The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the course of Joshua Broder’s life in an unexpected way.

In 2001, Broder was a young Army officer who had just received orders to deploy to Japan as a military intelligence agent. But when a commercial jetliner piloted by terrorists slammed into the Pentagon, all records of those orders were destroyed in the wreckage.

In the aftermath, the Army reassigned Broder to the signal corps, a division that manages communications and information systems for the U.S. military. The training and experience Broder received there ultimately led him back to his home state of Maine, where he now is CEO of Tilson Technology Management, the fastest-growing privately owned technology company in the state.

“I refer to myself as an accidental technologist,” Broder said in a recent interview. “I was a liberal arts guy that, because of the needs of the Army at the moment, I wound up in charge of a bunch of computer science guys going to war in the Middle East and Central Asia.”

Portland-based Tilson has been included on the Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing privately owned firms for the past eight years in a row – it’s the only Maine company with that distinction. Tilson recently received a huge infusion of cash from a New York-based venture capital firm and is barreling toward annual revenue of $100 million.

In 2018, Tilson was ranked No. 1,796 on the Inc. 5000 list with 2017 revenue of $44.2 million and a three-year growth rate of 251 percent.

Tilson’s recipe for rapid growth began with taking advantage of lucrative technology infrastructure contracts funded by economic stimulus dollars at a time when most businesses were struggling through the Great Recession.

Now the company is a major developer of next-generation “5G” wireless network infrastructure across the country, with clients ranging from tiny local carriers to global telecommunications giants. Broder said Tilson has a staff of about 550, including 120 in Portland, and has been hiring an average of 35 additional employees per month, many of them veterans.

Broder scoffed at the notion that it’s difficult to find qualified employees in Maine. He said Tilson attracts them in droves with good pay and generous benefits.

“We’re pretty busy,” he said. “Our customers just have a high level of demand for our services and generally beat us up for not taking on more, and so the only (limit) on our growth is our ability to staff effectively.”

Tilson was founded in 1996 as a one-man IT consultancy by Mike Dow, who ultimately put the business on hold while he went to work as the head of information technology for Pittsfield-based general contractor Cianbro. Dow later revived Tilson and took on his first handful of employees – including Broder – in the mid-2000s.

“I think I might have been the third employee at the time,” Broder said about joining the company in 2006.

Combining the disciplines of construction and IT has turned out to be Tilson’s trump card, and Broder was its most important hire. It was Broder’s knowledge of communications infrastructure that thrust the company toward its current state, consisting of about 75 percent infrastructure development and 25 percent IT consulting.

Dow eventually transferred ownership of the company to Broder and left in 2012. But he wouldn’t stay away for long.

In 2014, the roles of employer and employee were reversed when Broder hired Dow as vice president to oversee the company’s IT consulting operation in Denver. In May, Tilson announced that Dow has been promoted to chief information officer.

“We’ve had a really successful partnership in a number of different modes,” Broder said. “Most people sort of firm up their relationship and it is what it is, and for us, we’ve always tried to do what’s in the best interest of the business in whatever phase we’ve been in.”

With his former mentor back on the team, Broder began aggressively seeking out private capital to expand the business. He knew they had discovered a winning formula that they could pitch to investors.

One of the earliest investors in the company was CEI Ventures, the for-profit venture capital arm of Brunswick-based community development corporation Coastal Enterprises Inc. In 2013, CEI Ventures participated in a $700,000 investment in Tilson, and in early 2015, Tilson received roughly $2.2 million from CEI Ventures and Rand Capital Corp., an investment company in based Buffalo, New York.

Nat Henshaw, founder and managing director of CEI Ventures, said Broder’s unusual combination of liberal arts, technology and military training was a big part of the appeal for his socially conscious investment firm.

“I think we’ve made a total of four investments in the company,” Henshaw said. “We’re interested in growing companies and jobs in Maine and nationally. We’re just really impressed with him (Broder) as a person as well as a leader. … He’s someone that cares about what we care about.”

Those early investments are really paying off for CEI Ventures. In April, New York venture capital firm SDC Capital Partners LLC announced plans to invest up to $100 million in Tilson  to expand and to spin out its network deployment business into a separate company called SQF LLC. The deal represented one of the largest such investments in a Maine company in recent years.

Now that Tilson has experienced an average annual growth rate of 40 percent over the past eight years, Broder said the company is flush with cash and on a mission to build the communications infrastructure of tomorrow while providing quality employment to people from all different backgrounds and walks of life.

“We can’t leave any segment of the population untapped,” he said.

This story was updated at noon on June 11 to correct the name of the magazine that ranks the country’s fastest-growing companies.

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