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Joshua Broder leads fast-growing Tilson towards $77M in annual sales, hundreds of jobs

PHOTo / Tim Greenway Joshua Broder, CEO of Tilson, in the lobby at the new office in Portland. The offices feature an open layout with no assigned workspaces or offices.
Photo / Tim Greenway Joshua Broder, CEO of Tilson, meets an employee in a huddle room at Tilson’s new offices.

Like his team of 100 employees at Tilson's new $4 million Portland headquarters, CEO Joshua Broder doesn't have an office or a desk in the sprawling open-plan space it owns at 16 Middle St.

“In activity-based work, you don't have any assigned seats, and you can take any available workstation,” Broder says during an interview in a glassed-in room named Central Perk. “The idea is that a lot of us aren't here every day, and so we don't tie down resources.”

The 39-year-old self-described workaphile, who puts in 100 hours a week for the network deployment and IT professional services firm he's led for nearly a decade, gets by on little sleep and spends two-thirds of his time on the road.

When in Portland, he likes perching in Tilson's kitchen, and not just to fuel his 20-cup-a-day coffee habit, but to be “socially in the river” as he puts it.

“It's the extreme manifestation of the open door. I don't even have a door,” he adds. “I'm open storage, so I'm out there in the kitchen and people can come talk to me whenever, about anything.”

“Tilson – On a Mission” is the firm's tagline, and Broder says that mission is to design and build America's information infrastructure software and hardware.

He also sees that as his personal mission, along with creating an environment for like-minded “high-performance happy people” who push each other to be better: “I've never encountered a group of smarter, more capable people, and they push me every day to keep up,” he says.

Broder, a decorated Army veteran and self-taught network engineer, took the reins at Tilson in 2009 when it employed about 10 people who provided IT consulting and software development. It added network deployment services that year, and Broder says that both have grown explosively since. He was Tilson's third employee when he joined in early 2007.

Today there are 400 on the payroll nationwide, about half of whom are veterans, in nearly 20 locations. Sales went up from $36 million in 2016 to $44 million in 2017. Broder projects $77 million in 2018.

“He's the right person at the right time in the right business,” says U.S. Sen. Angus King, an old family friend who remembers Broder as a child being “bright, engaging and intense.” Years later King officiated at Broder's wedding to Eliza Ginn on “a wonderful warm day merging two great Maine families.”

Military background

Broder, who grew up in Cumberland and attended Waynflete School in Portland, studied history at Middlebury College on an Army ROTC scholarship with dreams of becoming an intelligence officer in Japan.

“I had this James Bond fantasy about how that was going to go,” he says. Then on Sept. 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, it killed a big part of the Army's human resources department, including the board that was meeting to give Broder his assignment.

Despite having no technical background, he was sent to be a communications officer in Germany, where he spent nights teaching himself how to use the equipment. “By the time I got out of the military, I was a self-taught network engineer and was quite technical,” he says.

His military experience, which also took him to the Middle East and Central Asia, earned him a Bronze Star for running the tactical communications network in Afghanistan.

As soon as he left the Army he returned home, because, he says, “the more places I saw, the more I realized that Maine was maybe the most rational, reasonable, sane, delightful place on earth.”

Back to Maine

When Broder got back to Maine he looked up Mike Dow, a friend of his father's who had founded Tilson Technology Management as a one-person consultancy in 1997. “We had a great connection,” Dow says of his first meeting with Broder. “I thought he was really super-smart and super-driven.”

Broder started in early 2007, became CEO in 2009 and bought the company from Dow shortly after.

Dow still has a stake in the company, which he re-joined in October 2014 to open an office in Denver and build the consulting business. He admits that while it's unusual for a founder to hand over a company and stay on, it was an easy decision to leave it in Broder's hands.

“What I own is worth far more than when I owned everything,” Dow says. One of the things he finds most fascinating about Broder is the fact that in every state he visits, he takes the general contractor test for Tilson — in between business meetings — and holds all the company's contractor licenses. “It's like Bill Gates still writing the code for the software.”

Broder is equally appreciative of Dow and a business relationship that has gone through several iterations: “It's really a testament to him [Dow], given that I was a young interloper at the beginning, that those transitions have happened so successfully.”

Both have now been honored as Mainebiz Business Leader of the Year, Dow in 2009 in the small-business category and Broder this year in the large-business category.

Asked about his management style, Broder calls himself an eternal optimist who believes in the potential of people.

“When I think about our workforce of young millennial employees, I remember those 19-year-old soldiers who could accomplish anything if they had a clear mission and they were empowered to act and they had the tools they needed,” he says.

In the team culture he's created he gives employees lots of freedom while keeping close tabs on their work. “I tread a weird line between taking an optimistic view of what people are capable of, and giving them lots of rope, and being hyper-aware of how it's going,” he says.

Veteran hires

Tilson is often held up as an example for its large veteran workforce.

In the early days, it hired veterans through personal connections. Now with greater hiring needs in a challenging environment, that's become more systematic, and with outside help from organizations like Warriors4Wireless, a national nonprofit that recruits, trains and places veterans in well-paying jobs in the wireless industry.

Broder says the firm's team culture is compelling to veterans.

“This is a place where veterans can transition back to the civilian workforce, in a place where teamwork and camaraderie and the sense of interpersonal responsibility for each other is familiar,” he says. That sense of responsibility and looking after employees includes self-insuring on health care, not only for financial reasons but also out of an ethical and moral responsibility. “This sense of taking care of each other is really serious,” he adds.

Focused growth

Tilson has about 50 openings to fill and as of last year has a five-person recruiting team that finds jobs for people at Tilson and for clients. Broder underscores that the company will only hire as fast as it finds the right people, even if it means being stretched in some areas of real need.

He says one reason for staying in Portland, and investing in an attractive workspace, was to lure and keep talent. The new space is close to the eastern waterfront, a hot area of development close to WEX Inc.'s future headquarters.

That's just fine with city officials like economic development director Greg Mitchell, who says that Broder is “a great ambassador for Portland, and his commitment to his new headquarters is nothing short of phenomenal.”

Broder has relied on a mix of bank loans and venture capital financing to help expand the business, from investors including Rand Capital Corp., of Buffalo, and CEI Ventures Inc., of Brunswick. Both have participated in several financing rounds, including $5 million last December.

Rand executive vice president Daniel P. Penberthy says that out of 60 portfolio companies the firm has invested in since 2002, Tilson is the only one to achieve the top-line revenue target its CEO promised. “Josh truly has gone above and beyond in achieving the milestones and managing the expectations of investors,” says Penberthy.

And CEI Ventures managing director Nathaniel Henshaw likes Broder's focus on employee safety and veteran hiring, saying: “We're particularly pleased with the number of jobs, and the hiring of veterans has been wonderful in terms of our social mission.”

When he's not working, Broder spends quality time with his wife and kids, ages three and five. Recently when having lunch with his daughter at a Chinese restaurant she opened a fortune cookie that could have been custom-written for her dad. It read: “All things digital are made of analog parts.”

“I thought that was a really interesting fortune to get,” Broder says.

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