On this week’s 25th episode of the Ultimate Guide to Partnering, my guest is Tony DiBenedetto, the Chairman, CEO and Co-founder of Tribridge, a DXC company. Tribridge recently won Microsoft’s highest honor as the 2017 Dynamics Partner of the Year. Several of my friends in the industry recommended Tony as an interview guest and he didn’t disappoint.
Tony’s career is pretty amazing. A few highlights include 30 years of experience in the technology industry, the recipient of numerous leadership awards, including the Ernst & Young Florida Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and induction in the Florida State University College of Business Hall of Fame. Recently CRN Magazine ranked him among the top 25 technology disruptors in the country.
Tony co-founded Tribridge in 1998 and led the company through the successful acquisition and integration of several companies, resulting in a compounded annual growth rate of over 40% each year. Under his guidance, Tribridge has grown from a start-up to one of the leading technology companies in the United States and Microsoft Dynamics Partner of the Year status.
Tony and I had a really great conversation on Tribridge’s journey to premier status with Microsoft, some of Tribridge’s successful solution areas, where he sees the business moving forward now as part of DXC, his secret sauce in partnering with Microsoft and his professional journey.
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Transcript of the interview
Vince Tony, I want to welcome you to the podcast. I’m so excited to have you here on our podcasts. Tribridge has been a premier Microsoft Dynamics Partner for quite some time, award-winning partner and your organization has done some great work. In fact one of our previous guests, Mike Bat, on episode four, specifically discussed the success with Tribridge in opening up new markets in the government space. So it’s an exciting time for you, given the firm’s recent acquisition by DXC and your 2017 award for Partner of the Year, so I’m so excited to have you, welcome to the podcast.
Tony D: Vince, it’s great to be here and appreciate to have the time today.
Vince M: So I want to dive right in and have a lot of questions here to ask about you and the business so why don’t we just start off with you’re the CEO and co-founder of Tribridge and for our listeners I thought it would be great if you could take them through the genesis of the business from its founding and what were the early days like, your guiding principles when you started so could you do that?
Tony D: Sure, at the time I was a partner at Arthur Andersen in the business consulting division and to be honest with you, I just year after year had a thirst for starting my own company. I had started a couple companies early in my career at Andersen and I was at that point where I knew I was going to lead. It was just a question of what.
It first started with having just some meetings at my house, where me and a couple of friends would get together and just talk about what businesses we wanted to build. We came up with crazy ideas as you might expect, some were technology and some were like a bar across from the Tampa Bay Bucs Stadium and that had a series of getting together with other entrepreneurs led to us forming Tribridge. In fact, we started our first business plan was really a mid-market, over-the-web CRM solution. At the time, salesforce is not out yet.
We went for some funding for that and that funding fell through, but the advice we got from that entrepreneur, who was going to fund us, was, “Why don’t you do what you know? Why are you not doing something in the tech space around what you guys are good at?” So, I wound up building a plan for Tribridge and raising just a little bit of capital based on that advice and that’s how we launched Tribridge back in September of 1998.
Interestingly enough, the business morphed over time. We started out really just as a services company, but came back to that quest for being a software company, which was what the first business plan was and then started building our own software in 2009. If you look at our company today, we really started several businesses inside of Tribridge’s practice areas, but really morphed the businesses from services only to now a software service as a cloud company, all integrated to deliver solutions for customers and all of that was based on the advice we got in the early May of 1998 when we were raising money for the original Tribridge.
Vince M: Was Microsoft an early partner in those days?
Tony D: Yeah, pretty quick into our days as early Tribridge Services Partner, one of the guys I started the firm with, Mike Herdegen, he really had a thirst for custom development and he was building stuff in the Microsoft toolset. We were a Microsoft partner day one and what happened was we started becoming more and more known within the Microsoft world and we started meeting with them at higher levels and they started asking us about Dynamic because at the time we were not a Dynamics partner.
It took probably five years or more before we went over to the Dynamics side of the business, which was late 2003 – early 2004, but that’s because we started out just doing application development in Microsoft tools. So we technically have been a partner the whole time. We’ve been a Dynamics partner since August of 2003.
Vince M: What was some of those early customers and work that you did?
Tony D: I remember we did a early portal for Outback Steakhouse. We did a big project for Marriott Vacation Club, as an example, Marine Max, which is a public company in Florida that’s a boat retailer. We did a series of projects for them in the early days. Even though we were a pretty small company, we were landing some brands that were way bigger than we were because of some personal relationships and then once you do good work for somebody that helps you not only do more work for them, but also gets you recognized within their industry as being somebody that can help and so that led to us getting certainly a lot more projects.
Vince M: You said I think 2009 you developed this Dynamics practice and started building business applications or solutions on the Dynamics platform. Can you talk to our listeners a little bit about that? Was there a specific customer that Microsoft brought to you or was there an opportunity? How did that evolve?
Tony D: Well, we actually developed our Dynamics practice back in ‘04, but in terms of us building our own software that was 2009. The first solution we developed was really in partnering with Microsoft. They had a client in the state and local government space that needed a more modern jail and offender management system because they were having problems with their mainframe systems and prisoners were being let go at the wrong time and they weren’t tracking prisoners very well from the county up to the state.
Microsoft was looking for a partner and we had such a good relationship and performed so well, especially in the CRM category, that we built an application for a large Midwestern state to redo all of their offender management systems, so the intake of a prisoner through the release and all the processes in the middle. As a result of the work, because the particular customer wanted a pretty significant discount on the work, as well as they wanted us to perpetuate the IP, we formally kept the IP with agreement from the customer and then really from that point forward we launched our offender management solution in 2009 and since then that’s been a huge part of our growth story, not only with Microsoft, but just with the broader justice and public safety group.
We have built other applications like probation management, pre-trial management and other parts of the justice public safety system because of the success we had with those early, large, large state prison systems and mid-sized county prison systems but yes, it all started with that one customer.
Vince M: Then you mentioned businesses within Tribridge. Can you talk to our listeners a little bit about that? I know you have other practices. You talked about offender management and some of those state and local solutions. I know, for instance, that you have healthcare as an area of focus with the company and you’ve been awarded Microsoft partner awards for that as well. Maybe you can talk about some of that?
Tony D: We noticed that we were doing a lot of work in healthcare and with our early success with our offender solution, we wanted to build something that was more leading edge around preventative healthcare and population health. We noticed there was a shift going on, partly with the Affordable Care Act, but partly with chief medical officers wanting to try to involve the patient more on the front-end of healthcare and not wait until you had some type of acute disease.
We built, at first, a care coordination module that really led to our Health 360 Solution, which today is in some of the largest hospitals in the country. It really was our thinking that we could make a difference in the way people live their lives and many of us were frustrated with the healthcare system in general and so this gave us an opportunity to not only do something good for business but also feed our mission.
The mission of the company from the first day was to improve the lives of other people by serving them and since that was the mission of why we do things that solution particularly was easy to take off the ground and launch and instead of having a customer there, we actually did that one on spec and then built a pipeline in the market opportunity around it.
We were a little ahead of the curve in the beginning, but now it looks like if you read anything we’re recognized widely not just by Microsoft of being a leader in population health with our Health 360 Solution, and a year ago became a globalized vehicle from Microsoft and then obviously with the recent acquisition by DXC, we hope to promote this product on a global basis so that we can help other countries with their healthcare as well.
Vince M: You also have your own cloud services company, Concerto. Maybe you can share some of that story with our listeners as well?
Tony D: Yep, that’s another element of the business. We’re talking a lot about the software side and obviously, Concerto is more on the cloud side of the business, similar entrepreneurial moment for us. We had one of our leaders going to a couple of the Microsoft conferences early when BPOS was coming out and we were talking with a lot of our customers about we’re going to have a BPOS practice, which eventually led to Azure, and the feedback we got in those early days was they were uncomfortable putting mission-critical applications in a public cloud.
We pretty quickly recognized around 2008 that it was important for us to build an infrastructure in a private cloud, a virtual private cloud, which eventually led to our now-today hybrid cloud. But in those days, we built it because we had so many customers doing mission-critical stuff with us, formula management systems, financial systems, sales management systems, cancer … We had a customer that was trying to cure cancer by looking at the DNA of people that were getting sick and that’s not the kind of stuff you want to have sitting in a public cloud at the time.
We built this thing to be at just a different level of security. Yes, we have some shared elements of it, but the ability for the client to customize security, have their application layer just be theirs, have their database layer just be theirs, have their virtualization layer just be theirs and that gave us a lot more control over up-time, as well as security and it just gave us an offering that was a premium offering. That has led to a very successful business called Concerto.
Today we are deeply, deeply partnered with Microsoft on the Azure side, so we had many customers that will come to us for all their cloud needs and say, “Hey, we want to run our very confidential stuff in a private cloud, but we have a lot of stuff that we want to run on the public cloud and take advantage of that pricing,” and so we can manage all of that because we have built not only a hybrid cloud, but we’ve built the set of tools that allow you to manage across public and private cloud in that one pane of glass so that you can manage across all those different instances but also get the benefits of the different types of clouds that are available.
That’s a very different business for us, but it was that entrepreneurial spirit early and then partnering with Microsoft along the way. In fact, Microsoft helped fund our first hybrid cloud. It helped us build out the connection to Azure real early in the process and that’s the kind of partnership we’ve had with them and I think that’s why we continue to do well in that Microsoft space.
Vince M: What do you think makes your value proposition unique to customers and then also to Microsoft? Can you take our listeners through that?
Tony D: Yeah, I think the thing that our customers see in us are probably two important things. One, our business model for a long time now has been one integrated answer around cloud software and services. It’s weird. I’ve worked in the technology space for now for 30 something years, almost 34 years, and for a long time it was an industry that was supposed to be leading edge, yet to get a complete solution often times you had to go to multiple parties. It’s strange. When you buy a car, you don’t buy the wheels from somebody, the engine from someone else, then hire a completely different firm to integrate it. We [inaudible 00:14:28] on that. Yet, mission-critical systems in large part were bought and sold that way and implemented that way. That bugged me for years.
Our business model says, “Look, you can have one firm that takes responsibility for the software that you’re purchasing, that you need for your business, the infrastructure it sits on, hopefully our Concerto cloud but it could be in Azure or it could be on Premise, and then the services to integrate it all. That’s one company. Being able to do that for our customers gives us a competitive edge from a qualitative perspective, there’s no finger-pointing. You really own the whole thing, as a provider, which really shortens the cycle. I’ve been involved in engagements in other organizations where that wasn’t the case and you wound up fighting with the third parties. The customer is just not happy. We avoid all that. I think that’s one critical element of our competitive edge.
The other one is that we have been very focused on some micro-vertical industries and that’s allowed us to focus on some problems that we’ve solved hundreds of time. You start getting to a point where you’ve solved a problem hundreds of times for large corporations, you get really good at it. Not only do we have solutions that do it, we have the people that have been around that specific micro-vertical and we know how to solve the problem, we know how to speak the language. Most of these business problems are extremely complex. That’s why we get called in. If they were easy, customers would just fix them. But they’re complex, they’re not as easy as they look on the surface and the experience of doing these things many, many times just gives us an edge.
I think 85% of the revenue of Tribridge is in industries and micro-verticals that we’ve done over and over again. Only 15% of our revenue comes from stuff that is less repeatable to us. Again, that just builds a lot of assets in a company like ours, whether it’s the people, the skill set, it could be intellectual property, it could be software, even our cloud has become industry-focused, so we have fine-tune our cloud with an industry micro-vertical bent to it. You could see how the customers respond well to that, not only in the sales cycle, but also as we’re working with them they get the sense, “Wow, you guys clearly have done this over and over again.”
Vince M: With the recent acquisition by DXC, where do you see the company headed? You talked about the verticals and micro-verticals you’re in now. Is there anticipation of moving into other markets for growth? How do you see growth?
Tony D: Yeah, the cool thing about the acquisition for us is that DXC is obviously a very large global company and we were just starting the planning to expand our solutions globally. Our ability to now take our industry solutions on a global stage is part of why we did the acquisition. I think it’s part of why DXC did the acquisition as well.
The second thing is just our partnership with Microsoft. We had a very strong partnership with Microsoft, but again, having the size organization that we have now, we clearly with the combined organization of the largest Microsoft Dynamics company in the world and so now our partnership with Microsoft is even more important not only to us but to Microsoft. I think that is the second place of growth.
The third one is we’re picking up some other micro-vertical solutions with DXC. Where maybe we had customers before that we either turned the work down or we were doing it in that 15% of the revenue, now we have experts across the globe in retail and other parts of the business that are in addition to the micro verticals we had.
It expands our solution offering in terms of more industries we can go after. It gives us a global reach. It gives us a better partnership with Microsoft in terms of growth. Then finally, it gives us a platform for our hybrid cloud. Combined, there’s over 6000 customers of Tribridge and DXC for us to expose these solutions to and we’re excited about that opportunity because they’re customers of the broader company.
Vince M: Yeah, it’s exciting. There’s so much exciting change going on right now. I’m sure you see it. I call it “the rapid age of digital transformation.” What do you see in customers more willing to do today than they were let’s say just three years ago?
Tony D: I think customers for one, they’re on their third or fourth rodeo. It used to be when I first started in this business most of the customers were doing their first ERP application, they were doing their first CRM application. There’s a little bit of a black box theory back then, “Oh, just let the consultant figure it out or just let the tech firm figure it out,” well that’s change.
Today the thing I noticed about customers is yes, the demands higher in terms of of what the expectations are, but their level of partnering and contributing to the project is at an all-time high. I’m excited about the way customers view technology as a strategic weapon not just as infrastructure. We run into lots of customers today, it’s almost the norm now that they want to build some technology, use some technology and do it in a unique way, typically, to change the business model.
There’s a lot of pressure going on now, the global competitiveness to subscription billing and subscription business models and new business models that disrupt supply chains and all of those things are changing the way traditional companies have been doing business for hundreds of years or 100 years in some cases. I think their willingness to do the kind of innovative stuff that we’ve been doing is really exciting.
Then the other part I would say is the comfort level of the cloud has changed dramatically, just night and day from where it was. The ability for customers in pretty much every industry now to take advantage of ubiquitous infrastructure, a cloud infrastructure, a hybrid cloud infrastructure, it’s just much more prevalent today. I think it’s the early days of cloud in the big scheme of things, so I think the creativeness and the innovation that’s going to come out of more customer demand and more willingness to try things.
I think we’re going to see just another set of evolution of what’s possible in the cloud that we haven’t seen before, whether that’s development, whether that’s outsourcing, whether that’s a different way to consume infrastructure and applications. But you’re seeing creativity happening with all kinds of companies because of the willingness to use the cloud. If you think about Uber, the fact that they took on more than 100-year-old business in the taxi business and just revolutionized it with a new business model is one small example of what you’re seeing our customers doing every day.
Vince M: Do you have any specific examples? I know you’re talking about public cloud, I think quite a bit about Uber. I think about data, “data state” I guess is the term I’m looking for here, where that information is just so meaningful to disrupting a particular market like Uber did with transportation, with taxi service and you’re seeing with Airbnb and others. Are there any specific examples you might have for our listeners?
Tony D: Yeah, we’ve got to solutions that I think are changing models. One of it is the way we consume healthcare. If you think about, at least, I’m in my mid-50s and have all kinds of those health issues you start to care about, but most of my interactions with doctors is reactive. I go to the doctor every six months or whatever and they check my blood. They’re kind of waiting for me to have something wrong and then they’ll treat it and that’s the way I’ve been doing it really for most of my life.
With our Health 360 product and with some of the leading hospitals across the globe and the way they’re using our solution, they’re interacting with their customer and the patient every day and they’re building a care plan. So instead of waiting for a heart attack, their preventing heart attacks. Instead of waiting to come to the hospital, they’re building smaller hospitals because they’re caring for their patients through technology. There’s lots of ways that they do that with us, especially with the Internet of Things.
For instance, let’s just pretend I had cardiac disease in my family and I was a patient of one of our customers that use Health 360. I’d have a care plan because I’m in an identified group that could have this issue and so they tell me I have to keep my blood pressure to a certain level, take certain pills, do some exercise and all that. In the old days, you’d have to lie to your doctor and said you did all those things and then you get on the scale and he’s like, “Man, it’s been six months. You gained 5 pounds or whatever.”
Today, we integrate your scale at home into the system so that the caregiver knows exactly what you weigh every time you get on the scale. We take your pill box that has a little RF device and every time you open the pillbox and take pills out we record that. We know exactly what you’re doing on the treadmill. We have your fitbit connected. We have your Apple watch connected. We are collecting data at a pace that’s never been done before, which is changing the way the information that the drugstore has, the pharmacist has, the doctor, the nurse practitioner and so they can proactively give you care.
But we’re not even relying on that, the system then is showing the data and trending the data to give the caregiver information, in some cases just telling the patient, “Look, you’re doing a great job. Your weight and blood pressure look great, keep it up.” In some cases they’re saying, “You know, we saw an elevation in your blood pressure the last time you took it. We really want you to pay attention to your salt or whatever else it is.”
So this interaction, this abundance of data, this ability to consume all these interactions makes the care-giving that much better. We’re not just changing the systems, we’re actually changing the way the doctor’s interacting with the patient because of this ongoing dialogue going over in technology. I think we’re seeing that in a big way with that specific example.
Vince M: That’s a great example and healthcare has been such an important aspect of the business for Microsoft and in terms of industry. Just the type of impact to outcomes and people’s health, it’s just so meaningful. We talked about new markets. I just want to peel back a little bit further. Is there a market you’re not in now or an application space that you think might be intriguing to Tribridge that you’d like to enter into at some point with the new DXC acquisition?
Tony D: Yeah, there’s no doubt our cloud business in both Health 360 and our offender management solutions, they mostly have been US-based and so we have been trying in the last year with our Global DXC status to penetrate Europe and Asia and those markets. Now our relationship with DXC absolutely will be leveraging the sales teams on a global basis, customers that they have on a global basis to introduce them to these solutions we’re talking about. There’s no doubt about that.
Then on the cloud side, it’s really the same thing. We have a few European clients, for the most part have been US-based. We do have data center capability across 160 countries with the relationship that we have with our data center partner. Our ability to service those customers is there. We just haven’t had the brand or the sales team to be able to get those cloud customers as well. Those are the two areas that I think we’d grow into from a new markets perspective.
In terms of the application side of the business, I would say that with a combined business of Tribridge and DXC, I’d say the answer is no because obviously, we’re in a bigger business today than we’ve ever been. I think DXC, is if you look at the public information, roughly $27 billion in revenue, so I think there are other parts of a company’s business that we can help because of now a broader capability within DXC. I think for Tribridge, it’s the broader markets and the bigger resources that is really the big change in the next couple years.
Vince M: So Tribridge has been consistently a top partner of the year with Microsoft, both in the public sector as well as broadly. In fact, this past year was a worldwide Partner of the Year Award. What do you think makes that or what makes a great partner? What do you think is the secret sauce that makes a great partner?
Tony D: I think there’s some characteristics of a great partner. I think it starts with a couple things I always do in the front-end of a discussion with a potential partner. One is there has to be some level of shared vision or even shared values. If you go meet with somebody and they don’t want to go to the same places you want to go with the business, then it’s kind of hard to partner.
Or you could just have shared values. We’ll run into people all the time and it’s clear they’re certainly interested economically, but when we start talking about our mission or how we’re improving the lives of others, if you think about our healthcare business, if you think about our JPS or our under management solution, we believe we’re making an impact to the world with those solutions and so that can bond us with a potential partner, Microsoft or anybody else. I do think that shared vision or shared values is kind of check box 1.
Check box 2 is both parties have to care about mutual success. If somebody wants to partner, but they’re really looking for a one-way relationship that becomes obvious really quickly and it kills partnerships. Nobody, no matter how big or how small loves just giving. There’s got to be that ability for both parties to succeed and there’s got to be care behind it. There’s no care and there’s no “I’m going to help you drive your business,” then I don’t think you have a good partnership. I think you have a relationship. You don’t necessarily have a partnership.
Then the third area that I think just makes a great partner is working hard at the relationship and in the communications part. I would say that’s bullet number three. That starts with clear expectations, but then needing to kill a partnership, it’s missed expectations. The other thing is just being open, really being open with a dialogue, “Hey, what you’re doing well and this is how you’re doing well,” or “Hey, it’s not working and here’s why.” And doing that in an honest and open way, not in a complaining way.
One of the pieces of feedback we have gotten for many years is that “you guys have been a good partner because yes, you have challenges with us at Microsoft, but the way you go about it …” We don’t scream and yell. We don’t jump it down and throw a tantrum. We really engage in dialogue and sometimes it’s frustrating and sometimes we don’t get it resolved as quickly as we want.
But I have found it’s been much better to be constructive, be clear. It doesn’t mean I smile all the time, but be constructive, give the feedback, hold people accountable, but do it in a professional and friendly way I think it does work. I think that is part of that point three of just having that solid relationship. I think if you can do those three I think you can be a great partner, but it is a two-way street. Don’t expect it all to be that what’s Microsoft going to do for you, it’s got to be what you can do for Microsoft as well, whoever the partner is.
Vince M: I call that interdependence from the Stephen Covey book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
Tony D: Absolutely.
Vince M: Yeah, that’s great, in fact as you were speaking I was thinking back on one of my slides, you hit the nail on some of the other conversations I’ve had about what makes great partnerships, so really great synopsis there, Tony. Talk to me about other partnerships and alliances you might have? Does Tribridge have any other alliances or partnerships outside of the one with Microsoft?
Tony D: We absolutely have built many alliances outside of the Microsoft world. Many years ago we hired a person full-time to lead our alliance part of the business and not even manage the Microsoft part, really to reach out to other companies that were selling to our customers, other trusted advisors, whether that was large banks, SunTrust Bank is a good example, whether it’s other consulting firms or accounting firms like Grant-Thornton or whether that’s payroll companies or other tech companies like ADP or whether it’s folks that do turnarounds and stuff like that like Alvarez and Marsal.
We’ve built these relationships and really we meet with these companies around the globe now but certainly in the US. We get together to figure out what’s the best way we can help each other’s customers and those alliances have led to probably 25% or 30% of our growth over the years. You’re getting brought in by a trusted advisor of Ernst & Young or Grant-Thornton or Dell even. So because you’re being brought in by somebody who already has a working relationship, we have found that (a) you close business faster and (b) you can get the decision-makers quicker. We do the same thing for those firms. We set that up years ago and that idea of being an alliance partner with somebody and being able to help them grow their business has worked for us, even outside of the technology ecosystem.
Vince M: With those partners have you ever seen situations where the partner you were working with just wasn’t getting it working with Tribridge and what would you say to them now if you could to get them on the path to success?
Tony D: Well, that’s a good question. I haven’t seen that a lot with the alliances. I’ve certainly talked to other Microsoft partners about things that have not been working for them and so we’ve talked through what things we can do better or not do better. I think one thing I would say is when you’re in a relationship that’s not working is you almost have to take stock “Am I being a giver, am by giving?” I find this with the Microsoft partners in particular like, “Yeah, we’re not getting any leads from Microsoft. They’re a terrible partner.”
I’m like, “What have you done? What are you bringing to the table? Are you bringing a solution? Are you bringing customers? Are you bringing new market opportunities that they haven’t thought about?” That’s the advice I typically give them is there is sometimes fear to do that with a partner like Microsoft, “Oh, they may give it to someone else?” I have found that once you can go sit down with an executive at Microsoft or even any company and start talking about how to grow their business, it really changes the dynamic.
Then I think the second part of the thing I typically see is people that are hoarding information. I think to be a good partner and to turn around that dynamic that’s not working, it’s that willingness to be involved and share your knowledge. I think that also will turn around a negative situation. Those are the two things, the pieces of advice I’ve given to other Microsoft partners.
In terms of our alliance partners, I can’t think of an example specifically where it didn’t work. I think if it didn’t, like in an engagement with a customer, the biggest thing is communication. “It isn’t working. The customer’s not happy, Here’s what we need to do.” We certainly had people that have dropped out of our alliances before. But I would say when that has happened, it’s really been about people just want to take so I’ll go back to my giver thing.
There’s great book called “The Go-Giver” that really talks about how to give a relationship first and we give that book to everybody that joins our alliances team so that they understand what the expectations are. This is about giving, not with a complete expectation of getting because it doesn’t work that way. You may get in the big scheme of things, but maybe not from that partner specifically. I think that’s another way to solve the problem is to start with giving.
Vince M: Start with giving and in fact, I had a conversation just recently with Amir Capriles, who’s a friend of both of ours, who we discussed your partnership with Microsoft and that journey, he mentioned that mutual “skin in the game.” Maybe that’s a little bit of that, maybe from what I’m hearing from this conversation?
Tony D: Yeah, I think so. Amir and I have done a lot of deals together and the ones that go great we celebrate great, but you get one or two, it doesn’t work great and I would tell you, Amir is a great example of a good partner, great partner. We had an account, a pretty large account that wasn’t going well and we couldn’t get the customer to engage the way we wanted. The customer was frustrated as well. He came up with an idea that was risky, would put us in some grand risk and some financial risk, but we thought it was the best outcome and we did it and it was messy and we did it together and we got through it and it landed.
It took many months of trust. It took a financial commitment by both of us to right the problem. It would have been easy to walk away for either of us, blame the other. There were heated moments for sure, but I think both of us came out of that probably eight or nine years ago and just got closer through that tough, tough situation where both of us had to really invest a lot of capital, intellectual, financial, resource capital. We left it at a much stronger relationship and trust going down the road. Again, 90% of our interactions have been phenomenal, but when we had tough times, you really learn about people.
One thing I learned about Amir is he is honorable and can make the tough calls. I think he learned the same thing about me and it’s allowed us to each beat stronger partners going forward. Absolutely, that was about giving and that was also about honoring the partnership. I think Amir has just been great from that respect.
Vince M: One of the attributes I’ve had people say is that the person will say the same thing about the partner, whether they’re in the room or not and Amir said pretty much the same thing about you in our conversation so there. It is a mutual partnership for sure.
Tony D: Ah, that’s great.
Vince M: Any other advice you have for our partner listeners on partnering specifically?
Tony D: Naw, the last thing I’d say is I think Microsoft is great at helping you develop new business, new business ideas. I’d bring them into the fold with strategic planning. I have found there’s definitely executives over there that will help you grow your business. That’s another way to extend the partnership is you’re thinking about 2018 planning, bring them into the mix. It doesn’t have to just be about Microsoft. I think there’s a lot of smart people there that can help you.
Vince M: That’s great advice. Tony, as you might know from listening to other episodes, I’m fascinated with how people got to this particular spot in life. I wanted to focus a portion of our time here on the personal and professional journey because I believe it helps others that are aspiring to maybe being the founder or CEO of a company or a leader in the technology space. I was hoping maybe you can share with our listeners some of your journey? How did you get started and talk to our listeners through that?
Tony D: Sure absolutely, I’ve definitely been asked before did you know you were an entrepreneur? When did you know that? That question gets asked a lot and I got to tell you, when I was growing up and I had a kind of rough childhood. I lived in from seventh grade to tweflth grade I lived in about 15 different homes so I had definitely a lot of different people around me from really all walks of life. I lived in a very, very tough neighborhood and it wasn’t all good business advice, but I never knew what the word “entrepreneur” meant. I never heard that word before. The funny thing is for years I never knew what that word was, even though I believed, in looking backwards, I had a lot of those characteristics, the risk-taking and wanting to lead and wanting to serve people and those things.
One particular thing that has stuck out to me is there is a guy in college, a friend of mine, this guy Larry Stiegel and Larry, I always thought he was a little bit crazy and I hope he’s listening. Larry kept telling me, he’s developing this business. We were going to school in Tallahassee, Florida, which is not the most advanced tech community in the world …
Vince M: So Florida State, yep?
Tony D: Florida State University, right and this is in 1983, it’s a long time ago, and Larry has me helping him, so I was working for him I guess. He’s a friend. He needed help. The business model was he was importing Brazilian art, duty free and selling it in Tallahassee, Florida, to flea markets. What I didn’t realize at the time, I thought I was just helping my friend. I was making some money, but what I was watching was an entrepreneur.
Larry went on to other businesses as he graduated and been a lifelong entrepreneur. He’s owned land. He’s owned an electronics distributor. He’s learned a leechy farm. He’s just been all over the map and he’s done well, but those early days at FSU, just watching him import goods and learn that process and take the risk of people in Tallahassee wanting imported Brazilian art, that seems like a crazy idea yet he did very well. That had a big impact on me wanting to do my own thing and I think believe it or not, so did the New York Yankees.
George Steinbrenner owned the Yankees. He bought the Yankees in ‘73 and he bought them for I think it was $7 million. I remember thinking, “Oh, I want to be like George Steinbrenner. I want to own the Yankees, so I need to own my own business, too,” because he owned his own businesses. Because I was a huge baseball fan, a huge Yankee fan, so there was this Larry on one hand, this very practical example of a guy right in front of me and again, I didn’t know what the word meant and then I had George Steinbrenner as my, I’ll call him “far away role model” that was buying businesses, had bought the Yankees and I was just thinking, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do.”
That motivated me to do my own thing. Even though I worked at a big firm, it really motivated me to do something that I could control both the quality and the speed and I do think I have a strange motor. I like to grow. I like to push. I like the pace. I figured out early on that everybody didn’t really have that and so taking advantage of that pace in a way that allowed me to be part of stuff that grows. That’s part of the early just maturing and trying to understand who you are and then saying, “What do you do with this? What do you do with this pace and this ambition?” and I decided to go the entrepreneurial route, again not even knowing what that word meant.
Vince M: So a huge Yankee fan?
Tony D: Yeah, I’m a diehard Yankee fan.
Vince M: Have you ever thought about owning a franchise? Is that an aspiration in your future?
Tony D: It is. I would say the price of franchises has gone up so many megafolds, so my revised thought process is either minor leagues or a very, very small sliver of a large major league team. But yeah, I still have the desire to be part of building a world-class sports franchise. I just may have to go about it differently based on the economics of the game. I think the Marlins have just sold for $1.3 billion and so yeah, the economics have changed so much.
Vince M: You talked about this, I think you called it a weird motor or different motor. What are some of the most fun aspects of the job for you then?
Tony D: I think you like to win, my another attraction I have for the Yankees, they’re just hooked on winning. It’s fun to be successful and to win and to grow a business. That has turned me on for a long time. We’ve had 18 straight years of growth here at Tribridge and you get addicted to it. It’s exciting. I think the second thing that sticks out for me is just watching other people grow. We’ve had a lot of people run through here and some have started their own companies. I think we’ve had about 25 people leave and start their own company and it’s been exciting to watch people grow from in some cases really young in their careers to leading parts of Tribridge or somebody that came from a different company with an experience that was different and maybe down and stuff and then they come here and then they get lit up.
I didn’t expect to like that, but over the years you start looking at thousands of people that you’ve worked with and you’ve watch them grow and light bulbs go off and careers start. You get excited about it. You get to see even the personal growth. You see them get married or have kids or grandkids now. There’s something that I didn’t expect to really get connected to emotionally, but it really has touched me in a way that I didn’t expect and you start caring at a different level about them.
Vince M: These people that go off on their own, was there a best piece of career advice that you received when you started out that maybe you’ve imparted to others when they’ve left to start their own journey?
Tony D: I’ve had a lot of mentors, so I’ve been pretty fortunate. One guy that stands out that continues to give me great advice is Tom Wallace. He’s a local entrepreneur, a serial entrepreneur, very successful. He early on, and this is so basic but it really has played out. We were pitching him a business plan for the software company that wasn’t Tribridge and he turned us down. He said, “No, I’m not going to fund that. I don’t like the space.” Didn’t understand the space. But what he said was, “Do what you know.” He was the guy that gave us that advice. But more importantly, he’s like, “Listen to the customer.” He goes, “Tony, whatever you start, the business is going to morph and really pay attention to the markets and the customer and then start planning ahead.”
After that moment in May of 1998 we took that to heart and every year forever is we started our planning. We really took a wide view of stakeholders and said, “We’re going to listen to customers and we’re going to listen to our partners and we’re going to listen to our team members.” Instead of us thinking we knew all the answers, we’d start with a straw man and then we’d go around the 15 or 20 customers, show them the plan and then make changes and several of our ideas, in fact our infrastructure practice initially came from a customer who said, “Hey, this is what I think you should be doing.”
I think Tom, again as simple as it was it was really all about paying attention to the market dynamics, listening to customers and making sure you really understand what the needs are so that you can be ready when they need it and that’s something I tell people all the time. That no matter how smart you are, you’ll never be smarter than the market. The market usually is this big inertia and so you’ve got to tap into it. The best way to tap into it is to talk to a lot of people. Obviously, you do research. There’s tons of research out there. I love the human element of it. I think the research combined with talking to specific people in specific industries really just rounds out where you should take a business and I use that technique every year.
Vince M: That’s some great advice. We talked about, you mentioned overcoming some challenges earlier in your life. What about hurdles you’ve had to face and had to overcome? Can you talk to our listeners about any one in particular maybe that stands out for you?
Tony D: On the business side, nothing big stands out. I’d say maybe the availability of talent has been a consistent hurdle for the last 18 years, like folks in our industry that can be good culture fits but also have the technology capabilities. One of the ways we overcame it, we kept hiring experienced hires and after about 10 years of that we decided, “Yes, we’ll keep doing that, but we’d augment it with an on-campus hiring and build our own,” and that has paid dividends. Probably almost 20% of our team it today have come from our campus hiring and there’s no way we’d be at this point in our development without that.
Vince M: What schools do you recruit from?
Tony D: We recruit all over the country, but in Florida we recruit at Florida, Florida State and USF. But we recruit at Wake Forest, campuses in Texas, I think maybe a couple California ones but it’s all over the country.
Vince M: Nice and what pursuits or obsessions do you explore when you’re not working?
Tony D: Man, I love baseball. That’s probably clear. I love to hike, so I’ve done quite a bit of hiking over the years. I travel a lot in my job, so I like to hike, particularly mountains. I’m not a climber. I’m not a mountain climber, but I love to hike to the top of any mountain that I can get to so I try to do that a lot and I love basketball. Those are probably the three things that I love the most. I guess cooking may be the fourth. I probably left that out.
Vince M: Cooking, what type of food do you like to cook? Are you going to tell me Italian?
Tony D: Well, I’m Sicilian but no, I’m kind of across the board. At the house I’m the one that, I’ll create recipes or research recipes or watch one of those cooking shows and steal a recipe and then I’ll start messing with it. It might take me two years before I go, “Okay, now I’ve got it where I like it.” You know what I mean? I’m not one that will follow the recipe to the “T.” Had a pizza dough recipe going for about five years to the point where I just kept tweaking it and made probably thousands of pizzas and today I feel like I finally have something that I can have people over.
Vince M: Thin crust or thick crust?
Tony D: I like thin better, but I do a Sicilian pie, every once in a while that’s okay, but I do super thin probably partly to keep the size of the carbs down. But I definitely do a thin crust.
Vince M: Nice, I’m going to have to try your pizza one of these days. So who was one of your role models, either directly or indirectly and what advice or attributes did you learn from them?
Tony D: Tom Wallace for sure, a big role model. The one thing about Tom that I picked up over the years is accountability. I always felt like I was personally accountable. What I noticed about Tom and different boards I was on or he was on our board for a while is the way he held people accountable. I probably was uncomfortable doing that in my early career and that can hurt you as a leader because people aren’t getting stuff done and therefore you’re not getting stuff done. Being able to do that in a way that’s professional, I feel like I got that from Tom. That would be one.
The second person is George Gordon, another local entrepreneur up in Philadelphia but stopped and moved down here south a few years back. The thing I learned about George was the poise of a leader. I would say I didn’t grow up being very poised or tactful or any of those things. I think George, I watched him. I was in an organization with him where he was the chair and I was the vice chair for about 10 years and just watching George handle egos.
We had a 30, 40 person board with all the big, top names in Tampa on the board, pretty high level people on those boards, CEO’s, CFO’s, CIO’s and just watching George handle people in a way with poise and grace and professionalism I was just blown away by the way he could do it. I’m not half of what he can do, but it shapes the way I communicate with folks. I used to think being direct was the only way to do it. I’m still direct, but I’m certainly doing it differently at 52 than I was at 22.
Vince M: What advice would you give that younger self, that 25 – 30-year-old Tony DiBenedetto?
Tony D: Let’s see, younger Tony? I think the concept of being fearless that you probably lose over time a little bit. Man, when I was 20 I thought I was going to buy the Yankees. I left that out and then reality sets in. I think there’s something healthy about staying fearless, especially as an entrepreneur, especially as a CEO. You don’t want to lose that. I think continue to be fearless. I’d probably have that mantra and have me chanting it at night. I feel like I’m still pretty fearless, but I am not as fearless as I once was so I think that’s one that stands out.
Vince M: Is there one book you’ve read or gifted often that you recommend to our listeners?
Tony D: The book I think that’s one of the top leadership books in the world that I don’t think is on everybody’s list is called “The Servant” by James Hunter. It’s a little bit of a different kind of book and it’s all about servant leadership and I just think the book’s an easy read. I give it to folks at Tribridge all the time and I think it gives you a sense of how you can relate to people and help them get the most out of what they can be and it focuses on something people don’t like to talk about in business is it’s about how you love somebody and truly love them and that can mean firing them, too. It’s not all about doing something that’s nice. It’s about truly loving them by helping them get to where they need to go and that’s something that I feel like I’ve really adopted as part of my style here at Tribridge.
Vince M: So “The Servant” by James Hunter?
Tony D: Yeah.
Vince M: We’ll have a link to that in our show notes, as well as if our listeners want to reach out to you Tony, what’s the best way to do that?
Tony D: Email is probably the best way to do that, TonyD@Tribridge.com, so TonyD@Tribridge.com.
Vince M: Great and any social handles? Do you follow any social media?
Tony D: Yeah, I have a Twitter. It’s TonyTribridge is my Twitter account and then on LinkedIn is the other place and it’s TonyDiBenedetto.
Vince M: Tony, I want to thank you so much. I was so looking forward to this conversation. You’ve been a great partner of Microsoft for just so many years, accolades, people that know and respect you within the channel and I appreciate you taking time to impart on our listeners some of your career nuggets, what makes successful partnerships and your personal and professional journey with us … and go Yankees.
Tony D: Vince, it’s great talking to you and look forward to hearing it live.