Printed on: May 01, 2013

Winds of change

North Wind founder moves to greener pastures

By ALEX STUCKEY
astuckey@postregister.com

Whoosh, crunch; whoosh, crunch; whoosh, crunch -- the sound of a sharp guillotine blade against flesh and bone still echoes in Sylvia Medina's mind.

One, two, three ... 50 rat heads hit the ground with a clunk.

It may have been more than 20 years ago, but Medina vividly remembers that day in a New Mexico research and development lab.

That was the day the want-to-be veterinarian decided to pursue a new career path.

"I thought, 'I cannot do this,' as heads were being thrown at me," Medina said. "When you love animals, you even love rats."

Medina chose, in her mind, the next best thing: environmental engineering.

"I realized I really enjoyed dealing with animal species other than domestic animals," said Medina, who is the driving force behind the Snake River Animal Shelter and president of its board of directors.

Her career change took her from the New Mexico School of Mines to Idaho National Laboratory to her very own multimillion-dollar company -- North Wind, an environmental, engineering and construction services company.

She sold North Wind to Cook Inlet Region Inc. in 2010, but as part of the sale agreement stayed on for three more years as president and CEO.

Medina, 50, retired a month ago to spend more time with her children.

"When my (3-year-old) boy was going to be born was when I realized I needed to sell my first born (North Wind)," Medina said. "It was kind of hard to do, and it's still hard just thinking about it."

When Medina came to INL about 23 years ago, she worked as an environmental engineer for the Three Mile Island program.

Three Mile Island was a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant that had a reactor core meltdown in 1979. After the accident, INL employees helped remove the damaged core material and temporarily store it at the Department of Energy's desert site, according to INL's website.

Medina left the site in 1997 to start her own business.

The drive to be her own boss came from her father. He taught her the importance of being in control, she said, because of the freedom it allows.

Medina started with a few part-time employees, pursuing contracts with the DOE.

John Bukowski, now-North Wind senior vice president, has been with the company for 13 years.

Medina treated her employees like family, Bukowski said, which was much appreciated in the beginning as he and others put faith in her startup company instead of choosing to work for more established competitors.

"(She) understood that the decisions she made directly impacted the lives of the people around her who, in the early days, took risks working for her," he said.

Her demeanor with employees and her work ethic are what helped the company grow, he said.

"(The company) rapidly expanded ... because of her vision," he said. "She wanted to take a humble beginning and begin to penetrate new markets and service new clients."

But it wasn't always a smooth road.

Medina remembers spending nights staring at the ceiling and wondering if she would make payroll.

"It's frightening," she said.

Making payroll no longer is a concern for the company, which has more than 300 employees in 20 locations across the country. It works with the DOE and the Department of Defense on waste management, natural resource services and alternative energy, among other things.

One of her favorite projects with the DOD was the Navy's Marine Mammal Program. The Navy uses dolphins' echolocation to locate sea mines so the mines can be avoided or removed, according to the U.S. Navy's website.

A sea mine is a weapon designed to sink ships, destroy landing craft and kill or injure personnel, according to the website.

Medina said she loved seeing the dolphins in action.

She hopes the company does well in her absence, but said it was time for her to move on.

Now, her new office on Park Avenue -- complete with a child's colorful scribbles across a white board -- is host to a newer venture: Green Kids Club.

The Green Kids Club uses children's books to teach kids how to preserve the environment. Medina and her partners have written six books and are starting to manufacture toys.

"This is more of a spread my wings, see where my imagination can go (sort of venture)," she said.