Dave Labuda: Former tech pioneer focuses on his restaurant, Cetrella

Whether it’s running a high-end restaurant in a seaside town or building software architecture for telecommunication giants, Dave Labuda says he aims to give value first. Profits are secondary to the satisfaction his varied enterprises provide.

Labuda can afford to think that way now. He took greater operational control of his Mediterranean-style restaurant, Cetrella, in Half Moon Bay, after the company he co-founded with John Little, Portal Software, sold to Oracle for $220 million in 2006.

But Labuda says his “human view” in business dealings has helped guide him all along.

“I’ve been very successful at building up a lot of loyalty out of the team that I’ve managed,” Labuda said. “And one of the core reasons for that is I don’t focus that much on the money.”

Cetrella is named for an ancient hermitage built on an outcropping on the island of Capri, Italy, where the landscape and arc-shaped harbor resemble Half Moon Bay.

Hoping to complement the Ritz-Carlton hotel that opened in Half Moon Bay in 1999, Labuda chose Cetrella’s Mediterranean menu to match the area’s coastal climate and make use of locally grown produce. The restaurant occupies a remodeled agricultural storehouse.

Labuda says he found team-building a bit harder in the restaurant industry than in technology due to the transitory status of many employees. But the basics of running the businesses are similar, especially the need to engage with customers.

As a young programmer, Labuda joined Sun Microsystems as one of just 400 employees and saw the company grow to more than 15,000 people.

Later a managing director, Labuda left when Little, a former Sun consultant, asked him to help turn his communications company into a software architecture firm. Together, they self-funded Portal in 1992.

It was the rise of the Internet, and companies trying to turn the bonanza into cash needed software.

“We focused on billing,” Labuda said. “Nobody knew how to bill for these services. It was very different from the traditional markets such as telephony.”

Portal landed huge corporate clients, such as Sprint and France Télécom, and flew high, like dozens of other tech pioneers. And like others, Portal struggled when the bubble burst.

Named CEO in 2004, Labuda led the company to its successful sale and then decided to focus more onCetrella. A former competitor in Olympic archery trials, he also dabbles in real estate investment.

“One of the things I always struggled with, being in the software business, is there’s nothing concrete about it, nothing to show your friends what you did,” Labuda said, explaining his interest in the restaurant business. “I always appreciated people that create things — artists, photographers, chefs.”

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