Before arriving here at age 16, Vito Tishenko knew Vancouver as a speck on the map his family kept at their home in the former Soviet Union’s Georgia region.
But it was different from all the map’s other specks. It was the place his grandfather Yuri Savinskiy would point to and say, “Some day, we are going to live there.”
Twenty-one years later, Vito Tishenko owns a Vancouver-based construction contracting firm, Exteriors Design, which takes on projects as small as replacing siding and as large as installing wrought-iron deck rails on Portland condominium towers. His brother Mark, 10 years younger, owns Edge IT, a small firm that provides networking computer support for offices in the Portland area and as far away as Florida.
The business success stories of the Tishenko brothers are tales of pluck and hard work, the old-fashioned values of fiscal conservatism and of turning to friends, family, and community for connections and support. Like many immigrants in America’s rich history, they’ve relied heavily on instinct and the school of hard knocks: Vito has only a high school education, and Mark has attended both Clark College and Washington State University Vancouver, without a degree from either.
Their recent accomplishments all came in the face of an economic downturn that has waylaid untold numbers of small businesses, especially in the construction industry where Vito has made his way.
Among the fruits of the family’s success is Vito’s new home on Camas’ Prune Hill, built for his family that includes wife Natalya and three children ages 12, 5, and 7 months. “My dream was to own a house by the time I was 40, and that’s only two years away,” Vito says.
For Mark, the fourth-oldest of five siblings, life as a parent has just begun. He and his wife settled into a Columbia waterfront condo in Vancouver, moving back from Portland just in time for the birth in July of their first child, a son. “I don’t plan on leaving,” Mark says.
The Tishenkos work in the same office building, where each brother learns from the other’s business strengths and weaknesses. Two years ago, they launched a collaborative venture, a company called Celestial Products that sold low-cost caskets and urns. The idea was inspired in part by the need for low-cost caskets they saw among congregation members in the Slavic Evangelical Church they attend, and where their father is pastor. But the business distracted them from their own companies, so they sold majority ownership to a married couple from their church who were expanding their own wood products business.
Both have business ambitions: Mark to take on as a business partner the man who hired him for his first computer repair job, and to expand the company; Vito to steadily grow his firm throughout the Portland metropolitan area.
Says Vito: “I’ve got the personality to look forward, but never to look back.”
A dream of freedom
The Tishenko family had plenty of company when it fled the Soviet Union two decades ago, around the time of the fall of communism and the collapse of the Soviet republic. The Portland metropolitan area was a strong magnet for immigrants, and Clark County became one of the favored landing places.
Estimates vary widely, but the 2009 American Community Survey reported more than 14,000 residents of Russian ancestry and 8,000 of Ukrainian ancestry in Clark County — nearly one-third of those groups’ total population in the entire metropolitan area. The survey has no separate breakout for residents identifying themselves as being from Georgia and other former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe.
Peter Tishenko, Mark and Vito’s father, had good reason to want to move his family out of Batumi, a Black Sea city with about 120,000 residents in what is now the Republic of Georgia. Mikhail Gorbachev, reform-minded president of the Soviet Union, was under attack from hard-line Communist party leaders. Tishenko, a construction worker and devout Christian, feared his family would be targeted in an anti-reform crackdown because of their faith.
He orchestrated an escape plan that took the family first to Italy and then New York. Then he had to choose whether to start a new life among friends and family in Atlanta, Seattle, or Vancouver. Peter and his wife, Nellie, chose Vancouver, not knowing what to expect but imagining a city of skyscrapers.
Decades later, he is pastor of an 800-member church on Vancouver’s Main Street. Nelly works as a language translator. Their children are Vito, 37; daughters Toma Bondarchuk, 36, and Vicki Tish, 35; Mark, 26, and youngest son Levi, 24. All live in the Vancouver area and have 10 children between them.
With Mark as his translator, Peter Tishenko offers a simple explanation of why he wanted to come to America: “To be free to get an education and to be a Christian.”
Getting started was not easy. Through a connection to Felida Baptist Church, the Tishenkos found Fred and Joyce Boley, who were willing to rent a house to the large, poor family.
“We prayed about it and felt like it was something we needed to do,” Joyce Boley recalls. “They were excellent renters. They were hard workers. They didn’t want things just handed to them.”
Peter Tishenko quickly emerged as a religious leader, and he found work as a painter and later as a custodian as he moved into the ministry. Nellie took on work as a custodian at Felida Baptist Church.
Fred Boley suggested that Vito, then in high school, apply at the nearby Orchards Safeway as a courtesy clerk. Vito made his presence known in a big way, repeatedly applying for a job. He was finally hired on as a temporary courtesy clerk at $4.15 an hour.
“He didn’t know what ‘temporary’ meant,” recalls Joyce Boley. “We were all amused by that.”
Businesses take off
After graduating from high school, Vito took jobs as a custodian at Montgomery Park in Portland and as a vacuum salesman. At age 21, a friend encouraged him to apply for work on an Alaska fishing boat. He was hired, but his friend was not. Returning a year later, he landed jobs as a landscaper and house framer.
He married at age 23 and soon joined as a partner in his new brother-in-law’s roofing business, where he built his sales skills. He went out on his own in 2002, forming Exteriors Design with $12,000 in savings. By 2005, “most builders knew my name,” he says.
Vito moved into commercial work in 2006 when he sensed residential construction starting to wane. He found a niche in wrought-iron deck railings and other detail work for apartments, senior housing and the high-rise condominiums that were transforming Portland’s skyline. His company now has 27 employees.
Dick Hutchison, senior project manager for Walsh Construction Co. in Portland, says Tishenko’s company has been a reliable contractor on siding and railing projects. “They are very devoted to quality and committed to meeting our schedules,” he says.
Mark Tishenko’s business career has its roots in the family’s purchase of its first computer when he was 8. Mark promptly tore the machine apart to see how it worked. His father packed son and computer to Hayden Island in Portland, where a repair man allowed him to watch his work. Mark was hooked — this was what he wanted to do. “I’ll never forget that day,” he says.
His passion for computer technology never waned through high school and Clark College. He advertised his services in The Columbian and then landed a job with a computer repair company. “He set me up with a law firm,” he recalls, “and I fell in love with helping businesses.”
Now his four-employee company, Edge IT, manages technology repairs for businesses in the Portland area and as far away as Atlanta and Tampa, Fla. He has four local employees and two in the South. His ambition is to dominate the Portland metro market for business computer repair services. And he’ll soon take on a business partner: the man who hired him for his first computer job.
Among his customers is the 70-employee Portland candle and fragrance company Pacifica Inc. Erich Taeubel, Pacifica’s chief financial officer, says he trusts Mark Tishenko to keep operations going without trying to sell unnecessary products and services. He was unaware of Tishenko’s immigrant background.
“He reminds me of a musician,” Taeubel says. “Some people can practice and become good, and others are just natural. He’s one of those.”
Kathy Condon, a Vancouver consultant to startups and small business, has heard countless tales of business dreams dashed by well-meaning skeptics. She’s also seen success stories among immigrants like the Tishenkos, who she doesn’t know, willing to steer their own course.
“No one told them they couldn’t do what they love,” she speculates. “Here in America, we tell people ‘This is what you need to do.’ They go back to that age when you could do what makes you excited and happy. If you’re not deterred from that, your chances of success just soar.”
Their reputations and finances intact as the economy slowly recovers, both men face challenges as they try to achieve their ambitions. Like many small-business owners seeking to grow, they acknowledge their weaknesses moving forward.
Vito worries about finding qualified workers as his business expands, and acknowledges that his weakness is in having to fire people who don’t work out. “I never thought I would be in business,” he says.
Mark Tishenko relies on his brother for guidance on business finances and expects his future partner will offer strength in that area. He says he sometimes makes mistakes from trusting people too much.
“I’m reluctant to go out and ask for help,” Mark adds. “I’ve learned that the hard way.”
Both men turn for advice to mentors in their fields or friends who have been successful in business. That’s a sound strategy going forward, says Jan Harte, a small-business management specialist at Washington State University Vancouver’s Small Business Development Center.
“There are many opportunities for people like that to network among like-minded people,” says Harte, who does not know the Tishenkos.
Harte says only a few of the many people who come to her center for advice are true entrepreneurs, with the character and the instincts to succeed even if they lack business training. The risk, for such instinct-driven entrepreneurs, is that they learn by mistakes, and that becomes more challenging as their companies grow.
“They believe in themselves and trust themselves to make good decisions, and sometimes they trust too much,” she says. “They can be their own worst enemy.”
Still, Harte says risk-takers can make mistakes and still thrive, and she wishes them well.
“People like that are the spark plugs of our economy,” she says. “They’re the ones who make things happen.”