From Tigard, Finlandia rules the sauna world

Reino and Marilyn Tarkiainen. (Barbara Sherman/Tigard Life)

The story of Finlandia Sauna is more than a story about starting a successful business in a garage, it is also a love story involving a teenage immigrant from Finland who after a few years in Oregon met his future wife at the Lloyd Center ice-skating rink and months later convinced her to combine their honeymoon with a business trip.

Reino and Marilyn Tarkiainen have owned Finlandia Sauna for 57 years and have been married for 57 years, making both their anniversaries easy to remember.

In 1952 Reino came to Astoria at age 15 with an older sister; he spoke no English but had relatives there, and after going to high school planned to return to Finland. He never made it. Instead, after high school he attended Oregon Technical Institute in Klamath Falls, studying architecture, drawing, home-building and carpentry. After graduating from the two-year program, Reino worked for Northwest Natural Gas for 11 years while planning to start his own business.

Meanwhile, Marilyn, who is of Norwegian-Swedish descent, was born and raised in North Dakota and came to Hood River, Oregon, to teach fifth grade.

Reino grew up taking saunas, noting that “the sauna is a national institution” in Finland and that the first one was brought by Finns to the Commonwealth of Delaware more than 360 years ago. Fast-forward hundreds of years to the 1960s when saunas started being promoted in the U.S.

Reino and Marilyn Tarkiainen promoted their saunas at the 1966 Portland Home Show.

Reino and Marilyn were dating when he took her to a Portland Home Show and encountered a display of Viking “saunas” that were actually basement dryers. “It was an insult to me and all Finns,” said Reino, and Marilyn added, “Reino actually got into an argument with the salesman. That night he decided to start his own company and promote the Finnish sauna.”

The couple got married about as quickly as they started a business. “We got engaged after three months and married after five months,” said Marilyn, but she wasn’t so sure about starting a business together although she went along with Reino’s dream.

They got married in North Dakota, and on their honeymoon driving back to Oregon, they made some detours to check out sauna heater manufacturers.

Their first home was on Oak Street near Washington Square, and it also served as their first manufacturing facility. Reino built a pole building in the back yard to construct saunas, and Marilyn ran the office and showroom out of the garage.

They used heaters manufactured by a small Finnish-American company and named their company Continental Sauna, making their first sale in November 1964 in King City. They only sold six saunas that first year, and both kept their day jobs for three years.

“I knew a lot of homebuilders, and I could always outbid our competition,” Reino said as the business picked up. They were always searching for the perfect heater and later switched to Metos sauna heaters that were manufactured in Finland and exported to a Seattle company.

Reino Tarkiainen stood at his sauna booth at the 1968 Portland Home Show.

Metos eventually stopped making sauna heaters, and the couple switched to Finnleo heaters, with Reino noting, “We were the first company to import Finnleo heaters.” Finnleo divided the United States into four regions, and the Tarkiainems could only sell their saunas with Finnleo heaters in the Western region, with the rest of the country off-limits.

The Tarkiainens later switched to importing sauna heaters from Harvia in Finland “because their heaters are unequaled in quality and in providing the right sauna climate for the bather,” and this opened up the whole country for sale opportunities.

While growing the business, the couple also raised two children. Daughter Tanja Rae was born in 1968, and son Terri Reino was born in 1972, and both literally grew up in the business and started working there after college. Tanja’s husband Tim joined the business after they married.

Tanja and Terri were selling sauna accessories under the name Finlandia, and Reino and Marilyn decided Finlandia was the perfect name for their sauna-manufacturing business. Harvia puts the Finlandia name on the heaters they sell and even makes a custom, baked-on-enamel, red-colored model for them.

Since the early days of their business, Reino has personally built more than 8,000 custom saunas (although he said he has not built one in more than 10 years), and today the company has 15 employees, including one granddaughter, working there.

Reino Tarkiainen worked at his drafting table in 1978.

The couple laments that good, reliable help is hard to find and said they could manufacture more saunas with more employees. One employee, Brian, who passed through while the Tarkiainens were talking said he had been with the company 33 years, and several employees have been there more than 20 years.

Finlandia Sauna builds standard and custom saunas, precut or prefabricated, out of premium, clear Western softwoods. “We custom-build what the customer wants,” said Marilyn, adding that they send out about three saunas a day via motor freight, usually one prefab and two precuts, while also shipping out sauna heaters via UPS each day.

Local customers can pick up their own saunas shrink-wrapped in sections, and in fact, while Reino and Marilyn were talking, a customer backed his pickup to the loading dock and came into the showroom to say he was there to get his sauna.

Marilyn also has developed an impressive skill in customer service, trouble-shooting customers’ problems with their heaters. She credits her teaching career with being able to scout out possible problems and talk customers through the steps to fix them. Reino is glad she is good at it, saying, “I used to do that, but I don’t have the patience.”

Finlandia Sauna.

And one of their son Terri’s jobs is unique: He re-writes the owners’ manuals that are originally written in Finland to make them easier to understand and use.

The Finlandia Sauna customer list is impressive. It includes the military: The Pentagon, West Point Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy, Fort Hood in Texas, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and Andrews Air Force Base. Many five-star hotels boast Finlandia saunas as well as resorts in Las Vegas, Orlando, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Japan and Saudi Arabia. Closer to home, the Nike headquarters near Beaverton is a customer, along with the Shell Oil headquarters in Houston, movie stars and many fitness and training facilities.

The Tarkiainens even learned that one of their saunas is in Antarctica. A customer in Woodburn ordered a sauna after he said he had used one at McMurdo Station. And they found out a Sherpa had delivered one to a Mount Everest base camp.

“It’s interesting where our saunas have ended up,” said Marilyn, adding, “Our honeymoon with the Finnish sauna is still going strong.”

The 55,000-square-foot Finlandia Business Park in Tigard was completed in 1995, with Reino completing construction on the third building himself, and it is the largest, privately owned sauna-manufacturing facility in the U.S.

Finlandia Sauna is located at 14010-B S.W. 72nd Avenue. For more information, visit www.finlandiasauna.com or call (503) 684-8289.