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Ride the wave

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 6:43 a.m. May 31, 2013
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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Tom Frost chased his professional surfer dream all the way from his native Long Island, N.Y., to Hawaii.

Frost was good, though he found out good surfers in Hawaii are more common than traffic jams back home. “I realized very quickly surfing wasn't going to be my career,” Frost says. “I wasn't going to make a lot of money doing it.”

That realization sank the surf dream. But it put Frost on a different path. He attended the University of Hawaii, and a few years later he found himself with two jobs: He sold software for Ikon, the copier and printing firm, and he helped a local chef named Roy Yamaguchi set up IT infrastructure at a few restaurants. Yamaguchi founded Roy's Hawaiian Fusion, a chain of 31 restaurants now run by Tampa-based Bloomin' Brands, which also owns Outback Steakhouse.

It was that second gig that became Frost's calling, helping companies figure out technology infrastructure. Now he has a thriving business, Lakewood Ranch-based Datum Corp., to back it up.

Datum, further, holds a unique spot among local businesses, especially IT companies that operate like a help desk for other firms. For starters, Frost says Datum aims to go past the help desk and become an IBM-like technology force for clients, where it does everything from IT to software consulting to training employees. Datum lays cable and fiber optic lines for clients, and it will also develop and install point-of-sale systems.

There are several other distinctions to Datum, which counts clients in the hospitality, medical, retail and manufacturing industries. The firm, for instance, has 45 local employees and 15 more spread through seven states, including California and Hawaii. That counters the local IT consulting industry, which is made up of many small businesses and the occasional 25- or 30-person firm.

Then there's the growth. Datum had about $15 million in 2012 revenues, says Frost, a 140% increase over 2011. Sales in the 2013 first quarter, adds Frost, doubled the 2012 first quarter. Frost projects $28 million to $32 million in sales in 2013, growth that will come from both new customers and acquisitions of other IT firms. “It's crazy,” says Frost. “We are excited” about the future.

The small community of IT firms in the Sarasota-Bradenton area has noticed Datum's rise. Paul Hoffman, president of Sarasota-based SouthTech Solutions, a 27-employee IT firm, says Datum is a formidable competitor. “They do an awesome job,” Hoffman says. “They are growing like gangbusters.”

One final, yet important element separates Datum from many other IT companies. That's the Datum business model, which charges clients a flat monthly rate, not a per-service fee. Most other IT firms charge companies to repair a problem, what the industry calls the break-fix model.

Stay creative
But the structure at Datum, says Frost, is more like an insurance pay model, where monthly costs are predictable for both the provider and the client. The traditional IT pay model, to its detriment, Frost says, “creates an adversarial relationship with the client” because one major issue or breakdown can cost a company thousands of dollars.

On the flip side the Datum model, says Frost, “puts you on the right side of the customer.” That's because a service call is part of the monthly cost, not an extra charge.

Founded in 2003, Datum has utilized the monthly fee model for a decade. Yet despite the fact that clients seem to appreciate it, not many other IT firms Datum's size nationwide have the same approach.

That's both a market opportunity and a dilemma. “We kind of invented the model,” says Frost, “so there are challenges we wish someone else had solved.”

One of those challenges, says Frost, is to figure out the right places and times to invest in the company. Gear is a big expense, from the finger-touch security to get in and out of the office to the dozens of hardware and software components. In total, there's roughly $5 million worth of high-end equipment in use at the company's headquarters.

Another challenge is to find and retain top employees. That's a problem most technology firms run into, though it's somewhat more pronounced at Datum, given its size and fast growth.

Datum recently attacked that problem with a contest-like approach that began with a class of 10 or 12 job applicants. Most of the class previously worked for Datum on a contract or freelance basis, while others were invited to participate. The class, which Datum has run three times, lasts about a week and is part training, part skills assessment. The firm then picks the top performers to move on for interviews and possibly a job. Those positions are mostly for entry-level work.

Datum also looks to former military personnel to fill open positions, including some mid-level supervisor roles and project managers. Frost says about one-third of the current Datum payroll served in the armed forces. He puts a premium on their ability to adapt and be flexible under pressure.

Another attribute Frost seeks in employees is creativity. The company needs that quality because it often undertakes atypical projects for an IT firm, which follows Frost's vision of an IBM-like blanket approach. The firm, for example, is currently working with the Sarasota Opera and the Sarasota Orchestra to build a unique technology consortium based on a shared software platform.

Grow local
Datum employees, no matter how they get there, tend to follow the work-hard, play-hard mentality Frost champions. Several employees compete in triathlons and other endurance events. Frost even recently turned an office within the firm's new headquarters into a workout room with a Bowflex machine and a TV. A game room with a ping-pong table is on the second floor.

The firm works out of an 11,365-square-foot building that was the former headquarters for Lee Wetherington Homes. Frost paid $975,000 for the building last summer and he's already in expansion mode, turning 2,000 square feet of garage and storage space behind the property into offices.

In conjunction with the new space, Sarasota County officials approved $200,000 in performance-based incentives to help keep the company in town. Datum must hire 50 employees by 2017 to receive the subsidies. The firm, in an August press release, says it seeks engineers, help-desk support specialists, project managers and sales executives. Frost says Datum currently has nine open positions.

“As a growing player in a knowledge-based, technology-oriented industry, Datum Corp. could choose to grow almost anywhere,” Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County President Mark Huey says in the release. “We welcome the company's decision to maintain and expand its headquarters location in Sarasota County.”

Frost, the son of a police officer, has other plans for Datum, in addition to more employees and sales growth. Frost moved the firm to the region in 2006, after he tired of the twice monthly commute from Hawaii to Tampa for the Roy's Hawaiian Fusion work.

Now Frost says he will grow through acquisitions, too. Datum recently bought BreakFree IT, a firm that's been in business locally for 20 years. The deal, for an undisclosed price, was a 100% stock purchase. Frost is analyzing other local acquisition targets, from one- and two-person firms to a $4 million company.

Another big-picture task: Frost is meeting with consultants to develop an employee stock ownership plan for Datum. The process, hopes Frost, will create more motivation for employees to improve. “My goal isn't to grow to any size or revenue,” says Frost. “It's to create an opportunity for all the employees who have been loyal to us.”


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