Michael Griffin grew up on the Westside, starting work at age 12 at Hall’s Nursery and working there through high school.
After he graduated in 1971, he worked at the A&P meat plant on 45th Street as an order selector until he joined PYA/Monarch, now US Foods, in 1973.
There, he drove trucks and worked his way into warehouse management and sales before he was recruited to Sysco, the national food-service provider. Five years later, he left to start a seafood company with two partners. Then that sold.
He was 37. Instead of returning to a job offered at Sysco, he decided to work for himself.
With a used truck and 900 square feet of rented space at a cold storage warehouse, Griffin began building what has become Sea Breeze Food Service. That was 25 years ago.
After two moves and plenty of strategy, his sales grew to almost $33.6 million last year. His dream is to reach $50 million. To make that come true, he needs to expand his Northwest Jacksonville warehouse, office and distribution center.
Another reason is that his son, Kevin, 38, vice president, is primed to succeed him. “I could ride the tide, but it would not be fair to him,” Griffin said.
Griffin estimates he will invest $2.8 million in the expansion at 3807 Edgewood Drive, off New Kings Road and Edgewood Avenue North. He’s already added on over the years.
“It’s rewarding to come this far in 25 years,” said Griffin, who turns 62 on Feb. 1.
“It’s been a hard job, but I don’t regret it.”
Sea Breeze is one of at least 10 Jacksonville-based, privately held manufacturing or distribution companies stepping up with confidence to make major investments to grow their businesses.
Among them are Vak Pak Builders Supply, Fulfillment Shipping and Handling, Peterbrooke Chocolatier, Ja-Ru Inc. and Gator Office Products.
Their reasons are similar. The economy has improved, so they have to grow to meet the needs of customers and to attract more business.
Jacksonville’s immediate economic future looks strong and its long-term prospects are bright, so expanding here is a strategic move.
Low interest rates make now a good time to invest. A second generation either is coming into power or already has with an outlook for new markets. And they value that their customers like to do business with people they know.
Taking the plunge
David Sutherland’s father, Paul, started Vak Pak Inc. 45 years ago.
A pool contractor, Paul Sutherland built collector tanks and created a model with safety features to prevent the possibility of entrapment drowning.
“He built one and drove around the state to sell one so he could build another,” David Sutherland said.
Vak Pak now designs and builds self-contained filtration systems used by hotels, theme parks, zoos, aquatic centers and homeowners nationwide. The systems are designed for swimming pools, spas, fountains and splash pads.
Paul Sutherland started the business in his garage. In 1973, he bought the company’s 44,000-square-foot manufacturing plant, which at one time was a church, at 1824 Phoenix Ave. in the Springfield area.
Paul Sutherland has since started Vak Pak Builders Supply to serve as a wholesale supply company to sell to pool contractors and servicers. Paul Sutherland is president and David, 30, is vice president of both companies.
Vak Pak Builders Supply has been leasing space along Beach Boulevard, east of Southside Boulevard. The Sutherlands wanted a location to better serve the customers, so they are buying a site at Hogan Road and Southside Boulevard to build a showroom.
David Sutherland said the company will invest more than $1 million to develop the 20,000-square-foot showroom warehouse, which is about 6,000 square feet larger than the leased location.
He expects construction to start by March and be completed in eight months.
Sutherland said the company had been looking for a site for five to 10 years, but either the price or the size wasn’t right. The vacant 2-acre Hogan Road location offered both.
The showroom will be designed so pool contractors and servicers can bring customers to look at products. That business has grown 10 percent a year the past three to four years. Vak Pak does not disclose revenue.
Sutherland said Vak Pak’s manufacturing business serves a national market and the builders’ supply center serves Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia. The manufacturing company has 22 employees and the builders’ supply has nine.
When the economy collapsed in 2008, people continued to build pools, although the commercial pool business has been a roller-coaster since then. But it’s picking up.
Sutherland said the multifamily market of apartment and condominium construction, and the need for swimming pools at their amenity centers, has gained speed.
So has residential construction, providing a market for private pools. He sees tracts cleared for more development.
“I’m not saying the economy is moving on all cylinders, but the arrow is up,” he said.
“Florida is doing well. Jacksonville, there is nothing but upside,” he said.
Sutherland, a Jacksonville native, also is anticipating the next market. “This could be a global company,” he said.
‘We either grow or stop’
Fulfillment Shipping and Handling Inc. is 5 years old and taking on the big boys – Amazon.com and Alibaba.
Two of its owners are partners in Priority Transportation Group Inc., a courier service they bought 25 years ago.
Both companies, based in the Southside, are making tracks.
They occupy four buildings, comprising 110,000 square feet of warehouse space and 18,000 square feet of office space. It’s no longer enough.
Owners are adding more than 40,000 square feet onto a building at 4011 Morton St., not far from their headquarters at 4344 Philips Highway.
Chris Flowers, a partner in both businesses, estimates a $1.5 million investment in the expansion. Construction could start Feb. 1 for a midyear completion.
Most of the space is used by Fulfillment Shipping and Handling, which focuses on small-business customers that want to set up Internet sales but either aren’t sure how to do it or don’t have the time to do it themselves.
Fulfillment Shipping and Handling, also known as shipping-and-handling.com, works on the “intimacy” factor with its clients, pledging the careful “touch, feel, see” of package handling. Flowers said as it grows, the company is developing automation “where we can offer some neat stuff to the customer.”
Business has been rolling. Sales grew 40 percent annually the past two years and Flowers projects similar growth this year. “Or we wouldn’t be building this warehouse,” he said.
On the courier side, 80 percent of its customers are local and 20 percent are national. On the fulfillment side, 50 percent are national and 25 percent each are local and international. All of it is handled by 35 employees among both companies.
The e-commerce side has been growing at 15-20 percent a year the past decade. He declined to reveal revenue.
Flowers is optimistic about the city. “Jacksonville is going to be one of the fastest growing areas in the next 25 years, and we’re investing now,” he said.
He also said that land and labor are relatively inexpensive in Jacksonville; the local labor force is large and eager to work; baby boomers are retiring every day, creating new markets; the climate is mild; and Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan is a strong force for progress.
“All that gives us renewed optimism,” he said.
The company also has invested heavily in technology, which is one area that worries him. “This industry, like every industry, from a technology standpoint is changing rapidly,” he said.
Matt Beyler, president of Fulfillment Shipping and Handling, said the time was right for expansion. “We either grow or stop,” he said.
‘You can’t run scared’
In his first week of business, Griffin at Sea Breeze Food Service recorded $1,700 in sales with $208 in profit. He started selling seafood, then added meat, and now he’s a full-service supplier to the restaurant industry.
“From mom-and-pop restaurants to white tablecloth dining to chains,” he said.
Supplies include produce, condiments, dairy, eggs, canned and dry goods, janitorial supplies, paper and plastic, equipment and more.
Sea Breeze stocks more than 4,000 products from industry manufacturers. It owns 15 trucks, is open six days a week around the clock and has a window open Sunday for pickup.
Griffin employs 74 people and intends to add five to 15 more. The expansion will add distribution, shipping and freezer space as well as a test kitchen where Sea Breeze chefs can cook dishes from its products for clients and prospects. They now go off-site for that.
Sea Breeze is the remaining independent food distributor in Jacksonville, Griffin said.
To help finance the expansion, Sea Breeze is applying for a grant from the Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Fund.
The city Office of Economic Development said it would have the final grant application soon.
Griffin said 2014 was an excellent year. “We went through a real tough recession; 2008 was the lowest we’ve ever been –– and we survived it,” he said.
His only concern is another recession.
“But you can’t run scared. You have to have faith in Jacksonville and I’m going to do my part in growing the city of Jacksonville,” he said.
All businesses start small
Another commonality is that all the businesses started small.
Janice Williams Donaldson, director of the Florida Small Business Development Center at the University of North Florida, said the challenges are growing and sustaining those businesses.
One of the most important traits of an entrepreneur is to stay on top of trends and sport opportunities, knowing when to shift resources.
She said the mismanagement of growth has put a lot of small firms out of business. Those that succeed create a ripple effect.
“Each time one expands, it creates opportunities for small businesses,” which have products and services to feed into the economic cycle.
“North Florida is full of small business success stories that warm the heart and energize our economy,” she said.
Plans: Renovating a former food-processing plant into a chocolate factory, corporate offices and tourism center
Location: 249 Copeland St., Brooklyn
Plans: Building two-phase, almost 490,000-square-foot headquarters and distribution center in Flagler Center
Location: 12901 Flagler Center Blvd.
Cost: $15.8 million first phase, including land
Gator Office Products Inc.
Plans: Expanding from 8,689 square feet to about 21,000 square feet
Location: 11741 Philips Highway
Cost: $1.2 million