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Surfing CEO

By David Ball Photography by David Ball & Courtesy Photos June 1, 2011

All Tom Frost wanted was a job as a dishwasher. The 21-year-old from Long Island was living an endless summer in Hawaii in 1999, sleeping on friends’ couches and earning just enough money to surf every day.

So he applied at Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion restaurant in Honolulu to make a little more pocket change—a smart choice, as it turns out. Roy’s hadn’t yet expanded into the 32-restaurant empire it is now, but it was still legendary in the island chain as a destination for high-end, neighborhood dining pioneered by one of Hawaii’s most acclaimed chefs. As it turned out, the dishwasher position was filled, so Frost didn’t get the job. Instead, he launched a career.

Frost happened to notice that chef/owner Roy Yamaguchi was having trouble with a new BlackBerry. Adept with technology, Frost fixed it on the spot. A few weeks later, he was called back in to fix Roy’s point-of-sale system, the restaurant’s computer system that records food and beverage orders and prints a bill. Then staff asked Frost to come in and fix a computer issue, solve network trouble and even develop and install new software to help manage inventory and customer head counts. Eventually, Roy’s started paying him. Frost was soon hired to manage all of the restaurant’s data systems, computers and networks. Frost thought if he could do this for other businesses, maybe he could make enough money in a few years to quit and surf full time.

“Of course, that never works out,” Frost says.

A decade later, Frost has headquartered his company, Datum Corporation, in Lakewood Ranch and shows no signs of slowing down. He projects $26 million in revenue this year, thanks to contracts with dozens of successful restaurants in Sarasota and many of the chains based in Florida, along with other businesses.

Frost found a winning formula—a surprisingly simple and yet novel idea—of providing a one-stop technology shop for small and medium-sized businesses. From websites to networks to cloud services and data storage to iPhone apps and more, business no longer had to hire in-house or outsource each service. Instead, Datum Corporation does it all and likes to say it does it faster, cheaper and more reliably with few competitors.

But even with increased success and responsibility, Frost has stayed true to the “aloha” attitude he gained in Hawaii. Datum’s corporate culture is relaxed, calm and accommodating, and it attracts and helps keep topnotch employees. And while Frost may not wear socks and leaves the office some days to catch waves, clients and colleagues don’t underestimate his business acumen—a combination of insight and shrewd judgment that he’s cultivated over the last eight years.

“This kind of business success was never a goal, really,” says Frost, 33, who lives near the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art with his wife, Georgina. “We just keep doing the right things and living the right way. I think we’ll be here for the long haul.”

Frost started Datum in Hawaii in 2003 with partner Sean Quinn, who was Frost’s boss while they worked at IKON Office Solutions selling hardware and software to Roy’s and other clients. It was Yamaguchi and Roy’s president Rainer Kumbroch who helped Frost map a business plan and then became Datum’s first clients with a $1.4 million contract.

“Our personalities kind of clicked, and over the years we built this great friendship,” Yamaguchi says. “The Hawaii business community is built on friendship. There’s history of business transactions by parents, grandparents and cousins for generations and generations. It’s business done though trust, and Tom is someone I trust to make the backbone of the restaurant work.”

Datum’s work is easily visible to Roy’s customers, who can make reservations and special requests online and then see a specialized printed menu when they arrive. Their orders, habits and comments can be stored in a computer for future reference by servers and staff, and emails can remind them of promotions or events they might like to attend. The rest of Datum’s work is invisible, as the business hums along order after order.

“We make crab cakes. Technology is not our business,” Kumbroch says. “That means, for us, that stuff has to be pretty bulletproof in terms of all systems working.”

Datum landed other lucrative contracts, including law firms, but it found a niche with restaurants in need of more efficient ways to order food and supplies, maintain websites, manage invoices and handle staffing.

“I knew we needed to move out of Hawaii and to the mainland if we wanted to capitalize,” Frost says. “Florida was the perfect place.”

It was perfect because Florida—specifically Orlando, Tampa and Sarasota/Bradenton—is a mecca for chain restaurants. Outback, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Hooters, Stonewood Grill, Checkers, The Melting Pot, Carrabba’s, Bonefish Grill, Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q, and dozens of others are either headquartered or have major corporate presence in central and west Florida.

“It goes back to my belief that if you are going to do something, go to the best place there is to do that one thing,” Frost says. “I wanted to surf, so that brought me to Hawaii. For the business, Sarasota was the very best place.”

Frost discovered Sarasota when Roy’s opened on South Tamiami Trail in 2006. Datum moved to its Lakewood Ranch offices in 2007. The fiber optics and infrastructure in the newly constructed buildings appealed to Frost, as did the proximity to Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.

“We have people fly in here from the Middle East to talk about how to manage data systems for chain restaurants,” Frost says. “The convenience here is great, and so is the quality of life.”

Hiring locally has been a little more difficult, as Sarasota doesn’t necessarily provide the wealth of tech-savvy talent that Datum requires. Datum’s top employees came over from Hawaii. Frost says he’s been able to hire qualified people from other technology companies in Tampa and Orlando, where Datum also has an office. Datum now has 31 employees, including 15 remote service technicians on call 24 hours.

At the Lakewood Ranch offices at 6710 Professional Parkway, the atmosphere is anything but stuffy. Frost’s office is small, with a few tech toys lying around, a longboard and, most importantly, several packs of ping-pong balls.

“This is where some of the best ideas happen,” says Frost, pointing to the ping-pong table set up in a corner conference room. “We like to keep it loose, but professional.”

There are conference rooms set up for actual conferences, but a lot of the space and desks are empty on any given day as employees are free to work more or less on their own schedules. Datum is a 24/7 company, and flexibility helps keep employees happy and engaged. The most utilized part of the office may be the patio, where Frost hosts “happy hours” for his staff.

“The way you manage people, you have to give them freedom. That’s the way the world is going and how you are able to attract better people,” Frost says.

One of those people is Jeremy Allender, who came to Datum in October 2010 from PricewaterhouseCoopers in Tampa. He provides support for Datum clients, including troubleshooting network and computer issues. Allender enjoys the freedom at Datum and the company’s philosophy.

“Tom wants to put forth the best product he can, so training and certifications are continual,” Allender says. “It’s also good to see a company provide this level of service to smaller businesses. They can benefit the most.”

Since 2007, dozens of local businesses have benefited from Datum. The company brought Marina Jack’s aging phone and data systems to state-of-the-art levels, helped Atlas Insurance develop a disaster recovery plan in case of a hurricane or other emergency, and took over Morton’s Market’s IT system to reduce overhead and increase reliability.

One of Datum’s largest local clients is First Watch Restaurants, which has 85 locations in 12 states. CEO Ken Pendery says Datum took over the company’s entire data infrastructure, which had previously been managed both in-house and with piecemeal outsource contracts.

“Datum has been able to strengthen the core of our business, so our system is faster now and more reliable,” Pendery says. “The breadth of their knowledge is that if something does go down or break, they fix it and then strengthen that area. So if it goes down again, it will be an even quicker turnaround.”

Investing in robust infrastructure is something Frost encourages for his clients, but he didn’t employ that strategy in his own business early on—a mistake that he and most businesses eventually pay for.

“I think most businesses tend to be cheap with their own infrastructure just to save money. We did that with our own phone system, and we had serious scar tissue from it failing,” Frost says.

“Now, we have about $120,000 in just our phone system,” he continues. “I probably could’ve done it for $50,000, but in our system we can tell when someone calling raises their voice and is getting irate. It automatically flags that call to record it and have a manager come over to help. That kind of ability can save us money and customers.”

Now, Frost is making more investments into the company, including Datum’s own cloud-based services that will keep data off locally stored servers and on the Internet, where employees can access it from any location. He’s also looking to open an office in Dubai. As for the $26 million in revenues, Frost says the majority will go back to the company.

“I want to keep this company on the cutting edge and doing the right thing, and sometimes that hurts financially,” he says. “I’m not a super millionaire; I’m just a regular guy. But we built a company that is really stable, and that is most important.”

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