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October 7, 2019

Thomas Werner: 2019 Distinguished Achievement Award recipient

Written By: Staff

Thomas Werner

Thomas Werner
Chairman and CEO, SunPower Corp.
MBA ’95, George Washington University
BSEE ’86, Marquette University
BSIE ’82, UW-Madison

Each year, the College of Engineering recognizes outstanding alumni during Engineers’ Day—a celebration of engineers, held on Homecoming weekend. Tom Werner is among the engineers we will honor in 2019 at an Oct. 11 banquet.

Before the end of Tom’s senior year of college, General Electric had hired him to participate in a management program at its massive location in Cincinnati, Ohio. Not only did his position give him the comfort of knowing he’d have a job after graduation, but participation in the program also helped him focus his professional goals—one of which was to take a company public.

He achieved that goal in 2005—just two years after he took the helm of SunPower, a small solar technology company founded during the oil crisis of the 1970s. When he began as CEO in 2003, the company had 35 employees; today, it has a workforce of more than 7,000 worldwide. And, as a world leader in solar efficiency and sustainable manufacturing practices, it provides innovative energy solutions for residential, business, government, schools and utility customers around the globe.

Prior to Sun Power, Tom also held management positions with Oak Industries and executive-level positions with 3Com Corp. and Silicon Light Machines Inc.

We are honoring Tom for innovations in solar technology that have transformed the global energy industry.

Recently, we chatted with him about everything from his memories as a student at UW-Madison to his career and hobbies. Here are his responses to some of our questions.

How did you choose to attend UW-Madison?

I went to middle and high school in New Berlin, outside of Milwaukee, and UW-Madison was considered sort of the brass ring, as we call it in Silicon Valley, or the big deal. And truth be told, my father filled out my applications, including one for Madison. So it would be fair to credit him for me going to Madison.

How did you decide on your major?

I was good in math and reasonably good in sciences. My father was a sales guy and two of my three brothers were in business school at the time. And my father thought industrial engineering capitalized on my math ability not only in engineering, but also had a business element to it.

How did your experience in the College of Engineering influence your career path?

The first semester was a real eye-opener. I breezed through high school, and my first semester was not a breeze. That experience motivated a new work ethic and to compete. At the time, they would post grades and show everybody’s grade. That changed the way I prepared and how I managed my time more effectively.

What advice would you give to students today?

If you don’t know what you want to do, start with the most difficult. If you can get into engineering, start there, because it’s much easier to switch from engineering to, for example, business school than it is to go from business school to engineering. It gives you more options.

What are some of your best memories from your time at UW-Madison?

On the social side, football and hockey and the pre- and post-game fun associated with that. And then on the educational side was statistics, probability, electrical engineering, linear programming. My grasp on those has paid off—so I have fond memories of the effort of the results, but maybe not the process itself.

What are your hobbies?

I’ve done probably well over 100 triathlons, including international, half Ironman and four Ironmans. That’s consumed most of my hobby time. I love to read. And I’m a grandfather, so I dedicate time to that.

Family members?

My wife, Suzanne. Two daughters, Jessica and Katie, and their families.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?

Everybody knows I’m a Badger. At sporting events, I randomly yell, “Go Badgers.” My two sons-in-law: They’re Badger fans because they have to be.