Building a business from the ground up is a bit like growing a tree. You start with a seed. You plant it and nurture it. And if conditions are right and that seed is strong, you grow an oak.
The seed of Griffin Trees is Steve Griffin, who owns and operates his tree nursery with the help of his wife, Sheri Griffin. Originally from Brooksville, Steve grew up on his grandfather's ranchland, working cows his entire childhood.
At the end of his eighth-grade year, his father, Fred Griffin, moved the family to Florida's heartland to work as ranch manager for Lykes Bros. Steve didn't want to go at the time, but it ended up being to his advantage.
"Lykes Bros. has been extremely good to me," as well as many other people he has known, Steve said. As a teen, they gave him work on the ranch and hired him right out of high school as a foreman for the cattle crew. It was a well-paying job for a young man. Even after Steve decided to move to Tampa and worked as a subcontractor digging sabal palms, when he came back two years later, Lykes Bros. was still there to support him.
With money saved from odd jobs working for Lykes Bros. and with the huge ranch allowing him to harvest their sabal palms, Steve bought some machinery and went out on his own.
In 1988 he got his big break - a Disney contract for 15,000 sabal palms to be transplanted to the Disney Caribbean Beach Resort.
"That was the main thing that gave me the credibility in the Southeast to be a good sabal palm supplier and landscape installer," Steve said.
In 2000, during a slump in the industry, he took a chance that paved the way for the future of his business.
Instead of collecting sabal palms from the fields and transporting them directly to the new site, the Griffins bought a tree farm and "progressed into being landowners and growers instead of just harvesters," Steve said. They now have 266 acres of tree farm in Okeechobee and another 65 in Lake Placid.
It was a big risk digging up 10,000 sabal palms and replanting them on their farm, especially during an economic downturn. The roots had to be cut and the root ball wrapped in black plastic. All of the green fronds had to be cut off, too, since the damaged root system could not support them.
The concept, called hardening off, worked. "We hold (a tree) for six to nine months. The roots re-grow within the stretch wrap, the fronds grow back, and the root ball pops out (out of the ground) almost effortlessly, like a carrot," Sheri explained.
The Griffins were the first in the state to try this system on a large scale, but it's quickly becoming industry standard. Customers like it because they get a healthy tree with excellent survivability that already has some green growth on top.
Another reason Steve is passionate about his concept is that it saves so many trees from dying. Almost 100 percent of his trees survive transplantation, whereas there's about a 30 percent rate of loss when trees are relocated the old way.
In fact, he said the Department of Transportation (DOT), one of his big clients, is now only accepting trees that are hardened off.
Steve said even though his trees cost more now because of the way they are handled, the DOT is still saving taxpayer money because of the enormous cost, hassle and danger of closing off an area of roadway to remove and replace dead trees.
"They did a better thing and saved money doing it," he said.
But for Steve, it's also about the official state trees themselves. "We were losing a high percentage of trees that were transplanted the wrong way, which upsets me," he remarked. "All my adult life I've been in the sabal palm business. It's a waste. It's a disaster."
The Griffins have planted trees along U.S. 27 in Lake Placid and now offer not only sabal palms but also Washingtonians, Queen palms, Bismarkia Silvers, Sylvesters, large shade oaks and more. Their customers range from all over the state to as far as Texas, Louisiana and Virginia.
When he's not working, Steve enjoys a good golf game. Sheri, a Miami native, has a banking background and runs the office side of the business while also trying to keep up with the couple's two sons, Jackson, 12 and Parker, 9.
Steve also has a grown son Steven, 23, and a daughter, Ali, 16.
The Griffins give kudos to their employees, including secretary Laura Teal, tree farm manager Al Prieto, and harvester Rodolfo Resindez, without whom Steve says he would not have enjoyed such success. And he's quick to credit Lykes Brothers for being the very first caretakers of the seed that would eventually grow into Griffin Trees.
"We're proud of the way we've changed the industry," he added.