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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Feb. 9, 202205:00 AM EST

Business Strategy: Liberty Landscape Supply owner managing ‘vision to grow much bigger’

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After buying a mulch and stone business in 2007, Mike Zaffaroni is preparing to open his fourth commercial location.
by: Drew Dixon Drew Dixon, Contributing Writer

Liberty Landscape Supply has evolved from 2 acres in Fernandina Beach into a company with multiple locations throughout Northeast Florida.

“The last three or four years we’ve seen some tremendous growth,” said Mike Zaffaroni, the 42-year-old owner of Liberty Landscape Supply.

Zaffaroni, who wasn’t happy in his job in pharmaceutical sales, bought a mulch and stone business in 2007 in Fernandina Beach and expanded from there, adding sales of trees, plants, sod, supplies and garden products.

Liberty Landscape Supply sells landscape materials to homeowners and contractors, a flourishing market with home construction, sales and renovations.

It also offers delivery, consulting and installation.

The company has a farm in Hilliard in Nassau County.

Its three retail locations are in Fernandina Beach in Nassau County and along North Main Street and San Jose Boulevard in Duval County.

Zaffaroni is preparing to open his fourth commercial location at 5825 Florida 16 in St. Augustine in St. Johns County.

From his 5 acres along San Jose Boulevard, the former Trad’s Garden Center he bought in 2019, Zaffaroni said he has been careful about managing growth, but he also has been lucky with his decisions.

Zaffaroni acknowledged the two biggest challenges most entrepreneurs face are people and financial management. 

“We have definitely had both. Financially, in the early years, it’s just difficult to grow a business and have a business that’s not profitable,” he said. 

Part of that came with Zaffaroni’s decision to focus solely on landscaping and moving out of other business ventures. 

He previously owned a FastSigns franchise and a used car dealership in Fernandina. In 2014 he shut down the used car dealership and sold the sign business.

“That was the toughest financial position I’ve ever been in,” he said.

But the people part of the business has been the biggest challenge the past couple of years.

“That includes finding the right people. Finding people at affordable or competitive rates. In some cases, finding anybody who will work at all. Just getting people to show up for interviews,” Zaffaroni said.

“Sometimes we hire on the spot. It’s required us to be very adaptable.”

He has been able to expand from 37 employees in 2018 to more than 100.

Zaffaroni acknowledged the two biggest challenges most entrepreneurs face are people and financial management.

“I always had a vision for this company that we were going to grow much bigger than what we were three years ago, five years ago or 10 years ago or whatever. We’re going to be much bigger than what we are now,” he said.

“It was more about where we wanted to go. Two years ago, I created a plan for a leadership team of people that were going to help us get to where we wanted to go,” he said.

He hired people to fill roles in human resources, financial, sales, operations and management.

With that, Zaffaroni said his company has morphed into more of a corporation than a small business. 

“We’d like to be the best at selling landscape supplies. In order to do that, I felt that it was important to create that team,” he said.

Zaffaroni’s success is recognized by others in the industry.

Justin Williams, vice president of Williams Plant Nursery on Philips Highway in Jacksonville, said his wholesale business has been operational since 1987 and he has seen a lot of landscaping businesses come and go. 

Williams said Zaffaroni is a welcome addition to the field.

“He’s doing it the right way. They have a different niche than we do. They do a lot of installs themselves and focus on the retail side of it,” Williams said.

“I think he’s picking good locations and doing a good job,” he said.

“Now, he’s going into St. Johns County where everything’s exploding.”

Zaffaroni said his strategy for expansion is to consider the finances and geography.

“Some of the lessons that we learned in the past are without deep pockets to begin with, managing growth is a really fun challenge but it is not an easy one,” he said.

In St. Johns County, “we’re just investing a lot of money into it and we don’t necessarily have millions and millions of dollars to pull from.”

Zaffaroni declined to disclose his revenue, but he acknowledged substantial growth in recent years.

He saw growth of 19% in 2021 and 69% in 2020.

 In 2018, JAX Chamber named him Small Business Leader of the Year. He represented the chamber’s North Council. 

In the long-range strategy, Zaffaroni said he sees more retail and landscaping centers throughout Northeast Florida, though he held off on specifying which locations, cities or counties. 

“After opening a couple of more stores in Northeast Florida,” he said, “we’ll probably start moving into different markets.”

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