At 36, Thomas Duryea Consulting CEO, Andrew Thomas, is the youngest inductee in ARN Hall of Fame. He co-founded the company fresh out of college at the age of 23. In 2010, he became the Southern Region winner for the 2010 Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. In this, the second of our interviews with the 2012 Hall of Fame inductees, he told ARN about his journey and his love for adventure.
Twenty years ago if you had asked Thomas Duryea Consulting CEO, Andrew Thomas, what he wanted to be when he grew up, he probably would have said “an adventurer”. It wasn’t a question he would talk about much or asked that often, growing up in the bush in country Victoria.
It was a vastly different world to the one he inhabits today with his modern office in Melbourne. “I would have never said I wanted to be CEO of an IT company,” he quips.
But back then, surrounded by the wilderness and beauty of the rural country around the small town of Mildura near the Murray River, Thomas harboured a restless spirit and a yearning for outdoor challenges.
In his later years, that passion would take him up mountains and across deserts in South America, Africa and Asia.
But while growing up on that farm around the age of 12 as the oldest of three children, Thomas, showed an unusual keenness into understanding how machines worked.
“I used to love pulling things apart… I sat on the farm and would pull apart all this farm machinery. I would never be able to put it back together and eventually we had to buy a new chainsaw or lawn mower,” he says.
Thomas remembers vividly dismantling a vacuum cleaner which gave him an electric shock, and another incident when he pulled apart a chainsaw to power a go-cart he was building. His father wasn’t quite pleased about the latter as the family had to buy a new chainsaw for use on the farm, he recalls.
Thomas’ child-like curiosity moved onto devouring more modern pieces of technology and gadgets as he grew up like radio cassette players and VCRs. That interest naturally paved the way for him to pursue a career in electronics and technology as computers became more and more prevalent.
In that rural heartland he also learnt his first lesson in entrepreneurship, watching his father, then a school teacher, look for ways to support the family by supplementing his income from teaching. He ended up buying a farm to provide for his family.
It was essentially a full-time job of running a farm, Thomas says. “My dad said, ‘hang on, we need more money… what can we do? … I will keep the teaching job, why don’t we buy a farm? He would do all this paper work [from school] and then get on a tractor and drive for six hours at night with the lights on,” he recalls.
The ingenuity would leave a deep, lasting impression on Thomas, who was moved by the notion how it’s possible to create more opportunity if you just put effort into an idea, he said. “If you just have an idea you can create opportunity,” he says.
At one stage, Thomas recalls selling watermelons on the side of the highway. In time, his interest was drawn to reading about other entrepreneurs like Richard Branson who had built fortunes from scratch.
Thomas’ entrepreneurial drive eventually took him to the Melbourne in pursuit of a university degree in electronics and computer science, becoming the first person in his family to make the leap to a city life.
The move wasn’t intimidating, he claims, adding that he lived in a hostel with several other people who came from similar situations. “You felt you were part of a crew.”
At university, around the year 2000, he along with his four classmates came together to found what would come to be Thomas Duryea (TD). It was a tumultuous time for the IT industry but the four had conviction and they were armed with a few solid business principles that they had gleaned from a class project in electronics.
In the late 1990s, the quartet had worked together on contracting work for a large reseller where they learnt some valuable lessons.
“We were pretty naïve at the time we would happily admit, but what we saw were a couple of things that were lacking that we could have done better: First was around technology and technical excellence. A lot of what was being sold as automation was being delivered as manual processes to try and get the same outcomes.”
“We saw them selling smoke and mirrors,” Thomas says. “We thought, ‘Hang on, as young as we are we have had training around all of this. We know how to do this.’”
The second was watching the big companies not taking care of relationships and customers as well as they could have, he adds. “We said, ‘If we just treat these customers as our friends and build these relationships, that could be for life and then we can be a lot more successful and the customer can appreciate this and help us.”’
That was the gap the group saw and those two areas became TD’s founding values.
TD’s first few years were humble. Its office in Richmond, Victoria, was without windows with a garage door in the front, which caused many a visitor to miss the entrance.
“People would walk in and keep walking and ask ‘where is the new office?’and ‘we’d say nah, nah this is it’.”
Inside, the young employees worked away furiously by a “beautiful open fire” and spent thousands of hours working.
“We had two couches where you had six guys with laptops,” he says.
In 2005, the company reached an inflection point. It went from being a boutique consultancy to taking on the whole gamut of infrastructure services. In that process, it saw its revenues increase by ten times.
“We went from 3 million to 30 million in 24 months,” Thomas says.
In its latest fiscal, TD saw $60 million in revenues and is expanding into Cloud revenues and managed services in addition to technology consulting, and looking to exceed $100 million in revenues in the next two to three years.
“Top line is not much on overwhelming goal as compared to high quality annuity business,” he says.
The founding values of the company continue strong till today, with the culture imbibing additional pillars of belief, passion, vision, and action, Thomas says.
TD’s current office is a three-storey raw brick heritage building with big open wood staircases and wooden beams, giving it very rusty and warm look to make it welcoming.
“We often get the comment from vendors that you can feel the energy when you walk through the place,” Thomas says.
“It is like you are in a big room with all your friends, been working together for 10 to 15 years. It is kind of nice.”
Thomas’ own office has one big raw brick wall, and a big old desk made out of single polished piece of wood. There’s also a deer head with a Thomas Duryea hat.
Another key to the company’s success has been realising the power of tapping on the right talent and team mates, he says.
“It was realising early on that there are people that are better than me and being comfortable with that… and then if you can inspire those people to come on a shared journey then all of a sudden you have 20 guys, and if they bring one more person, you have 40.”
The biggest challenge for his position, he says, is the constant challenge to try and remain abreast of technology and on top of customers.
“You don’t go to school to become CEO,” he says, adding that he tries to share and learn from others he respects in the industry.
Asked if the company might look at a public listing, Thomas said there aren’t any immediate plans in place for that.
“If we grow a solid sustainable profitable business, at any time you should be a year away from listing. But we are not thinking about that at the moment.”
Ain’t no mountain high enough
Fast forward 12 years from the company’s founding, Thomas still keeps that love for the outdoors alive despite his busy schedule. So for about three weeks a year, he tries to venture into the wild to relive his passion.
“I think about work an awful lot. When I take a break from work, I try to choose pastimes that help me take my mind away from the pressures of business and just inevitably it ends up that the best way to do that is jumping in a fast car, on a motor bike or mountain bike, or jumping in a canyon, climbing up a mountain or something.”
And these adventure pursuits have brought him several ‘Aha’ moments of incredible natural wonders if not a full adrenaline rush, he says.
“I remember climbing Kilimanjaro and the moment you are on the summit, it’s after 4 to 5 days of hard climbing and you come up on a glacier and you see this beautiful ice and look behind you at an amazing landscape,” Thomas says.
Thomas has also trekked parts of Everest, and crossed the Simpson Desert by dirt bike.
Last year, he took a trip in southern Ethiopia, a long way from civilisation. It offered some pretty confronting experiences, he says.
“My partner said ‘Andrew, this year can we go sit on a beach and can you not position that beach just near a mountain or near a cliff… ‘”
But Thomas is unapologetic about his love for these diehard adventures, and traces it back to his years growing up in the bush.
“I would spend the weekend, taking a motorbike down the bush and camping with friends. I would sit in open space and the outdoors and feel the love for it. You will never lose that if that’s where you come from. Certainly for me, I have never lost it.”
When not on holiday, Thomas is also involved in charity cycling events and has run the Melbourne marathon three times.
He laughs when asked how he manages the time on top of running a business.
“If you plan for packing a lot in your life…you will more or less achieve it. Just have the passion to meet everything head on and have a real go,” Thomas says.
In 10 years, Thomas sees himself continuing to build on this success with TD and adding more growth and any change relevant for the times. For now, he is reasonably busy building TD,” he says.
As for his outdoor passions, Thomas says he has “a few more mountains to climb”.