “Being in nature is where I find peace,” he said. His idea of peace is tinged with adrenaline, though, since his outdoor adventures involve hiking or mountain climbing. “I like the challenge and the grind. I’m an achievement-oriented person. I like the summit.”
When not exploring Machu Picchu, Painter enjoys visiting his home state for rafting on the New River or simply stopping by WVU’s Morgantown campus, where two of his nephews are majors in the Chambers College.
When asked what advice he’d give his nephews and their classmates, Painter said, “Figure out your superpower. Develop it and lean into it. Put in the work.
“We tend to grow through failure and through experience. I’m a big proponent of curiosity. Learn, learn, learn and say ‘yes’ to opportunities. When you see it, don’t wait!”