It had been twelve years since Tom Deierlein last donned a uniform or touched a weapon. When he arrived home from a business conference in 2005 and found a Western Union notice taped to the door of his New York City apartment, he was sure it was meant for someone else. “You have thirty days to report for active duty” read the notice, “or a warrant will be issued for your arrest.”
After leaving military service in 1993, Tom had agreed to enter the Individual Ready Reserves, never imagining he’d be called on again to serve. But all the Reserve, National Guard and Army units had been exhausted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and Iraq needed to be rebuilt. “My country called me, and though they ended up telling me at the last minute that I wasn’t required by law to go, I wasn’t going to bail,” he says. “If I didn’t go, I wouldn’t have been able to look at myself in the mirror. America had done so much for me, and it was my turn to step up.”
Tom was sent to Baghdad in April 2006 as part of the Alpha Company 414th Civil Affairs unit and he adopted the call sign ThunderCat 6, supporting the 101st Airborne and the legendary 506th Combat Team of ‘Band of Brothers’ fame. As part of the effort to secure and reconstruct Baghdad, he was an executive coach for the newly-elected government and helped to rebuild hospitals, schools, and essential services. In late summer, they kicked off “Operation Together Forward II,” setting the goal of re-securing Baghdad. “We would surround an area, clear it, hold it, and then build out the projects we had queued up,” he explains. “I worked with the mayor and elected officials to implement those projects and programs.”
Four months after arriving, on September 9, 2006, Tom was shot in the torso by a sniper. He was given an emergency blood coagulant that stopped him from bleeding to death, but soon went into shock. A priest gave him his last rites as he went in for surgery, and he spent a week in Germany until he stabilized. He then spent 3 months at Walter Reed, followed by 5 months at the VA poly-trauma rehab center in Tampa. It was time spent reflecting on the gift he had been given—a new beginning and a new life.
“People don’t know how to react when I tell them that getting shot was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “Right after it happened, people expected me to be depressed, but I was just happy to be here. And if I was alive, I was going to get through this and set even better goals for myself. It also caused me to become a much more patient person who treats people better and is much more focused on helping others. It fundamentally changed my DNA and made me a better person with a broader perspective based in gratitude. Now, every day is a holiday, and every meal is a feast.”
Today, Tom is the co-founder and CEO of ThunderCat Technology, a value-added reseller of data storage, cyber, and networking applications technology. And he remains as mission-driven as ever, motivated to serve his employees in serving the country. “The purpose of ThunderCat is to make the United States a better and safer place for all Americans,” he says. “But our work also comes down to this fundamental belief I have about human nature. Social psychologist Douglas McGregor posed two fundamental approaches to managing people. Theory X looks at people as inherently lazy and assumes they will avoid work at all costs. Theory Y, however, believes that work and striving toward goals is as natural as play. I’m a Theory Y guy – I’m driven to achieve, and I lead the ThunderCat team with that belief.”
ThunderCat’s work specializes in and around the way data is captured, stored, and used in data centers. As a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business, 99 percent of its work comes from the federal government, with a handful of state, local, and commercial clients. The company’s work is split evenly between the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and civilian agencies, a diversified strategy that helps to insulate the company from shifting federal budget priorities. “We are custom-built to compete and win in the federal marketplace, and our solutions are the best of the best,” Tom explains. “The technology we sell to various federal agencies really makes a difference in their ability to accomplish their missions.”
While ThunderCat was launched on April 1, 2008, with four other cofounders, Tom is now its sole owner. Now doing around $400 million a year in revenue with sixty employees, the company has been on the Inc. 5000 list five years in a row. It utilizes an “All Star Only” model that brings in the top talent in federal IT and provides contract support, finance, HR, and admin as they essentially run their own businesses. “As salespeople, they tell us what they need to be successful, and we provide that,” Tom explains. “They’re in charge of their own destiny, with us as enablers. They’re the ones who are out there every day finding the business, serving the clients, and working with our partners.”
This model wouldn’t be possible without Tom’s firm commitment to servant leadership, working to provide support for the team and the purpose and direction that allow them to achieve their shared goals. Thanks in large part to Tom’s integrity and genuine concern for his employees, ThunderCat has been named one of Virginia’s Best Places to Work for four years in a row. It’s also the proud recipient of the Computer Reseller News Tech Elite 250 award given to exemplary companies with multiple sales and sales engineer certifications across a number of vendors and categories. “That recognition demonstrates our persistence and the hours we’ve put in as a company to take these exams and learn these technologies,” Tom explains. “It shows our excellence across disciplines and architectures, which is critical in allowing us to really determine and sell the right solutions for our clients.”
Tom’s persistence, courage, and love of service were first shaped by the home he feels blessed to have grown up in. Born in New York in 1967, he has five older sisters, two older brothers, and one younger brother. His father served as a Marine in China at the end of World War II and was among the last people to contract polio. He was told he’d never walk again—a prediction he defied, though he had a persistent limp. As a child, Tom remembers his father donning business suits and leaving for the train in the morning. Family dinner was served every night promptly at 6:00 PM, and if you arrived at 6:01 PM, you were late.
Tom had a very classic 1950’s upbringing with structure, expectations, and standards. His father was a disciplinarian who taught him how to push himself and set goals. His mother was a homemaker who made sure the children got wherever they needed to go and gave them the confidence, support, and nurturing they needed to reach them. “My parents raised me to be a person of character, values, and a strong work ethic,” he affirms. “I don’t have cognitive memory of a time I didn’t have chores, and we had to get those done before we went out to play. We got an allowance, but my parents didn’t buy us things. If we wanted something, we had to earn it. I was incredibly fortunate to have had the parents I had, who cared enough to teach us these tools of success.”
Tom enjoyed an idyllic, solid middle class childhood in which his strong work ethic was balanced with the fun and freedom of playing Cowboys and Indians, army, and kick-the-can outside with friends. When he was in first grade, he started delivering newspapers, carrying on the paper route dynasty started by his sister Mary fifteen years earlier. His first manager was his sister, Susie, and when his time finally came to take over the paper route, he saw that his sister was making $30 a week to his $2 a day. “She was making substantially more and I resolved that I needed to get into management,” he remembers.
Along with working for what they wanted, his father insisted that the kids prioritize education and attend college one day. “He viewed us as his life’s work, in the same way that I view fatherhood as my most important job,” Tom says. “Whenever I faced adversity, he would remind me that I was a Deierlein, and that meant that I would be successful and overcome. Deierleins rise above, push forward, drive harder, and succeed.”
That concept was put to the test by a particularly defining experience in fifth grade, when Tom was cut from the basketball team. The news was made all the more devastating because his beloved older brother, Butch, was the best basketball player in the county, and had been named MVP at the county all-star game. “My coach made the mistake of saying he thought there was an extra uniform laying around somewhere in the basement, and if he found it, I could be on the team,” Tom remembers. “When I told my dad that night, he told me to go in the next day and ask if the coach had found that uniform yet.”
The next day, though it made him uncomfortable, Tom did as his father had advised. The coach hadn’t found the uniform yet, so at his father’s urging, Tom asked the next day, and the next, and the next. Finally, after over a week of questioning, the coach changed his tune. “I joke that he stitched the uniform himself,” Tom says. “When the games started a few weeks after that, I had a uniform and was on the team. It really taught me a lot about persistence and I began laying the foundation for the grit that is now an essential part of my character.”
Tom was a benchwarmer that year, but the following summer, he spent four hours a day practicing in the backyard—often alone. His parents paid for him to attend a basketball camp, and though he was never a star, he applied himself and cultivated his skills. Once he got to high school, however, he began to map out a loftier goal for himself. In the fall of his freshman year, Tom decided he wanted to go to West Point—a decision spurred in part by the patriotism his family always felt in the glow of his father’s military service and his sister’s service as a nurse in the Navy. “I was drawn to its prestige, its honor code, and the fact that you got to go into the military after you finished,” he says. “It was a big reach for me, but I was determined.” He decided he’d serve for five years and then become a successful business executive, whatever that meant. It was a goal that fundamentally changed the rest of his life.
Around that same time, Tom took an algebra midterm without studying. School had always come easily to him, and he had never needed to study to get good grades, but he bombed the test with a 50 percent. “I was shocked and ashamed, and I felt like my dream of going to West Point was dissolving before my eyes,” he recalls. “I decided I’d get a 95 or better on the standardized statewide algebra exam, designing a strict regimen of studying two hours a night and taking all the practice exams in the old books my brothers and sisters used to use. I ended up getting 100 percent on that statewide exam, proving to myself that if I set a goal, worked toward it, and sacrificed, I could achieve what I set my mind to. I learned the power of grit and applying myself, becoming a straight A student from then on.”
Fully embracing this new pattern of living, Tom joined clubs, started volunteering in his community, and sought leadership positions wherever he could, building up the resume and experience he would need to achieve his goal of a West Point admittance. Tom sought the advice of a track star from his high who graduated two years earlier and was recruited into West Point. “He told me that the admissions officers were all officers in the United States Army, and if I told them that my goal, too, was to be an officer in the United States Army, it would change everything,” Tom says. “Sure enough, when we visited campus and I ended up having an impromptu interview in my jeans and sweatshirt, those were the key words.”
Tom applied early admission, and though he was listed as seventh for the nomination from his Congressional district, he was selected by that same interviewer from the national pool of candidates. He was ecstatic to have achieved his goal, but one night of drunk and disorderly conduct during his plebe year threatened to derail all his hard work. Knowing his fate ultimately lay with the schools’ superintendent, he collected around thirty letters of recommendation from professors and other cadets. “When I appeared in front of the three-star general for judgment, he remarked how each of those letters pointed out how uncharacteristic that behavior had been for me,” Tom says. “He read aloud my sentencing, confirming my separation from the Corps of Cadets. I was devastated, but then he said, ‘lucky for you, there’s a comma here.’ He went on to read that my separation was suspended for six months, requiring 35 demerits, 120 area tours, and 90 days restricted to my room. Others would have taken it as a polite invitation to leave, but I was thrilled! They were letting me stay.”
With persistence and resilience, Tom studied and memorized the school’s regulations so he could follow them to a tee. He joined the tactics club, taught manners and courtesy to other cadets, and made it through. “I didn’t understand what it truly meant to be a leader until I got to West Point,” he says. “I had some of the raw tools of leadership, but I believe leadership can be taught. I studied it every day and gave it a lot of thought. It wasn’t until much later, after I had matured more, that I began to emerge as a good leader.”
Tom graduated in 1989 and entered the Infantry, serving as an Airborne Ranger in the Berlin Brigade. He went to Fort Benning, completed the infantry course, attended Ranger School, and failed the push-up test on the first day. Three months later, he tried Ranger School again and failed a different phase. He finally made it through on July 13, 1990, and spent three years in Berlin doing rifle platoon, mortar platoon, and as an Assistant S3 in Operations, while earning his Master’s of Science in Systems Management through grueling weekend coursework. Despite his commander’s protests, he stuck with the plan he had set for himself as a 13-year-old, leaving the military in 1993 to pursue a career in business.
Now in the civilian world, Tom landed a position with Johnson & Johnson as a Sales Representative for Ethicon Endo-Surgery. “I knew that every company exists to sell a product or service,” he says. “I figured I’d go in and climb the corporate ladder, making considerable money in the process.” But in his own words, Tom’s career in sales started off rocky at best. As he transitioned out of his service in the military as an officer commanding troops, he was immediately struck by how differently he was viewed as a sales rep. “If I was nice to someone, they wanted to know what I wanted,” he recalls. “That was tough because I genuinely do enjoy helping others. I worked through the awkwardness of that initial transition into sales by resolving to never try to sell somebody something they didn’t need. For me, sales has always been about helping people.”
After a year and a half, Tom was recruited to sell mechanical engineering software for Parametric Technology Corporation. Despite the cutthroat company culture, he exceled and was put in charge of their third largest global client. He then took a job with NetGravity in New York City, taking on his first civilian leadership role as he ran the office and traveled around the country selling advertising software to great companies. He knocked out his MBA on nights and weekends, aspiring to one day run a small company. NetGravity went public and was then acquired by DoubleClick, prompting Tom to take a position as Head of Sales at a startup called Dynamic Logic. Over the ensuing months, he became the company’s COO and helped grow it from 7 people to 100, selling it with a good exit in 2005. “When I started at Dynamic Logic, they could only pay me less than half of what my market value was,” Tom says. “But it was a leadership role that grew as the company grew, and it was the experience I ultimately needed to run a company myself. It was definitely the right path for me. By the time ThunderCat was formed, I had the right set of experiences and educational building blocks to put it all together.”
Before that happened, however, Tom still had a fundamentally defining experience ahead of him in Baghdad. “One of the missions of Civil Affairs is humanitarian aid, and I had people ship me food, clothes, toys, and supplies to hand out,” he says. “After I got shot, we decided to continue those efforts by setting up the Tom Deierlein Foundation.” The Foundation began as a way to provide humanitarian aid to children in Iraq and Afghanistan, including flying kids to the West so they could get heart and burn reconstruction surgeries. The Foundation now focuses on helping children of wounded warriors and Gold Star Families in the U.S. and raises $200,000 annually to partner with other charities in support of important causes, as described on their website at www.tdfoundation.org.
It would be inaccurate to say that Tom didn’t have dark days through his recovery, which included a separation and divorce from his first wife, but his persistently optimistic and resilient attitude were the building blocks he used to shape his new lease on life. When doctors said he might not walk again, he went on to complete a triathlon. He not only returned to his apartment in New York City—he got a better one. And in April of 2009, on the Great Wall of China, he proposed to the love of his life, Mary Beth. They now have three young sons—Robert, Thomas, and James—and a very bright future. “Set goals in life, even when times are hard and the goal is to just get up and put your sneakers on in the morning,” he says. “Be a Theory Y person and embrace the drive to achieve, because when you try hard enough, it will take you exactly where you want to go.”