He hated his pharmaceutical sales job. A decade later, he’s Small Business Leader of the Year.
By Drew Dixon, Contributing Writer
When Mike Zaffaroni acquired the landscaping business on North Main Street now known as Liberty Landscape Supply, there was one employee and about $500,000 in annual revenue.
For the past decade, Zaffaroni cultivated the business that is projected to bring in about $5 million in annual revenue this year and is a burgeoning employer with 37 workers.
The business, previously owned by Ronnie Cannon, was called Fernandina Mulch & Stone and located in Fernandina Beach. Zaffaroni added the location at 13385 N. Main St. about a year ago and recently opened a farm in Hilliard.
Zaffaroni, 27 when he bought the business, declined to say how much he paid. However, the business flourished under his ownership.
JAX Chamber named him Small Business Leader of the Year this year. He represented the chamber’s North Council.
Transitioning into a landscape supply company was a radical move for Zaffaroni, who was a pharmaceutical sales representative until he bought the business.
“This (North Main Street) was part of my sales territory,” he said. “I hated my job in pharmaceutical sales.”
Zaffaroni had no experience in the landscape industry, but he had several connections that put him in touch with Cannon and the sale was completed.
Zaffaroni set out to put all his effort into expanding his new company.
“We made a couple of good decisions, such as adding plants and trees,” Zaffaroni said. “We originally just sold mulch and stone.”
Deciding to add flora was another learning curve.
“I had some people on staff who certainly knew what they were talking about. They (plants and trees) now make up close to 48 percent of the revenue,” Zaffaroni said.
His customers include contractors and homeowners.
Liberty Landscape Supply has about 2,000 items in its inventory. The grounds of the North Main Street location are dotted with palm trees, stacks of rocks, plants growing under the shaded shelter of an awning and piles of mulch and pine straw.
With increased revenue came an increase in his workforce, recently topping three dozen.
Zaffaroni also has added a farm in Hilliard where he grows small plants that he’d otherwise buy from another supplier. He foresees expansion and the addition of another location, most likely further south into Jacksonville.
“We’re busting at the seams,” Zaffaroni said. “We will have space issues here.”
He hasn’t earmarked a location. “There are areas of Jacksonville where there’s not a business like this one and we would probably target those areas first,” he said.
In a sign of his inclination to lean south in Jacksonville, Zaffaroni moved into a house with his wife, Christi, in Springfield a few blocks off Main Street.
Zaffaroni’s 22-year-old stepson, Tharin Hessenauer, works with him at Liberty Landscape.
What others say
Jacksonville City Council member Reggie Gaffney, who represents the North Main Street area, said he was more than willing to guide Zaffaroni through the city’s rezoning process to grow the business. Gaffney said Zaffaroni is a prime example of how business could expand in that area.
Gaffney said Zaffaroni is “doing a tremendous job,” “It tells you that Jacksonville is growing, especially on the Northside of town,” Gaffney said.
Gaffney said when businesses come to town, “we often hear that they’re all going to the Southside.”
“I can tell you that new businesses are also going to the Northside. You can see the boom in small businesses in the likes of Mike and others,” Gaffney said.
Gaffney credited Zaffaroni’s personality for the success.
“The enthusiasm that he has and he’s just so assured of what he’s doing,” Gaffney said. “He’s genuine and hardworking.”
Carlton Robinson, vice president of entrepreneurial growth for JAX Chamber, said Zaffaroni took a traditional business and expanded it.
Zaffaroni hasn’t relied on new technology or an emerging market to make his success.
“While a lot of us push toward higher-growth companies that are in the tech or health care fields, Mike is an example of how to execute specific strategies and achieve growth,” Robinson said.
“He really had a good perspective in terms of what his business was, in terms of its assets. He was really big on finding the right people,” Robinson said.
Zaffaroni participated in the JAX Bridges program through the chamber that focused on business and revenue models for small business entrepreneurs. Robinson said Zaffaroni absorbed the techniques and was a model of turning those theories into practical and tangible success.
“I think Liberty Landscape demonstrates the ways entrepreneurs can have an impact in terms of jobs, in terms of overall growth. Most importantly, it doesn’t have to be a business in a high-growth area in order to achieve high growth,” Robinson said.
He said Zaffaroni’s strategy can be replicated across the region.
Pruning the path
Zaffaroni, 38, said his career path has taken an unexpected turn or two and he admitted he didn’t see himself in the landscaping business.
But as his company continues to grow, he’s glad he took the risk and bought the business.
“I passionately love what I do for a living,” Zaffaroni said.
He said he branched out into different businesses since buying the landscaping firm.
In 2009 he bought a sign business and sold it at a profit. He lost money when in 2012 he bought a car dealership and it went under.
He intends to keep his roots in landscaping.
“In the different businesses that I’ve been in, this is by far and away my favorite. I see tremendous growth potential,” he said.
Zaffaroni said his motivation is “watching this business grow and just the challenge behind it.”
“I started with basically one employee and now I have 37, that’s the single thing I’m most proud of,” he said.
“In some respects, I wish I would have gotten into it earlier. I was 27 when I bought it. I don’t know exactly what to make of it, yet,” Zaffaroni said.
While he’s proud of the progress, he knows “there’s so much more to do.”