As a freshman at the University of Iowa in the 1960s, Tom Frana quickly realized he had no actual interest in attending classes. “The Vietnam War was underway at the time, and I had a low draft number,” he recalls. “If I wasn’t in school, I’d be drafted. I wanted to serve, but I wanted to make my own decision about where in the military I’d go.”
Tom’s father was an officer in the Navy, and Tom had been to enough Army-Navy games that he knew he couldn’t go in the Army. The Air Force was oversubscribed at the time. That left the Coast Guard and the Marine Corps, and when he went down to the station to sign up, the office of the latter happened to be positioned before the office of the former.
Tom had learned a great deal about leadership watching his father, who had been on a fast track to an admiral ranking through World War II and the Korean War. But his experience in the Marine Corps laid the foundation for his own brand of leadership. “I learned, first of all, how important it is to look out for the welfare of your people at all times,” he says today. “The really great staff sergeants and gunnery sergeants I worked under truly did look out for us, and never asked us to do things they wouldn’t do. They were strict, but ultimately understanding of small mistakes if we were shipshape 95 percent of the time.”
Tom also learned very quickly that, if he showed capability, he would be given responsibility and freedom. As a 19-year-old, he found himself in Okinawa during the war, running an office and scheduling helicopter jumps and air drops. “Our gunnery sergeant would check in with me occasionally to make sure things were going well, but the rest was up to me,” Tom recounts. “The Marine Corps was very good at picking people that could lead and letting them lead.”
They picked Tom, in large part, because of his drive—an innate and unbendable will to get things done that was shaped and enhanced through military mentorship. “They took the time to teach me to have initiative, and really gave me the building blocks of leadership,” he explains. “Once they saw that I was intent on learning and succeeding, they gave me the chances I needed to make it happen.”
After over three years of military service during the war, Tom returned to the U.S. substantially behind the peers with whom he had graduated from high school in terms of career advancement, but he was determined to catch up. He completed his degree in record time, and once he landed a job in a computer room, he picked up every extra shift he could. “I got promoted because I was driven to learn and advance, always reaching for that next thing,” he says. Now the President and CEO of ViON Corporation, a leading IT enterprise solutions firm serving clients in their mission to improve the security and prosperity of the U.S., Tom’s success shows what happens when the kindling of drive meets the match of entrepreneurship.
Launched in 1980, ViON is a privatelyheld IT system integrator serving government at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as a growing commercial cliental. It provides infrastructure including servers, storage, switches, and networking capability, as well as an “As A Service” offering sprung from a Defense Information Systems Agency bid won fourteen years ago—a growing revenue stream that’s still going strong today. “The model is based on consumption, allowing the agency to pay for the service only if it’s being used,” Tom explains. “We own the product, install it, and help the customer manage it to their requirements, with much more flexibility to scale than the traditional government acquisition process allows. Agencies can expand or contract without having to buy or get rid of product sets, which is ideal for them.”
ViON’s third segment of business focuses on the information security and advanced analytics marketplace. Utilizing standard information security and analytics solutions, its professional services team customizes the software package to fit the individual needs of each customer—just one example of the company’s overarching commitment to exceptional service. “One very important priority for us is to train all our customer-facing employees to always ask the customer what else we can do for them,” Tom explains. “Our philosophy is that we want to help in any way, shape, or form. If they ask us to do something, we’ll find a way. It’s been a very successful business strategy, and one of the key reasons our customers stay with us for so long.”
Even before his military service taught him to always look out for his people, Tom learned this important lesson from watching his own parents.
When Tom joined ViON as President in 1992, the company had around 35 employees and drew annual revenues of about $35 million. Under his leadership, it has since grown to 195 employees and around $200 million. It has made an exceptional name for itself in the Department of Defense (DoD), the intelligence community, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as well as a host of other civilian agencies. As a critical IT partner, it allows these agencies to achieve their national defense missions—a strong driving force behind ViON’s employees. “They feel that same sense of responsibility and esprit de corps, knowing that their work is contributing to that bigger mission of protecting the country,” Tom affirms. “It’s a powerful thing.” Thanks to this higher purpose and to the leadership team’s longstanding focus on ensuring their employees enjoy some of the best incentives, benefits, and empowerment opportunities in the market today, ViON has earned a yearly place on Washingtonian Magazine’s Best Places to Work list.
Even before his military service taught him to always look out for his people, Tom learned this important lesson from watching his own parents. He was born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1946, as his father was finishing up postgraduate school at the Naval Academy after his service as an officer in World War II. The next year, his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Treatment options at the time were severely limited, and he remembers his mother using canes to walk. As the years passed, the canes gave way to crutches, and the crutches gave way to a wheelchair, to the point that she eventually became bedridden.
Despite her condition, she was a positive influence in the lives of Tom and his older sister, and her health didn’t hold the family back from a life of constant moving and adapting. His father, a devout Catholic with a strong sense of duty to country and family, was stationed in Long Beach during the Korean War to serve as the Executive Officer aboard the flagship Cruiser Helena. The family then returned to the duty station in Washington, DC, while Tom was in kindergarten and first grade. The next two years were spent in Hingham, Massachusetts, where his father worked at the Quincey Naval Shipyard and Tom decided he wanted some work of his own. A new housing development had just gone up nearby, and he went knocking door-to-door asking if they wanted the weekly newspaper. He bought it from the distributor for 5 cents and sold it for 10, garnering so much success that his father made him split the route with his sister.
Tom spent grades four through seven at the Naval Shipyard in Charleston, South Carolina, an idyllic environment where he enjoyed basketball, swimming, tennis, bowling, fishing, and bike riding, all within the protected environment of the base. His eighth, ninth, and tenth grade years were spent back in DC, where he attended St. Johns College High School, part of a Catholic teaching order called the De La Salle Christian Brothers. There, his English teacher and coach of the cross country squad convinced him to try out for the team. He discovered he had an exceptional talent for running, and embraced the sport as a lifelong passion.
St. John’s, itself, was a life-changing experience—one that Tom was able to continue when his family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There, he would spend his last two years of high school at another Christian Brothers establishment, La Salle High School. “Through their demonstrations of faith, I really liked what the Christian Brothers did, and what they represented,” Tom recalls. “The way they interacted with the students was really remarkable.” Tom was also able to pursue his love of running when, with the help of his math teacher, he figured out how to lay out a track. They borrowed a truck from one of the mills in the area and purchased a ton of sawdust; built long jump, high jump, and pole vault pits; and created a track team for the school.
Tom imagined he would one day become a teacher with the Christian Brothers, and began down a path toward a religious life by enrolling at St. Mary’s College in Winona, Minnesota. Within a year, he decided he wanted to pursue a different track. He transferred to the University of Iowa, where he enlisted in the Marines and was sent to San Diego for boot camp. He was then sent to Camp Pendleton for infantry training, where he was advised to ask at his next duty station for a list of positions that needed to be filled. “They told us we didn’t need to waste three years of our career in an assignment we didn’t like,” Tom recounts. “So, when I was checking in at my first duty station, Camp Lejeune, I asked them what they needed so I could assess what my options were.”
Tom, who was making $100 a month at the time, was informed that they needed dog handlers—a position in Vietnam that did not pay extra. When he asked what else they had, he learned they needed someone to do explosive bomb disposal—another position in Vietnam that did not pay extra. Finally, he was told they needed someone to do air delivery, dropping equipment with parachutes out of airplanes for an extra $55 a month. “To me, that was a no brainer,” Tom says.
Tom landed the position and was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, for jump school, followed by Fort Lee, Virginia, for Rigger School, and later a return to Pendleton jungle warfare training. Finally, his time came; he flew out of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in California, and landed in Okinawa, where people were migrated into and out of Vietnam.
Tom spent the next year in Okinawa and then asked for a set of orders to do what he had been trained to do—actually fight the war in Vietnam. He finally received them, and in January of 1968 began packing parachutes and air dropping equipment through the Tet Offensive. He then spent the next several months with the infantry, helping to backfill for the men injured or killed during the Tet Offensive. He served the last five months of the War with Army Special Forces flying out of Da Nang, air dropping equipment along the Cambodian border.
After three years and two months of training, mastery, and war, Tom applied from overseas to finish his college education at Kendall College near Chicago, where his father was. “I returned to the states in time to start the January semester, and when I went in for registration with my blond hair and very deep suntan, the other students wanted to know where I had spent my Christmas vacation,” Tom laughs. “Through the next several years, I studied anything, everything, and as much as possible. I took an extra-heavy course load and plowed through summer school, finishing my degree in economics early.”
Through the college’s work study program, Tom landed a job as a student parking cars in the garage during rush hour for Washington National Insurance. He was soon promoted to the night shift maintenance crew, but convinced his manager to get him an interview with the HR department. He was given a new job in data processing, which he did for a semester before being promoted to a computer room operator position. He ascended to senior operator and shift supervisor, and when he graduated from college, he became a system programmer. “That’s how I got into the computer industry,” he remarks.
After several years at Washington National Insurance, Tom took a systems programming job at Trailer Train in Chicago, where he took countless professional development classes. While in Chicago, his mother passed away. He married his first wife and later had two wonderful daughters. “I was working so hard that I’d fall asleep when we were out to dinner together,” he remembers. “I missed my bachelor party because I was working. I was driven for the success, and I was good at it, which made me like it even more.”
Soon the young couple moved to Wisconsin, where Tom ran the systems programming group at Bucyrus Erie. He was then recruited by Itel Corporation for a systems engineering job in Northern California. He was promoted to Branch Manager and Regional Manager, which meant a move down to Southern California, but headed back up North when he was named Director of Customer Support. Then, when Itel filed for bankruptcy and was bought out by National Semiconductor, Tom became Director of Systems Engineering U.S. for the new entity, National Advanced Systems. Transferring to Europe, Tom had systems engineers, maintenance personnel, and HR reporting to him. “At that point, I had about 60 percent of the firm’s employees in Europe working for me,” he remembers. “I became VP General Manager for Asia Pacific, which meant traveling all over Asia.”
When the company was acquired by Hitachi Data Systems in 1989, Tom stayed on as VP and General Manager of U.S. Operations until 1992. Amidst the reorganization of the worldwide sales and marketing support entities, he was passed over for a top job, so he reached out to ViON, which had been a customer for twelve years. The founders of the business had worked with Tom at Itel, observing his rapid advancement to VP. “I had helped them on deals, getting products in a timely fashion when they were hardpressed to get something done quickly,” Tom recalls. “They knew enough about me to take a chance on me.”
With that, ViON’s leadership asked him to join them in 1992 as President for a two-year trial period, and if he didn’t run the company into the ground, they would move forward with a buyout. Tom proved a perfect fit, and through his partnership with the VP of Operations and the CFO, was able to fully buy out the former owners within two years instead of the estimated six. With that, in 1996, Tom was firmly moving forward as an owner and President of his own company.
“I knew the company had potential, but I didn’t know enough about the federal marketplace at that time to know how big it could become,” he recounts. He succeeded in growing the company at a modest clip over the next decade, but when the 9/11 terrorist attacks transformed the national defense landscape, the opportunity to grow and meet the nation’s needs expanded exponentially. “As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took off, the amount of data being collected was just staggering,” Tom says. “The government needed high-performance servers, data storage, and analytics. That was the true engine of growth for our business.”
Through that time, Tom had also reconnected with Karen, an extremely talented young woman who had been a key colleague at Hitachi. They married and in 2005 had a son, Trey. “On one side of the equation, she’s my soulmate and the perfect partner for me,” Tom says. “On the other, she understands the business I’m in. She’s a great sounding board and will argue things out with me to help me see views that are different from my own.” Both strong believers in giving back, Tom served fourteen years on the Board of St. John’s College High School, where he was recently Chairman. Karen was elected to the board of The Langley School, where Trey attends, and now heads up their Development Committee. They are both founding members of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, where Tom serves on the board, and were initial sponsors of the United Service Organizations (USO) R&R transit facility at the Dallas Fort Worth airport.
In advising young people entering the working world today, Tom underscores the importance of picking a job but quickly moving on to the next one if it’s not right for you. “Don’t stay somewhere that isn’t a good fit,” he says. “At the same time, don’t keep jumping from job to job. Be strategic and intentional about your choices, because once you find a good fit, you’ll enjoy it and be successful at it.”
Oftentimes, finding that fit can unlock an inner drive like the one that propelled Tom through his career of twists, turns, and rapid ascension. And along his journey to the pinnacle of business success, he has always been careful to bring others along with him, inspiring in them a similar inclination toward hard work and accomplishment. “My daughters tell me they don’t know another person that’s as excited about their work as I’ve always been,” he says. “I’m glad I could leave that impression on them as they were growing up—that it’s possible to make a good living and enjoy the hell out of it too. I hope Trey sees that same passion, and that all three get to experience the joy of a defining drive in their lives.”