“This community is important to us; we want to leave it better than before we came.” –Ty Safreno
When Ty Safreno was asked what motivated him to start his own business—Trust Automation, Inc.—back in the early ’90s, he was pretty upfront. “It was mainly a function of needing to eat,” he said with a wry grin describing his Top Ramen days of leaving a high-pressure automation-related job in the Bay Area to return to SLO where he’d attended Cal Poly studying Manufacturing Engineering. Happy to be back on the Central Coast—but hungry—he soon went to work helping friends who needed his expertise with programming and electronics—he’d worked at Ziatech during college—and also provided consulting services to their customers.
Today, Trust Automation, a major player in the region’s economy and recognized by the Small Business Administration for its growth and staying power, makes devices for controlling high-precision electric motors and rugged power electronics. But the backstory of that growth and staying power is the tale worth telling here. For the success of this business—from its earliest days—also lies with Ty’s wife and business partner Trudie Safreno.
About a year into his venture, flying solo, Ty realized he needed some serious help with one area he wasn’t paying much attention to: his taxes.
“Desperate,” he described his condition when he called a friend from Cal Poly, Trudie Morgan. Trudie recalled, “He said ‘Help! I have all these receipts!’” Still in her senior year at Cal Poly studying Business Finance, Trudie playfully lamented, “He had a shoebox full of pieces of paper and it was tax season. I wasn’t really studying to be a tax accountant so I had to learn pretty quickly. I became his first employee.”
Trudie said she was on board with Ty’s vision to grow his business early on. “My father was an entrepreneur and I witnessed firsthand what it takes to become successful. It’s true that most ‘overnight success stories’ take years or even decades of commitment, sacrifice and smart decision making.” Trudie continued to work closely with Ty but …
… though the two shared a workspace in his apartment/office, she made it clear that dating was not in the cards. “I was career-driven and my father pretty much expected me to become a CPA,” she said. And, while she sensed something special about Ty’s dedication to his vision she also knew they were very different personality types. “He’s a dreamer,” she said. “And I’m a ‘yeah, that’s great…BUT’ kind of person. It took a while before we figured out our differences provided a good balance.”
Ty pointed out that he had realized earlier on that Trudie, who within the year had graduated from Cal Poly and took time off to travel, was definitely an asset but realized there was more to it, for him at least. He said, “I was fairly nerdy but being around Trudie a lot, I knew our personalities worked well together. Once I realized she was the one for me, I had to persuade her I was the one for her!” After returning from her travels, Trudie returned to her job of keeping close watch on the business side of things. “We were very frugal,” she said. “We lived off whatever we could pay each other and we didn’t do much but work in those days,” she shared. Over time, their commitment to the business and each other was cemented and they became husband and wife in 1997.
Though probably well intended, their parents weren’t exactly thrilled with the career paths their children had chosen. They both paid for college by working and going to school at the same time, and that allowed them to make their own career decisions with minimized guilt from their parents. “My mom kept asking me when I was going to get a REAL job,” Ty said. Trudie’s dad wanted ‘more’ for his daughter. “He wanted me to be a professional accountant,” she said. “He said Ty was ‘cocky,’” she laughed. “But I knew that attribute was what would make it work. I trusted Ty because he knew how to move forward; he was always looking for the newest technology and opportunities.”
Now married 22 years, the couple is extremely proud of what they’ve achieved. That early desire to build and grow remains stronger than ever, perhaps, said Trudie, as a result of their “balance” as business partners. Ty agreed, “If I had this business alone, I would have been out of work in 10 years.” Trudie added, “Over time we’ve both come closer to the middle. We are both aware that it takes money and vision to keep the doors open.”
Trust Automation was the name chosen to reassure clients that with all the new and upcoming technology, this entity was actually one to be trusted. “Back in the 80s,” Ty explained, “the technology culture was changing quickly and people were hearing more and more about something called ‘robotics.’ There was a fear that robots would replace people in the workplace and take away their jobs.” A big part of Ty’s job, he said, was to explain that there are some things that need to be automated, like semiconductor products that must be built in sterile environments, but people would still be needed to work in the industry. “We wanted to establish that the new era of technology would bring new opportunities. And we really were a resource that they could place their trust in.”
Now, coming up on three decades in business, Trust Automation will soon be relocating into a 100,000-square-foot facility on Venture Lane (Vachell Lane near Buckley Road, formerly Lockheed Martin) to house the enterprise that consists of more than 100 employees, engineering, manufacturing and operations areas, a daycare center and room for Trust Intelligence Systems division that focuses on cyber defense devices for legacy IoT (Internet of Things) networks. Major projects underway include those in industrial automation; semiconductor; defense, and medical equipment.
Fundamental to Trust Automation’s success is Ty and Trudie’s commitment to those they employ along with paying close attention to investments and markets and upholding their core values, particularly regarding family, community and leadership.
“I tell every single person under our roof ‘You will have your job,’” Trudie said. “We have never chosen layoffs as the answer to economic rough patches. We try to keep that ‘family feeling’ and I let our employees know that our success is due to them.” Ty added, “We rarely lose people. Some have been here for 20-plus years; about half the company for more than seven years. Lately, we’ve brought on a lot of new hires due to the increased workload.”
Another benefit enjoyed by Trust Automation workers is access to on-site, high-quality day care—something very important to the Safrenos whose two boys basically were raised at work during their baby years. “I know what it’s like to have to work and raise a family,” Trudie said. “Both Neill and Wade came to work with me when they were just weeks old. We feel those most important years of development until about five or six years old require the best of care and so we are pleased to have an amazing program director and teachers provide interactive outdoor classroom and play-based approach to learning and encouraging family involvement.” The Trust Children’s Center, is open to the community, says Trudie, affords working parents peace of mind and allows their business to retain talent and ensure employees have the support to reach their potential.
As for keeping an eye on the bottom line, the Safrenos say the business has always come first. “We rented rather than bought a home for 25 years because we didn’t want any debt; we wanted to put all our money back into keeping the company going,” Trudie said. “When we want to invest in capital equipment or take on new clients or projects, we sit down with our sales team and carefully make those decisions.” The Safrenos say their focus is on the long term, working with clients for ten years or more. “It can take a year or two to design a system for a client,” Ty said. “There’s a lot of testing before a product is ready. So we pick our clients carefully; we are basically investing in them.”
Besides being down to earth, engaging and yet steadfast in their dedication to their business, family and community, Ty and Trudie are quick to laugh and well, amazingly just really low-key and nice. They embrace the presence of Tristan, their 100-plus-pound family dog sitting at (on) our feet; a fixture around the workplace and occasionally at their sons’ school, Old Mission School. “Everyone loves him,” Trudie said of the rescue dog, obtained from a Santa Maria shelter and originally trained to be a service dog according to his records. The German Shepherd-Golden Retriever mix became part of the Safreno family despite objections from the shelter that the dog was too big for a family with young children. “He’s been the best dog and is basically the ‘school mascot’,” she said proudly. During our interview, Trudie received a call from the vet who had just helped deliver a foal at the couple’s Santa Margarita home. “Everything’s good!” she said, adding that in growing up in Santa Barbara, she was an equestrienne and wanted to be a veterinarian. “That changed when I realized I couldn’t handle seeing sick animals.”
Community service figures seriously in the lives of the Safrenos and they encourage all their employees to become involved in whatever community activity outside of work they wish to support. According to its website, Trust Automation’s team, including Ty and Trudie, actively participate in partnering, volunteering and contributing with community organizations. Trust Automation employees are dedicated to serving the Central Coast’s civics and economics, performing arts and culture, health and human services, children resources, education enrichment, and animal services. Trudie currently serves on FPAC, PAC, SLOCQHA and Mission School boards; Ty sits on EVC, Sierra Vista Governing Board, Hourglass Project board, 4H Stem Leadership board and is a 4H Project Leader.
Today, Trudie says, “Looking back, we had no idea we would be ‘here.’ We’ve never relaxed and we’re always watching the economy and emerging technologies. This business really is our first child.” And the good news? “My mom is now overwhelmed for me,” Ty said. Trudie added, “My dad was eventually very proud of me.” Together they discussed that the world is very different from their parents’ time. “Things are very mysterious to them and have changed so quickly.”
A solid reputation, an upcoming move to a new facility, the secure livelihoods of dozens of people, supporting the local community…Trust Automation’s definitely delivered on its name.