By Nancy Dahlberg / email@example.com
Success stories in South Florida entrepreneurship don’t always follow the classic script of dream, launch, grow, sell and start all over again. Sometimes the founder starts out as an “accidental entrepreneur,” stays with the acquiring company and grows the team into a successful division, providing jobs that power the local economy.
That’s Richard Dobrow’s story. In 2000, the young accountant started Guarded Networks Inc. or GNI, with three other colleagues, all just a couple of years out of school. After a couple of sales and name changes along the way, that venture with roots in South Florida became SilverSky, which sold on Friday to London-based defense giant BAE Systems for $232.5 million. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting at Florida International University in the late ‘90s, Dobrow was working at Arthur Anderson in an area that was just beginning to get really hot: technology risk management. With Arthur Anderson in turmoil at the time, and futures uncertain, he and colleagues Sajid Khan, also an FIU alumnus, Thomas Neclerio and Brian Otte, decided to split off and start a company in this new area of expertise they had been building up – information security.
At the time, Dobrow really didn’t see it as a long-tem play. “We thought we’d go do this for a couple of years and then be back in the industry.”
But Guarded Networks grew to be a leading player as what’s known as an MSSP, a managed security service provider, for financial institutions. GNI established its “Bordershield” software platform as a market leading compliance product used by hundreds of banking and medical organizations to help meet their growing information security requirements. By 2004, it had grown to about 35 employees and was serving more than 300 banks and credit unions and more than 1,000 corporate customers, said Dobrow, who was GNI's CEO. That’s when it merged with Perimeter E-Security of Connecticut in a transaction valued at more than $25 million.
Dobrow said two of the original founders exited along the way – Khan is with Lockheed Martin and Otte is with ProfitStars – but Dobrow and Neclerio stayed on. An investment group led by Goldman Sachs purchased a chunk of Perimeter in 2007, and Perimeter rebranded under the name SilverSky in early 2013. Most recently, Dobrow was SilverSky’s president, Asia-Pacific region, and chief compliance officer – yes, the job involved a lot of travel – and Neclerio was senior vice president of consulting services.
Dobrow, named to FIU’s Entrepreneur Hall of Fame in 2002, could have exited in 2004 and 2007. But each time he was offered intrapreneurial leadership roles with “interesting opportunities” and decided to stay, always based in South Florida. And a local employee base of about three dozen stayed, too.
SilverSky, a commercial cyber-services and compliance provider with operations in the United States and Asia, employed about 400 people and had more than 5,000 customers at the time of the BAE acquisition. SilverSky’s sales, marketing and engineering workforce and management team joined BAE’s global Applied Intelligence division, focused on cyber-security with about 3,200 employees worldwide.
“SilverSky’s cloud-based email and network security solutions complement our existing portfolio and increase our presence in the United States, a very significant market for IT security,” said Ian King, CEO of the 80,000-employee BAE, in a statement on Friday announcing the closing of the acquisition.
Dobrow plans to stay on with BAE as chief compliance officer as the company goes through a post-acquisition reorganization. As before, he will see where this goes. “My understanding is that the 36 people in South Florida will remain in South Florida and there will be an expansion of the Security Operation Center in Fort Lauderdale,” Dobrow said, adding that BAE didn't have a significant cyber-security business presence in the U.S. until now with the acquisition, so there is no overlap and the plan is to grow, not cut.
Mike Tomás also stayed with the team through it all in another role – investor and advisor. Tomás got to know Dobrow and his team early on as a mentor and also became an investor. He joined Guarded Networks’ board, staying on with SilverSky until last week’s BAE acquisition. Tomás, CEO of Bioheart, is also chair of FIU’s Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center and on the board of Miami Dade College’s Idea Center.
“South Florida has been a hub of technology entrepreneurship for years and with recent efforts like eMerge Americas, Endeavor, Venture Hive and the Idea Center will only help to create more company successes like SilverSky,” said Tomás. “Richard Dobrow is a brilliant technology pioneer and his company was born and raised in South Florida.”
EARLY DAYS OF GNI: In a 2001 photo, Guarded Networks co-founders Thomas Neclerio, left, and Brian Otte, center, along with the company’s CFO, Eric Lambert, hold firewalls used in their engineering security solutions. Photo by Water Michot/Miami Herald archives.
Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.