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Mike Dow grew up in Pittsfield, sharing a hometown with construction firms such as Cianbro Corp., Susi and Forest Frederick. But one of the best pieces of business advice he ever got was from his grandfather, a headmaster at Foxcroft Academy.
“He said, ‘Business isn’t perfect, it’s imperfect, and how you respond to it will determine your success,’” recalls Dow.
Imperfect would be a delicate way to describe what’s happened in the business world since last fall when the market and everything tied to it tanked. But Dow’s company, Tilson Technology Management, responded by earning nearly twice its 2007 revenues, doubling its staff and spinning off three new affiliates. Along the way, it directed millions in new business to other Maine companies.
“You can always rethink your business plan, but if you don’t couple that with business growth and strategy, then it’s not viable,” says Dow.
Dressed in a crisp blue-striped shirt and v-neck sweater, Dow, 42, reflects on his company’s growth from the conference room in his office suite at the corner of Congress and High streets in downtown Portland. On one wall is a large dry erase board, covered in flow charts and notes with one stand-out sentiment: “Online is master.” Another wall frames two windows that provide an unobstructed view of a blizzard blowing across Congress Square.
The weather is irrelevant. His entire staff showed up for work, as usual.
”It’s how we do business in Maine, don’t you think?” he queries a visitor.
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Tilson Tech has historically offered technical consulting services to heavy hitters in the construction industry, providing guidance to do things like condense 50 servers into five, or ramp up an accounting system to handle billion-dollar projects. Dow calls it “enterprise resource accounting,” or, in laymen’s terms, providing additional IT horsepower when a company wants to tackle new projects or new markets.
Dow started Tilson Technology Management in 1996 when he began a long-term association with Cianbro as head of its IT department. He directed the department first as a paid consultant through Tilson, then as the construction company’s employee.
About five years ago, Dow left Cianbro to revive Tilson Tech as a one-man consultancy. A year later, a hernia operation sidelined him for 10 days. The break gave him time to reevaluate his career — his solo gig was starting to wear thin.
“I decided I wanted to run a business and take some risks,” he says.
Dow hired Josh Broder and Carl Carlson, paying homage to another mentor, Cianbro founder Bud Cianchette, who told Dow to always hire people who could take the business places he couldn’t. The threesome grew a company that today employs 13 people who work on projects as diverse as web development and international project management. Since adding employees, Tilson has nearly doubled revenues every year, from $280,000 in 2005 to $550,000 in 2006 to $950,000 in 2007 and last year’s $1.6 million.
Contributing to that record revenue last year were two subsidiaries, Source Asia Service and Off Core LLC. The first sustains Dow’s love of Asia and gives the company a chance to get a toehold in that market. An East Asia major at Middlebury College, Dow spent several years in China working for American Express and is fluent in Mandarin.
The second spin-off is a back-office operation that handles the other companies’ billing, accounting and other administrative work. Dow expects that office will generate 15% of this year’s revenue at Tilson. It also is an essential component of the third affiliate, a partnership among Dow and three out-of-state construction industry consultants called Construction Change Partners. CCP manages large construction projects around the globe; clients in Philadelphia, California and Baltimore and elsewhere have already contracted for $400,000 in work in 2009.
“It’s our core competency, managing construction projects,” says Dow.
He’s pleased with the progress of the spin-offs. He said he realized Tilson needed to diversify last year if it was going to withstand the deep freeze that penetrated the construction industry as financial and housing markets tumbled. Loathe to dilute Tilson’s technology brand, Dow opted instead to launch the three affiliates.
“It’s all about focus, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it in several different venues,” he says. Not that the venues are so different: The offices for Source Asia Services and Off Core LLC are just down the hall from Tilson Technology.
Finding new business in this economy has been a challenge, Dow says, but he’d rather actively try new models than wring his hands. “If it doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world,” he says. “If you treat the customer and staff right, you’ll move forward.”
Key to that treatment is listening. A colorful, bold painting by Maine artist Jeff Belyea titled “Silence” hangs in Tilson’s lobby. “Silence” is the company’s logo, and Dow says it reminds him to ignore the voices in his head and really listen when people speak.
That kind of attention is part of Tilson’s success, says Broder, but to Dow, respect and ethics are just how you do business and how you live your life. He says the 4F’s — family, fun, fitness and finances — are priorities, in that order. He met his wife at Middlebury and together they have two daughters, ages 6 and 10.
A straight talker, Dow is also the moderator at his church, State Street U.C.C. in Portland, where he recently oversaw the replacement of church’s damaged ceiling and is now raising funds for a new elevator, a necessity for the older members of the congregation.
“I know that no one nowadays, in our super-secular society, likes to think that church/religious activities have any bearing on our professional lives, but being a church leader has been immensely rewarding and very much informed my leadership activities in the business,” says Dow. “And it kind of is a constant reminder to be ethical and positive every day in business, with staff and other professional interactions.”
“Mike does things because it’s the right thing to do,” says Broder, who earlier this month was promoted to president of Tilson Tech. The move frees Dow to shift into a founder/principal role and concentrate on the relationships that sustain business, such as with bankers and business partners. “Being an owner is different than being an operator,” says Dow. “The owner has a special responsibility, but he doesn’t have to do the all the work. It’s about owning the capital, taking the risks … being there when people need you, but not being in their shorts all the time.”
Broder says one unheralded aspect of Dow’s leadership is his commitment to using Maine companies in Tilson projects. Last year about $2 million in contract work was directed to other Maine businesses.
Dow says it gives him great pleasure to share the wealth. Doing business in Maine has some steep costs — taxes, especially — but they are largely offset by the intimate size of the business community.
“In a small state, you know everyone and there’s leverage in that,” he says. “You know the other companies. You know who’s good at what. Getting things done efficiently offsets those costs.”
Dow smiles at the thought of efficiency. His headmaster grandfather, Tilson Thomas, inspired the company’s name and serves as a constant reminder to embrace integrity in all facets of life. Dow is a direct descendant of the traditional Yankee businessmen who’d rather pass a kidney stone than squander time or money.
“I think of those old codgers I knew growing up and they really didn’t waste a thing. It’s just how we think,” he says. “The drive for efficiency is generally a good thing; it makes the world a better place.”
Carol Coultas, Mainebiz editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org