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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 26, 2018 8 months ago

Branch Out

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A pair of 30-something entrepreneurs with big dreams acquired a multimillion-dollar tree nursery and commercial landscaping business. Will a bank's faith in them be rewarded?
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

The boldness required to be an entrepreneur comes easily to Mike Trapuzzano, even naturally.

The 34-year-old received a degree in emergency medicine from the University of Pittsburgh and was a firefighter paramedic for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue for four-and-a-half years. He left the service in 2010 to chase his business ownership dreams.

“When I left, I was telling myself, 'You know, you're leaving a pension, you're leaving everything that you're familiar with ... and you're just taking a shot in the dark,'” he says. “And that's what happened. I left everything I knew from being a firefighter paramedic and jumped into the pool.”

Fortunately for Trapuzzano, his wife, Janet, 37, is also his business partner and brings a degree in international business from Florida State University to their ventures. The latest of those is the acquisition of Lutz-based commercial landscaping firm Pine Lake Nursery and Landscape. The couple paid $1.75 million for Pine Lake last spring.

The Trapuzzanos, who recently returned to the area after a stint in Pittsburgh, where Mike is from (Janet is a Tampa native), bought the company from founders Maria and Ivan Martinez. The Martinezes ran it for 20 years, but were ready to retire.

The purchase included unique twist: Just prior to the sale, Pine Lake landed a $35.5 million contract to landscape the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa. Mike Trapuzzano refers to the park as “the crown jewel of Tampa ... it's [Mayor] Bob Buckhorn's baby. And we are attending to it as such. We are trying to care for that project in every aspect and completely under promise and over deliver because ...”

Janet Trapuzzano completes his thought: “... we want it to be our showcase.”

MARKET RESEARCH

Janet Trapuzzano knows a thing or two about succeeding in the glare of the spotlight. Despite losing an arm in a car accident in 2001, Janet, a skilled dancer, made it to the Top 20 on the hit TV show “So You Think You Can Dance” in 2007.

Trapuzzano was admitted to FSU on a dance scholarship before changing her major, though she wound up minoring in dance. She harbored aspirations of moving to New York to pursue a career as a dancer, but the car accident nudged her in the direction of medical sales, and she became an expert in prosthetics.

“I'm the corporate guru,” says Janet Trapuzzano, and Mike Trapuzzano is “the entrepreneur.”

Pine Lake was an attractive venture for the couple. During their time in Pittsburgh, they'd invested in an erosion control company that did similar work, such as worksite construction, seeding, mulching and land clearing, says Mike Trapuzzano, adding that it became a $20 million a year business. “I jumped into business with a partner up there and we just climbed and rode the wave of the market,” he says.

Family ties brought them back to the Tampa Bay region. The Trapuzzanos have three children and wanted to be closer to their parents, as well as Mike's sisters who also reside in the area. “It was really important for us to kind of get back here from that perspective,” Mike Trapuzzano says.

The couple also wanted to put down their own roots (no pun intended) in the area — and that meant starting or acquiring a business. Mike Trapuzzano says it took them some time to learn about the market and identify the right opportunity because coastal Florida is “very different than the Northeast, where you're clearing trees and cutting trees down to make space for whatever the project is. Down here you're removing trees, but the soil is much sandier so you're not cutting them down, per se, all the time.”

Trapuzzano's market research also revealed that many municipalities in Florida require landscapers to replace any trees that are removed in the process of clearing sites for construction projects. So he and his wife began to think that pairing a nursery with a commercial landscaping and excavation enterprise would be a good move. They found an ideal opportunity in Pine Lake, where the assets include a commercial landscape contracting business, a 15-acre nursery and a 60-acre tree farm in Brooksville.

“It was small enough to where we could acquire and build it,” Mike Trapuzzano says, “and it was large enough to where we could be a competitor of scale and compete with the national companies that are here.”

With the Trapuzzanos at the helm, Pine Lake looks to be on the right track to scale up sooner than later. Mike Trapuzzano says the company's revenue was between $2.2 and $2.7 million in 2015 and 2016. By late 2017, the Trapuzzanos had already hired seven new employees and pegged $3.5 million as a realistic revenue target for 2017.

“We've got a good bit of work ready to rock and roll for [2018],” Mike says. “So if all goes well we should probably close out 2018 closer to $4.5 million.”

ANATOMY OF A DEAL

But while confidence in the future of the business is high, actually buying the business was a more complicated process.

Pine Lake Nursery and Landscape Inc. had been up for sale for a few months before the Trapuzzanos were able to buy it via a $1,475,000 loan from American Momentum Bank's SBA division. American Momentum Bank, with 15 branches in Florida, from Winter Garden through Naples, had $1.06 billion in assets through Sept. 30, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data. The bank is chartered in Texas, with corporate operations in Tampa.

Given the track record and attractiveness of the business, why did American Momentum take a chance on a couple of 30-something serial entrepreneurs?

“I'm a good old-fashioned banker, and so I don't care how good everything looks on paper,” says Ruben Alfaras, senior vice president and SBA business development officer at American Momentum. “I'm used to meeting people and I still ... maybe people don't like to hear this, but I still drive my deals a lot on gut instincts and the kind of feeling that I get when I meet the individual borrowers. Character, to me, is above all when analyzing a deal.”

Yet even Alfaras says he was initially skeptical when a mutual acquaintance presented the Trapuzzanos as potential buyers of Pine Lake. However, says Alfaras, “We like these types of deals that you can't just glance at; otherwise you say, 'No, I'm not interested.' You really have to dig into it.”

After going over the numbers, Alfaras and Pat Fenech, American Momentum's senior vice president and managing director of SBA Lending, met the Trapuzzanos for lunch.

The entrepreneurs won over the bankers.

“I was 100% sold that this was the right couple to get involved in this business,” says Alfaras. “And the rest was just a matter of working through all of the details. Mike is a very detail-oriented individual. He could probably be a great attorney if he weren't in this business.”

Alfaras adds that the Trapuzzanos make a great team and were easy to work with as the deal progressed. “Mike and Janet have really mapped out their strategy in a very organized fashion,” says Alfaras. “If we ever asked for a piece of information, half an hour later it was in our computer.”

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