POSTED: Monday, October 6, 2008
by Mark Wilcox
Fighting terrorism. Cleaning up after hurricane Katrina. Starting an animal shelter. Soothing employees who are shaken up after a coworker is murdered. Installing solar panels and wind farms. Chasing down children. It’s all in a day’s work for Sylvia Medina, the CEO of consulting firm North Wind, Inc.
Medina started North Wind in 1997 as a way to work toward her own dreams. She had no idea at the time just how big her own dreams were.
After earning dual bachelor’s degrees in biology and environmental engineering, Medina went on to pursue a master’s degree in waste management with a chemical engineering option. In other words, she prepared herself well for her future.
Moving from her native Arizona, Medina set up camp in Idaho Falls, working for Idaho National Laboratory. Her stint there was brief, as it was only a couple years before she had her first contract on her kitchen table and was ready to go to work.
Owning her own business had always been her goal. Her time to own one just came about sooner than she expected. She had bad credit at the time, but at least she had a paying job with benefits.
“When you walk away from something that stable into the unknown, it’s scary,” Medina said. “It took me a couple years to walk off the plank. It’s very frightening. But as my husband always says: ‘No guts, no glory. No brains, same story.’”
It may have taken guts for Sylvia to walk away from a steady paycheck with benefits to start a company based on a single $25,000 contract, but the brains, it seems, have never been lacking.
Since its inception in 1997, North Wind has grown steadily. Sylvia Medina now has more than 350 employees in offices from Alaska to Puerto Rico to Florida.
“It’s always fun to see where we might end up,” she said.
North Wind also pulls down $65 to $70 million in contracts revenue every year and has grown in prestige, pulling down many important government jobs along the way. One of these jobs was an anti-terrorism structural analysis job which, Medina could only allude, involved studying bombs and buildings. North Wind’s study won the company the Region 10 Small Business Administration Contractor of the Year Award.
“I remember thinking if I could make it to 30 employees and a million dollars, then I would make it,” Medina said. “I never had any idea we would surpass that!”
It’s not the money that motivates Medina. She drove around her own beat-up pickup truck until her employees made her buy a new one.
“If you’re working with Sylvia, she’s going to be playing with her cards facing up,” said John Bukowski, senior vice president of business development. “It will be as agreed to and as discussed. Sometimes when the almighty dollar comes into play, ethics can go down the drain, but not with Sylvia.”
Almost all the profit which comes from won contracts goes right back into growing and diversifying North Wind.
“Sylvia doesn’t seem to be motivated by the dollar,” said Trina Pollman, North Wind’s business relations director and Medina’s executive assistant. “What seems to drive her is not the finery or the money but just the challenge.”
Medina herself reinforces that sentiment. “I’m not a millionare,” Medina said, then amended: “At least I think I’m not. Part of it was just to be my own boss and do what I want to do.”
Watching the growth and diversification of her environmental management, engineering, construction, scientific consulting and information technology company seems to be her biggest reward. “I look at every day as a new day,” Medina said. “I think challenges keep me motivated. I really like the hunt of a new project and to figure out how to capture it and win it.”
Some of North Wind’s projects take as long as four years of persistence and dedication to secure for the North Wind “family.” Her own family has a lot to do with where she is now. Growing up in an Arizona border town, Medina didn’t speak English until she was five years old, though she struggles nowadays with her native Spanish. Her mother stayed at home with the children while her dad made a living as a garbage man. Her mother only made it as far as eighth grade while her father only graduated from sixth grade. But her old man never let any silly little thing like education get in the way of his success.
“My dad’s a very driven man,” she said. “He’s the one who really taught me that the sky’s the limit.”
After years of supporting his family through menial labor, he started his own surveying business. This helped him move away from the welfare he refused to accept for his family and into a more comfortable middle-class lifestyle.
“Only in this country can I have become what I became,” Medina said. “My father is the one that made the most influence on me.”
Her father’s business sense definitely had a bearing in the formation of North Wind.
“I have the unique perspective of seeing the company grow from fledgling to what it is today,” Bukowski said. “She is aggressively entrepreneurial. The fact of the matter is she has always aspired to look at new things, new customers. She never wanted to narrow her focus.”
“I want you to know I’m pregnant,” Medina told her employees.
“Wow,” came the reply. The slightly stunned reaction reverberated in the conference room.
“I’m not done yet,” Medina went on. “There’s two of them.”
An elevated distress level understandably followed.
“I was crying – it was quite the shock to the whole company,” Medina recalled. “Now that I look at my children I wouldn’t trade one or the other.”
Medina had wanted children for some time, so she looks at her 22-month-olds, Takara and Victor, as blessings from God. Many of her employees probably feel the same. “I think being a mother actually makes me a better boss,” Medina said.
Because of her extreme dedication to North Wind, Medina often worked 60 to 70 hours per week. Until she had her twins, she expected the same from many of her employees. With the aid of her little boy and girl, she sees things differently now. “I want them to spend time with what’s more important in life,” Medina said. “I think it’s changed how I see and view people individually.”
Bukowski described how Medina made it a priority to grow the “North Wind family.” Once that family was firmly established, he said it was time for her to start her own family. “I was glad she was going to be able to experience more than just the North Wind family,” Bukowski said, “which she absolutely deserves.”
Now Medina enables employees to spend more time with their own families. She also finds ways to cut back on her own office time to go home to her husband Bruce, and her twins who are left in the care of a nanny when she or her husband can’t be there. Bruce, consequently, shelved his own company to come work for Sylvia when he could see she could use the help. He is now the senior vice president in charge of construction.
Nepotism aside, Medina said Bruce has earned his position. “He gives input and support which I find very valuable,” Medina said. “He works pretty hard for his title, it wasn’t just handed to him.”
Crises are probably a part of any CEO’s life, but Medina seems to be handed her fair share.
“Finding out you’re pregnant with twins – that’s a crisis situation, don’t you think?” Pollman said. “When she is responding to a crisis situation, her initial reaction is to stop and take stock of the situation.”
Pollman nicknamed Medina “the idea machine” because of her uncanny ability to get out of a tight corner. “When we think we’ve hit a rock wall and we’re all going, ‘Oh my gosh, what will we do!?’ she fires off several viable options,” Pollman said.
About three years into North Wind’s life, a senior manager named Tom Sherwood was murdered. The case is still open, but Medina has done her best to provide closure for her employees. “As a very young company,” Medina said, “that was hard on everyone.” Medina mobilized, bringing in grief counselors for her remaining employees and, with help from the employees, setting up an annual memorial golf tournament in Sherwood’s name. The proceeds, about $70,000 so far, go directly into a scholarship fund at Idaho State University.
As if murder weren’t wasn’t enough, the COO of North Wind, Walt Sullivan, died of brain cancer a couple years later. In typical Medina fashion, Sylvia has moved North Wind into alternative energy development, something Sullivan championed himself. She also donates to the symphony, which she never attends, but knows Sullivan loved.
“Sylvia would visit [Walt] in his home… ,” Bukowski said. “Here’s someone who shattered the glass ceiling and is showing this kindness to coworkers. That human touch is abundant with Sylvia.”
Medina’s intuition and love of her employees is obvious.
“There’s a good-hearted, humanitarian side to Sylvia,” Bukowski said. “Sometimes her integrity comes out first. Her being loved by all is what comes out most. That carries a lot in our industry.”
She communicates with employees, tries to meet individually with every one of her 350 employees at least once a year and has a weekly “president hour” which she sets aside for employees to call or visit at their leisure.
“She is decisive and intuitive,” Bukowski said. “It’s just in her chemistry if you will.”
Spirits run high around Sylvia. Her employees consider her a friend. “She cares and takes an interest in people,” Pollman said. “Her feelings run very deep.”
That concern for her employees keeps everyone going strong. “She’s so motivated that she’s automatically motivating others,” Pollman said. “It’s hard to be in her presence and not be motivated.”