Kelly Brewer is the first to admit that her journey at Tilson, one of the fastest-growing network deployment and construction technology companies in the country, is “kind of unique.”
She joined the company, which at the time focused on IT consulting, in 2011 right out of school. Brewer was one of 18 employees, and was brought on in a support role for a major Maine-based stimulus project that CEO Josh Broder helped land. The effort, the Three Ring Binder project, provided the necessary infrastructure to bring fiber broadband technology to much of Maine.
Her efforts on the project got the attention of Broder, and she was quickly promoted to project manager. Brewer was now responsible for seeing it through to completion, which she did — on time and under budget.
Broder and Tilson discovered that they had someone who could help them truly grow the company.
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After climbing the ranks within the construction department, Brewer now holds the title of Director of Engineering, and has had to build Tilson’s newest department herself — from the ground up. If that’s not daunting enough, she is also responsible for finding the work and the resources to keep everything going. In her two-and-a-half years in the role, Tilson has grown to nearly 400 employees. During that time, she has grown her own team from 3 people to over 100 and has brought in over $100 million in new business for Tilson.
It’s a great fit for Brewer, as she prides herself on her hands-on approach to her work.
“I guess I like to figure things out,” says Brewer. “People say ‘oh you can’t do it’ I’m like, no, I’m going to find a way to figure this out.”
Brewer’s determination has helped her advance, not just at Tilson, but through life with a similar efficiency as her management of the Three Ring Binder project. She has her own way of doing things, a take-charge style, and that’s how she likes it. And Tilson likes it that way, too.
The company will look to Brewer to help them maintain their rapid growth — a challenge she will certainly face head-on and in a hands-on manner.Photo Gallery
Brewer grew up in Saco, attending high school at Thornton Academy. She already knew she wanted to be the first in her family to graduate college, but it was in high school when she began to layout the path that has led her to success today.
Growing up in what she describes as a “kind of a blue-collar family,” Brewer enjoyed watching her father work as a residential contractor. But she was also intrigued by the business side of things, and looked to find a career where she could merge the two interests.
“My whole mantra was: ‘I want to have a white-collar job in a blue-collar industry,’” mentions Brewer. “I always felt if I got an education, I could have an impact on the construction side.”
So she took the initiative to seek out the opportunities that would lead her down that route. Brewer enrolled in Thornton Academy’s automotive elective so she could gain experience working with her hands. While in high school, she also enrolled in night classes at the University of Southern Maine, taking ones that would allow her to earn college credit while also counting toward her high school credit load. With the high school paying for classes, it was the perfect opportunity for Brewer, who at the time, was eager to begin her career.
“How can I graduate high school in 3 years, obtain college credit, and not pay for it? It’s that thinking ahead and problem solving that I’ve used to my benefit,” says Brewer. “I want to apply those certain principles (at Tilson),” she adds.
After graduating from Thornton Academy early, and with a few credits under her belt, Brewer enrolled full-time at USM to pursue her undergraduate degree in Business. But being the first in her family to go to college, a young Brewer faced a world of unknowns. She knew it would be up to herself to navigate her education, pay for it and “get it done.”
Brewer, in fact, got it done. She worked full-time in the construction industry during the day and went to classes at night. She even designed her own construction management minor, creating a curriculum that USM continued to use up until last year.
For Brewer, the key to attacking her hectic schedule was finding a good routine.
“It’s totally fine once you start…I didn’t know anything else,” Brewer says. “I just worked 7 a.m.- 5 p.m. every day, left at 5, grabbed something to eat, and went to school from 7 – 9:30 p.m., four days a week.”
“I just wanted to keep going for something,” she adds.
That mentality helped her get her MBA in a tidy two years, and this time, all while raising a child.
Brewer’s work ethic and hands-on experience helped her land a position at Tilson upon her graduation. In her project administrator role during the Three Ring Binder project, she quickly gained the lay of the land, which earned her an opportunity to manage the project to completion.
Thanks, in part, to her work on Three Ring Binder, Tilson picked up several similar projects, which led Broder to rethink the direction of the company.
At the time, Brewer mentions, Tilson was looking for ways to maintain growth. With lots of spending happening in the wireless sector, Broder wanted to move into self-performance, construction capability. So, just like that, he asked Brewer to quickly “bootstrap” Tilson’s first construction division.
As she humbly puts it, “Josh kind of took a flyer on me.”
“It wasn’t even a department, it was a team of four people,” Brewer says of the early days. “We went from 100% white-collar project management workforce to having hourly employees that are wearing boots and needed tools.”
The company was growing through rapid changes, and Broder needed someone he could trust as opposed to an industry veteran.
“I didn’t come with 30 years of experience, but I have pretty good business instincts and definitely the ambition to go make it happen,” Brewer says of herself. “I think it’s more about creating that vision, doing what you need to do to bring it to life,” adds Brewer. “That’s what I’m passionate about.”
After managing the construction team for two years, Broder recognized the type of employee he had in Brewer and approached her to head-up the newly created engineering division.
Under Brewer’s leadership, Engineering has become the largest and fastest-growing department at Tilson. Some might think being a manager of a 100+ person team of highly-skilled workers comes with stress and anxiety. Not Brewer.
“It’s fun,” she says. “It’s cool to see the work that you’ve done. It’s a tangible thing you can see at the end of the day.”
With a new headquarters in downtown Portland, and a successful, recent round of funding, Tilson’s growth continues upward. The company now employs close to 400 people in Maine and across the country. But what’s remarkable is that this has all been achieved in about 7 years — without a business development team. And now facing a 30% annual growth goal, Brewer says that life in the office is, “insanity most days, but it’s a blast.”
“At Tilson, there’s a lot of ownership over what you do. I think it’s more about the culture we are creating; it’s attractive. People want to come work here, so that’s what makes us successful.”
Kelly Brewer set her goals at an early age, and pursued them relentlessly. She put herself through college, working in her chosen industry during the day, all while attending classes at night. Rising through the ranks at Tilson, she now has her own team and is responsible for millions in revenue, helping the company grow it to unprecedented heights. She’s driven, talented, and he’s an integral part of a growing Maine business.
That’s why Kelly Brewer is an Emerging Maine Icon.
All photos by Peter Anania