When Will Nugent came to work at Bethel Farms in Arcadia in 1982, it was a cattle ranch and poultry farm that was just starting into the sod business.
His father-in-law, company founder Walter H. Bethel, hired him to start learning the business from the ground up, but when Bethel and his wife died suddenly in 1990 and 1992, respectively, Nugent and his wife Kim eventually found themselves in charge of the family business.
"They both died at a young age, 48 and 50," Nugent remarked. He and his wife were "thrown into it" early, at about 30 years of age.
It was a decent-sized company then, according to Nugent, but looking at it today, "the company has grown probably 10 times," he said.
At first, Kim's three siblings were involved with Bethel Farms, but eventually the business came totally under the Nugents' control. Now, the poultry and cattle business that was dabbling in sod owns over 2,000 acres of turf farm in Florida, employs 150 workers, and is the only sod supplier in Home Depot and Lowes across the entire nation. They also sell about a million grass plugs a year.
Bethel Farms has its own transportation company, has branded the name Harmony Sod, and contracts with turf growers across the U.S. to supply the big box behemoths. They even have their own sawmill onsite for making pallets.
What's the secret?
"I just love working," Nugent said. He said early on the business was willing to do things that others weren't - such as making smaller deliveries and taking on the challenges of large clients like Home Depot and Lowes.
It didn't happen all at once. Nugent said when the big stores wanted them to expand into different areas or do more, the company took it one step at a time. "We didn't have a plan to sell sod in 48 states," he explained. They just didn't back down from the challenge.
He also credits a company culture of integrity. "The biggest thing is we do what we say we are going to do," Nugent said. "We like to try to do what's hard, what nobody wants to do."
Bethel Farms has incorporated many technological innovations to keep it competitive, including a drain tile system for irrigation. Plastic pipes placed underground replace the need for ditches. It keeps water from evaporating, frees up more land for growing sod and doesn't encourage weed growth the way ditches can. "You use a lot less water," Nugent added, making it an eco-friendly move as well.
The farms in Florida also have a telemetry system that alerts farmers via mobile device whether humidity readings, rainfall and/or temperature might put the crop at risk of a freeze or fungus. The technology allows the growers to "stay ahead of the game," as Nugent put it.
They are also using a piece of technology that is popular up north, but not so much in Florida - a machine that cuts sod in a big roll instead of the typical rectangles Floridians are used to seeing. The appeal for the businessman is that one man can run the machine instead of several. The appeal to the installer is fewer seams in the lawn for a better aesthetic and easier install.
After 30 years on the job, this Arcadia native who studied business for three and a half years, then worked with Florida Power & Light in Bradenton before joining the Bethel clan is still loving growing grass - "the legal kind," he joked.
Besides the Harmony line of turfgrasses being sold in Lowes and Home Depot, this year Bethel Farms is also expanding a lawn maintenance pilot project it has been running out of Palmetto for the past three years.
"We're the sod farmer, so we believe we can do it better than other," said Nugent about the lawn care company, Harmony Care, which will be franchising this year.
In addition to Nugent and Kim, who is mostly retired now, the couple's three children also work in the family business. Jason Nugent works in sales. His twin sister Ashley Utter is manager of the transportation leg of the business. Tyler Nugent, the youngest, is the Arcadia production manager at the age of 23.
The Nugents also enjoy being grandparents to Balin Utter, 6, and Jocelyn Utter, 4.
Plans for 2014? They have a few. But most of all it's to keep on being a company who does what they say they are going to do.
"I think that's why we've succeeded," explained Nugent, "You don't need to tell people you have integrity - it's just shown."