Front & Center: Tainio Technology cultivates success
Sun., Aug. 7, 2016
“When I was in college, I took a fitness class,” recalls Athena “Teena” Tainio, “and one day while running around the track, I started envisioning what I wanted my life to be like.
“Each time around the track, I thought of something different: the type of person I wanted to meet … the type of life I wanted.
“When I finished running, I felt different. I realized it was time to change. A few months later, I met my future husband.”
That would be Bruce Tainio, founder of Tainio Technology.
He began his career as a plant breeder and microbiologist, before concluding that the overuse of agricultural chemicals was destroying soil’s natural ecosystem. That’s when he began studying how bacteria affect the health of plants.
Bruce Tainio eventually switched from developing commercial seed varieties to cultivating natural products that enhance soil and boost productivity.
“Everyone knows that yogurt and sauerkraut have bacteria that’s good for your digestive system and immune system,” explained Teena Tainio. “We make the same sort of things for soil and plants.”
Tainio products currently are used throughout the United States, Canada, Central America, Australia and New Zealand.
When Bruce Tainio died of cancer on New Year’s Eve 2009, Teena Tainio became president and CEO.
During a recent interview at the company’s Cheney headquarters, she discussed the best leadership advice she ever got, the challenge of running a family business, and where she finds insight.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Tainio: I spent the first part of my childhood in Puyallup. My family moved to Newport just before I started high school.
S-R: Any favorite activities?
Tainio: We lived in the country, so I rode horses all the time.
S-R: Did you envision a particular career for yourself?
Tainio: I always wanted to be a nurse. I’m a fixer – I like helping people.
S-R: What did you do after high school?
Tainio: I got married at 19, started a family and worked as a waitress at various restaurants. Later, after I divorced, I attended Spokane Community College and earned a nursing degree. I worked in geriatrics for five years, until I married Bruce.
S-R: Where did you meet?
Tainio: In a rock shop. We shared a common interest in rocks and crystals. He invited me to go to a Spokane Symphony concert, and six months later we were engaged.
S-R: Why did you quit nursing?
Tainio: My husband was always traveling to wonderful places and inviting me to go with him, but I couldn’t because I had to work. So I joined the family business as vice president.
S-R: Did you have any formal business training?
Tainio: No. But before I left geriatrics, I supervised roughly 100 nurses and nurse’s aides.
S-R: What’s the best leadership advice you ever got?
Tainio: Keep family issues out of business decisions. Seven of our 15 employees are related to each other, but when we’re here, we’re not family.
S-R: Was Tainio Technology always successful?
Tainio: No. It started out as a seed company, but by the late ’80s seed breeders were being swallowed up by the big players. Bruce saw that coming, so he switched his focus to bacterial soil amendments. He could do that because his background was in biology, and he was well-respected as an agricultural consultant.
S-R: Were bacterial products mainstream?
Tainio: Not at first. People would say, “Bacteria? Aren’t those germs?” But gradually farmers accepted them, and now even the big companies are coming out with their own formulas.
S-R: Is there a chance that someday you’ll be swallowed by industry giants the way seed breeders were three decades ago?
Tainio: No, because we’re different from the big companies. They have one or two strains, and we have 30. We’re more balanced. The big companies are like big banks, and a lot of farmers don’t like big banks. They prefer smaller banks that offer better customer service. We’re like that.
S-R: What portion of your customer base is farmers?
Tainio: About 95 percent. We market our products through distributors – usually soil scientists or consultants. We sell garden products on our website. We also make custom blends for large companies, and products that can help clean up oil spills.
S-R: Did the recession impact your business?
Tainio: Yes. Farmers couldn’t get loans, so our products became a luxury instead of a necessity. And that was right about the time my husband died. We lost our guru, so people were waiting to see if we were going to survive.
S-R: What other factors affect sales?
Tainio: Climate. A big portion of our sales are in California. Some of those farmers have gone under. But farmers who have used our products don’t suffer from the drought as much, because they’ve built their soil.
S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?
Tainio: From mid-January through the end of May.
S-R: What’s the shelf life of you bacterial products?
Tainio: About five years, if it’s stored properly.
S-R: What’s your typical workday?
Tainio: I start working at home – next door – at 6 a.m., arrive at my office about 8, and usually leave around 6 p.m.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Tainio: I love being surrounded by my family.
S-R: What do you like least?
Tainio: Being surrounded by my family. (laugh)
S-R: What are you most proud of?
Tainio: That we survived losing our founder, and have averaged 5 to 10 percent annual growth since then. We did that by emphasizing integrity and customer service.
S-R: Tell me about your new facility?
Tainio: It’s right across the freeway from the airport – 13,650 square feet under one roof, instead of scattered among four buildings at our current site. We think we can double our business, but we couldn’t grow anymore here. The county wouldn’t let us.
S-R: How much will the new facility cost?
Tainio: Around $2 million. But we’ve saved and saved these past six years.
S-R: What products are you currently working on?
Tainio: We’re culturing microbes that will help make soils more productive in drought conditions.
S-R: Do customers sometimes use your product incorrectly?
Tainio: Yes. They treat it like a chemical, and expect instant results. But we’re working with nature. The soil didn’t get in poor condition instantly – it may have been going downhill for 20 years. So it’s going to take three, four, maybe five years to get it back in shape.
S-R: What else are you working on?
Tainio: I have a book coming out that teaches farmers and gardeners how to work with nature, as opposed to trying to tame nature.
S-R: What inspired that?
Tainio: I was at a trade show, and some friends commented that there weren’t any books out there telling people what my husband talked about. They said, “Why don’t you write one?” After four years of work, “Farming in the Presence of Nature” will be published this fall by Acres U.S.A.
S-R: Do you still ride horses?
Tainio: I have six, but they’re getting too old to ride. And it hurts when I fall off.
S-R: How about running around a track?
Tainio: No, but I work out with a personal trainer.
S-R: So where do you get your epiphanies?
Tainio: (laugh) Good question … I meditate, and things come to me when I unplug from the day-to-day.
This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to be profiled, contact Michael Guilfoil at email@example.com.
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