Islam was the only Indian Muslim in the group, but he wasn’t very religious. “He was very focused on his studies,” Bashir says. “Whatever he was doing, he was very focused on it—he knew what he wanted to do.” What Islam wanted to do was build his own business, and he told Bashir more than once, “If they can do it, I can do it.”
The breakfast room features another Barry Entner-designed chandelier and painted walls. Photo by Timothy Bell.
After he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from the University of Colorado in the mid-1970s, Islam entered the nascent information technology field and eventually landed at a Toronto firm called Multiple Access, where he met Debbie Driesman in 1977. “I thought he was an interesting guy,” Driesman says, blushing at the recollection of meeting someone who was unlike anyone she knew in rural Ontario. A dinner after work led to serious dating. Driesman’s parents were unhappy that she was seeing a Muslim, but the couple persisted, and in 1979 moved to Pittsburgh. “Frank wanted to go back to the States, and he found a company that would hire us both and do the immigration paperwork,” she says.
Not long after settling in, the pair eloped. The office of the justice of the peace had closed by the time they arrived, so the wedding took place in Pittsburgh’s night court. In 1982, the couple moved to Greenbelt, Maryland, to work for Computer Sciences Corp.(CSC), a government contractor. After six years, Islam switched to another contractor, where he was able to do more program management. “That gave him the background to run a company,” Driesman says, “and he met other business owners—and was more convinced that he could do what they were doing.”
In 1994, Islam came home elated one day. “Well, I bought a company,” he told a surprised Driesman, adding that the decision was final. The firm was QSS Group of Lanham, a federal government IT services company. Islam had used a bank loan and savings to make the $45,000 purchase. Driesman was less than pleased. “I wasn’t hurt, but I was…put out that he committed our savings without telling me,” she says.
Islam says his mind was made up. “I felt as if I had asked her that she might say no, and I didn’t want to take a no,” he says. “She came from a family that was risk averse. I decided not to tell her.”
Norton Manor’s lower-level entertainment space includes an entry hall, lounge, wine room and a large room called “the bar.” Photo by Michael Ventura.
QSS struggled at first. “I didn’t make any money for two years,” Islam says. “I was on Debbie’s payroll, including health insurance.” Driesman stayed at CSC, rather than joining her husband at QSS. “We wouldn’t have worked well together,” she says. “He doesn’t always listen to my opinion. We talk about things over coffee in the morning, but that’s different than being in the same workplace.”
Islam and a solid management team eventually turned QSS around, growing the contractor to more than 2,000 employees and about $300 million in annual revenue. “He grew QSS in the aerospace industry, and he was proactive,” says Carroll Collins, who worked for the company. “It became obvious it was a good company when it was sold.”
Driesman says running QSS was a test of Islam’s will. “He wants to prove to himself that he’s as good, or better, than other people,” she says. “And part of that is not having other people tell him what to do.” Islam became even more motivated when some CSC co-workers doubted his prospects of running a successful company. “Some of those co-workers later worked for him,” says his wife with a smile.
In December 2006, Perot Systems Corp. bought QSS for $250 million in cash. A grateful Islam says he showed his gratitude by distributing about $40 million to 75 managers. A good chunk of the rest of the proceeds allowed the newly wealthy immigrant to establish a private foundation that supports educational, cultural and artistic causes in the United States and around the world. Always a keen student of U.S. history, Islam says, “I believe in American exceptionalism and understand that it stems from the intersection of politics and the private sector. That is why I am involved in political activities.”
Bashir, who reconnected with his college friend in the 1990s, says wealth hasn’t changed Islam much. “Sometimes he may come across as [flaunting] his money, but he wants people to know he came from meager beginnings,” Bashir says. “He says this is the only country where you can do this.”
Says Askinazi: “It’s very important to Frank that people understand his passion for this country.”
Frank Islam is reluctant to discuss the cost of Norton Manor, but he’s forthcoming about the koi pond on the mansion’s south side. It’s stocked with 150 koi, at about $200 each. Photo by Geoffrey Hodgdon
By his own account, Islam has given $750,000 to the United States Institute of Peace, where Acting Development Director Cheri Carter says he’s “the first person I think of” when she needs financial support for an event. Islam estimates annual outlays of a total of between $1.5 million and $1.7 million for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the National Symphony Orchestra, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Shakespeare Theatre Company and other boards and councils on which he or Driesman serve. Islam also has donated $2 million to Aligarh Muslim University near his hometown to establish a school of management, and endowed a chair of innovation and entrepreneurship. “One of the legacies I hope to leave behind,” he says, “is to create many more Frank Islams.”
At 8 a.m. on June 29, 2008, a warm Sunday with temperatures ticking up toward 90 degrees, fire engines began converging on Norton and River roads in Potomac. There were no sirens, because there was no fire. Yet. Within a few hours, about 50 volunteers from the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad and other area departments began placing excelsior bales and wooden pallets into a 1960s-era ranch-style home and setting them ablaze, room by room. Fire personnel ran training drills in the burning house until midafternoon. Scores of neighbors and the merely curious gathered to watch, among them Driesman, who chatted with fire incident commander Jim Vagonis, whose day job is running a maintenance company that takes care of Islam’s property. “Debbie created a lot of goodwill with the donation of the house,” Vagonis says. The rancher burned to the ground, leaving nothing to demolish or haul away for the new property owners.