It was a humid, rainy night when Dr. Tom Rothrock, a young professor from Wisconsin, stepped out of a plane onto the tarmac at the Gainesville airport. The year is 1978, and he’s about to meet someone who will change the course of his life.
“Jim picked me up from the airport the first time we met. This was back when all the luggage was outside sitting in the very typical Florida weather,” Tom recalled. “We’d both been hired by the Florida Attorney General to do analysis on a case together, analyze some data and demonstrate the capabilities of statistics and economics in helping spot collusion. It was just sort of an accident of consulting that brought us together.”
And yet, what brought Tom to Infotech was more than purely accident or coincidence. It was a series of decisions, guided by the values he has since imbued into the company he helped found: integrity, communication, trust, and the power of failing forward.
A math major in college, Tom’s first job was his gateway to programming and he discovered the Fortran language that started his love affair with computers and writing code. But it didn’t take long for him to discover that the large corporate environment wasn’t for him, so he went back to school to pursue his PhD.
“I took a class in graduate school on antitrust economics and it was a very enlightening class, because it taught me about how economic power can be abused,” Tom said. “The faculty member who taught that course was a fantastic professor, who wanted to inspire students and he was a real hero of mine in terms of setting my path and interest in antitrust economics.”
In fact, not long after that class, the same professor called Tom into his office to meet with the assistant Attorney General for the state of Missouri. The state wanted to analyze some data on bid rigging in the school milk market, he said, would Tom be interested in doing that analysis for his dissertation?
Tom agreed and things were off and running. That project led him to another with the Florida Attorney General’s office, but using the computers in Wisconsin for the analysis would cost quite a bit of money. So an analyst with the Florida AG suggested they use the University of Florida’s computers for free by involving her old professor, a man named Dr. Jim McClave.
“I think one of the reasons Jim and I got along so well is we both have a fairly competitive streak in us, which is probably no surprise,” Tom said. “We're also perfectionists; we like things to be done right and we don't like to start things that we don't finish.”
Perhaps that’s why only two months after moving to Florida and being offered a position at UF, Tom turned it down.
“It’s kind of crazy, I think, by today's standards, but I gave up my faculty career to work on this project for the Florida AG that we’d just started. Because with 10 years of data to analyze, I knew it'd be a couple years worth of work, and to do it right I wanted to be completely focused on that project. The rest is history.”
And it was, after the results of their analysis returned more than $30 million to Florida taxpayers.
Giving up a tenured position in academia may seem crazy today, but Tom is naturally more of a risk taker. He’s not afraid to fail, he said, because if you do then it’s just a sign that it’s time to pick yourself up and move forward to the next thing. Besides, he had the greatest kind of support system: his wife Joan.
“I met Joan back at the University of Missouri. I needed money as all students usually do, and a job opened up in the women's dormitory cafeteria,” Tom said, “so I thought well that sounds interesting.”
Joan also had a job there. She worked in the front, checking students in as Tom put food out on the line.
As all the employees at the cafeteria grew to be good friends, Tom and Joan became even closer. Through college, as they dated, Tom grew to love her passion for helping people and her sense of purpose.
“Joan was always trying to do things, trying to change things, trying to make things better. She was so busy that I’d schedule meetings at the library, just so I could help her with her studies,” he said. “She used to say I spent more time doing her homework than I did my own, which is probably true, but it was just fun to be around her and hear what she was thinking about and the projects that she was doing. We've been married for 54 years this August, and it’s still going great.”
Their shared love of adventure has taken them on trips from Panama to Costa Rica, Europe, Hawaii, and Alaska, where they’d rather kayak, hike across an island, or paddleboard than sit next to a pool.
“We’ve never been on a large ship cruise. We just have no desire to be on a big boat like that - we want to be able to jump in the water,” he said, describing their bushwhacking trip in Alaska, complete with an Arctic plunge (which is exactly what it sounds like).
There’s more than one way to be in over your head, and Tom talked about some of the challenges of building a company. There were risks that didn’t pay off, financial challenges and personnel challenges and moments of uncertainty. But more than 40 years later, the company has stood the test of time. Their secret?
“[Jim and I] don’t like to surprise each other. As soon as something was going on, we sat down and talked through it and decided if it would be a good thing to pursue or how to deal with it if it wasn’t. We’ve also always had a certain amount of independence; we're not constantly having to check in with each other. I think that just comes from trust we have in each other to make the right decisions.”
And so, the risks that didn’t pay off led to new opportunities. The financial challenges spurred them to seek out new revenue streams and form new partnerships more quickly than they had planned - partnerships that are still intact today. And, in the mid 90s, a closer look at the hiring process led to one of the most important parts of the company today.
“What we looked at back then was more the resume and the skill set that people had, as opposed to their personality, how they would work with others in the company. At the time, the thought of a corporate culture didn't really even enter our minds,” Tom said. “but we began to realize that there is a culture and people will either fit the culture or not, and if they don't they typically won't last. And so it's very important how that culture evolves so that it works for the benefit of the company.”
One of his goals, Tom said, was always to create an environment where people would have the freedom to grow and develop their skills. He felt it was important to trust people and give them an opportunity to do their best and to challenge them, a key part of the evolution of Infotech to where it is today.
Tom shared a story that is one of both his and Jim’s favorites, about a casual decision to play a tennis match on one of Tom’s first trips to Gainesville.
“We got on the court and started playing tennis and it turns out, we were pretty evenly matched. And both of us - being as competitive as we were - we wouldn't let the other one win, so we just kept playing and playing and playing until we were both exhausted. Neither one came out totally on top,” he laughed. “Finally, we looked across the net at each other and said let's go have a beer and recover from all of this.”
Through the years they’ve spent long days, nights and weeks together working on minimal rest. In Jim, Tom said he saw a shared commitment to get the job done.
“I'll tell you this, I couldn't have had a better business partner, and I think he feels similarly,” Tom said. “You know, I never really thought about being a businessman, but it just sort of happened, and so anything - all of this - that happened through Infotech is a blessing.”