Evolving along with the city, Tilson and its employees put down roots in Portland.
When Joshua Broder entered the military after graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont, he thought he would be doing some “serious spy stuff.” With a degree in history, he was on track to become an army officer, leading a military unit in Japan. Instead, he wound up in charge of an information technology unit due to a clerical error, of sorts. “When the plane hit the Pentagon on September 11, my file was burned and lost. In all the chaos, my life was changed,” he recalls. A few years later, Broder went to Afghanistan, where he managed a team of information and communications specialists. In the military, Broder learned how to be a leader. Serving in Afghanistan, he says, altered the way he interacted with others. It taught him how to be a part of a team—how to commit, fully and boldly, to pursing a shared goal.
In the past decade life has changed a lot for Broder, who is now the CEO of one of Maine’s fastest growing companies. Tilson, an information technology professional services and network business headquartered in Portland, has earned a spot on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies in America for the past seven years. Under Broder, Tilson has installed thousands of miles of fiber optic networks throughout the United States, consulted on local and national projects, and opened offices in ten states. It may seem like Broder has led two different lives—CEO and soldier—but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Tilson is successful, at least in part, because Broder has created an environment in which values like collaboration, diversity, and respect are not only prized, but required.
Tilson was founded in 1996 by Pittsfield native Mike Dow. When Broder was hired in 2006, there were just three employees: a bookkeeper, Dow, and Broder. In 2009, Dow decided to take a job overseas, leaving Broder in charge of the burgeoning technology company. In 2010, Broder explains, Tilson won bids for some of the biggest technology projects in Maine, which led to a period of rapid growth. “We went from 15 to 40 employees in a year,” he says. For the most part, the people he hired were Portland millenials. “Everyone is down on millennials,” Broder says, “but these young people had important characteristics: they wanted to matter at work, they wanted to work hard, and they wanted to contribute to a greater mission of doing good, like bringing public computing centers to rural libraries.” They were also nimble when it came to technology and could, as Broder puts it, “jockey the heck out of a spreadsheet and quickly figure out a new system.” Finally, they were “team- oriented. Everyone was rolling their eyes at this generation, but it was a great alignment for us. We ended up with great millennial employees, and now these people more or less run our whole company.”
While Tilson was growing and drawing in a young, talented staff (the company currently employs about 360 people full-time), Portland was going through a similar shift. The city’s reputation was evolving. What had once been viewed as a quaint harbor town (with a few rough areas) was coming to be regarded as a cultural hub and a culinary destination. In 2011, Tilson moved to its current offices on Commercial Street—right in the thick of things.
Tilson has grown so large that the company has relocated again, but instead of moving off-peninsula, Broder made the decision to keep his company headquarters close to home. In late November, the company moved to two floors in the new building at 16 Middle Street. The offices have an open floor plan (with no assigned seating), an espresso bar, and midcentury modern furniture. “I have traveled all over the world and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” he says. “I live on Munjoy Hill and I walk to work. And that’s part of the magic that’s happened with our employees. They live in town, they walk to work, and they can go out for drinks afterward.” Business and cultural life are woven together and it’s all happening downtown. “Portland’s story mirrors our own,” he says.
Ryan Rodel has been working at Tilson for six years and he says he values the autonomy of the work as well as the flexibility. And then there’s the Portland question: Does working downtown impact his life? Rodel says yes. “There’s a stereotypically mind-numbing quality to offices that we see in popular culture, and we don’t have that,” he says. “Our offices aren’t sterile. We’re not in some boring office park. We have the energy of the city right there.” Although he’s lived in Portland for years, he’s still discovering new parts of the city, like the surprisingly secluded woods of the Fore River Sanctuary. “In the past year or so, I’ve realized how great the Portland Trails system is,” he says. “Portland is such a walkable city, and a lot of my friends live here, too. We’re lucky. We can get together on a whim.”
“I certainly feel like I have a good work-life balance,” says Tilson employee Nick Bournakel. An avid tennis player, Bournakel joined Tilson in 2015 and has been living on the peninsula for the better part of a decade. “I love the convenience of it all—I love the First Friday Art Walks and going to Eventide Oyster Co. after work.” Often, he invites coworkers to come along. “It feels like a community in our office,” he says. “Right now, we even have a ping-pong table in the office. When we first got it, I was concerned it would be too much of a distraction.” But with a few agreed-upon rules, it turned out to be a great way to blow off steam. After a long day of work, Bournakel sometimes stays in the office for an hour to play ping-pong before heading out for dinner and drinks in the Old Port.
Leaders all over America have been asking themselves how they can create this kind of collaborative, friendly office environment. Do millennials actually want nap pods or free avocado toast? Broder’s military background helped him understand what this elusive group of young employees really wanted: autonomy, meaningful work, and inclusiveness. “Part of my impulse as a leader at Tilson was to try and recreate the magic I found working with my team in Afghanistan,” Broder says. “I wanted to get high-performing people who were super invested in the mission—who weren’t out for success for their own sake, but for the sake of everyone.” As a result, Tilson is a “difficult place to get hired,” Broder says. “There’s a high expectation from the peer group, and we tend to attract mission-driven individuals.” Many of Tilson’s employees are also veterans of the U.S. military, and Broder likes the focus and enthusiasm they bring to the table. (He also notes that it’s difficult to transition back into civilian life, and he wants to help bridge the gap for fellow servicemen and women.) But while Broder aims to help veterans, he isn’t looking to hire people just like him. “We look for people who meet our core value criteria, but who are also different from the person sitting on their left and their right,” he says.
“Diversity is just good business,” Broder adds. “We cannot afford to leave any stone unturned on potential talent for our team. That means men and women, people of every sexual orientation and gender, and people of every race, color, and creed.” This forward-thinking attitude, coupled with the company’s penchant for taking on big, complex projects, may well ensure that Tilson’s upswing continues. And since they’re not going anywhere, all of Portland will have a front row seat watching this homegrown business bloom.