Skip to main content
Strategies
Business Observer Friday, Nov. 4, 2022 1 month ago

Sod business balances new opportunities with inflation-laden anxieties

Share
The second-generation leader of a fast-growth sod company modernized the company in a host of ways. But some old-school principles — quality and a strong work culture among them — remain a priority. 
by: Beth Luberecki Contributor

Tiffany Bailey didn’t grow up wanting to go into the sod business. But she did come of age alongside acres of growing grass, after her father, Jack Bispham, started Bayside Sod in Sarasota in 1987.

“I grew up completely immersed in the family business,” says Bailey, 38, and a Business Observer 40-under-40 winner in 2020. “But I really didn’t have an interest because as a kid, we were kind of expected to help out no matter what.”

Things started to change when she was studying horticultural sciences at the University of Florida. Once she was “given that permission” to figure things out on her own, she knew where she wanted to be.

“I started coming home in the summers and working with my dad, and I realized I think I like this,” she says. “I thought there could be an opportunity for me to take over and to continue what my dad had started.”

In 2018, Bailey, her brother and her brother-in-law bought out Bispham, who was ready to retire. Bailey is now CEO of Bayside Sod and is both continuing her father’s legacy and bringing the company into the future. The company’s headquarters are on State Road 64, in east Manatee County. 

Growing the business has been an ongoing goal. “I believe you’re either growing or you’re dying,” says Bailey. “So I’ve focused on growth a lot, but strategic growth. It’s not just growing for growth’s sake; it’s growing with the right intention.”

Bayside Sod now farms a total of 900 acres across six locations in Sarasota and Manatee counties. It grows six different varieties of turfgrass — Floratam St. Augustine, ProVista St. Augustine, Bitter Blue St. Augustine, CitraBlue St. Augustine, Empire Zoysia and Bimini Bermuda. Bailey expects to finish 2022 with about $6.5 million in sales, more than double the $3 million in 2018.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to build an excellent place to work,” says Bailey. “That’s important to me. Sometimes people ask how big do I want to get it? And the answer is as long as we have a company where people are happy to be here, I’ll keep going and going and going.”

 

Quality control 

Since taking ownership of the company, Bailey has embraced technology to manage the business and increase efficiency. She started a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system that helps the company stay in touch with customers after sod is installed and offer tips for care and maintenance. And a software platform from Turf Logistics helps her manage the business. “It gives me as an owner a full view of what’s going on at multiple locations,” she says. “It has really good reporting features where I can get access to good real-time data. Before, that used to exist in a pile of notebooks on my desk and maybe a few spreadsheets.”

A task management system keeps Bayside’s 29 employees on the same page when it comes to production schedules and plans. “Before that existed, we would just meet at the shop in the morning and talk about what we were going to do that day,” says Bailey. “Systemization is nothing sexy to talk about, but as you want to get bigger and scale your business, you have to start putting some systems and processes in place. Just meeting at the shop doesn’t work as your business grows.”

Tiffany Bailey was named CEO of Manatee County-based Bayside Sod in 2018. (Photo by Lori Sax)

Bailey has also worked to expand the company’s customer base beyond selling wholesale to contractors and big sod installation companies, as she witnessed the effects of the 2008-09 recession on those clients and her own business. So Bayside Sod has been developing relationships with small and large landscapers, started installing sod for residential customers and opened a small retail site in Bradenton “where customers can walk in and buy as little as a piece of sod or as much as truckload to be delivered to their house,” says Bailey.

One thing that hasn’t changed? “My dad had a really big focus on quality,” she says. “And when you can grow a quality product, a lot of other things fall into place a lot easier. So I didn’t want to lose that.

She seems to have succeeded in that endeavor. “They grow some really quality stuff,” says Homer Diaz, owner of Ruskin-based Turf 1, a turf provider and installer that buys sod from Bayside Sod. “The times I go to their farms or my drivers go out there, there are just trucks lined up. That says a lot about them. They provide a good product, and people are just lined up to buy it day after day, week after week.”

 

Thanks, partner

Relationships with entities like the University of Florida turfgrass program and turfgrass development company Sod Solutions help ensure Bayside stays on the, ahem, cutting edge when it comes to the grasses it grows. “Having partners in your industry is huge,” says Bailey. 

The University of Florida turfgrass program works to develop new turfgrass cultivars that are easy for sod growers to produce and easy for homeowners to maintain. The goal? Grasses that are resistant to disease and pests and require less water and fertilizer, but still look good on a lawn. Those kinds of advancements are important for dealing with issues like water supply and climate change. 

Mark Royce, left, and Jeff Murphy, right, help Tiffany Bailey run Bayside Sod. (Photo by Lori Sax)

Input and involvement from companies like Bayside Sod help the university in its R&D efforts. Bayside has donated sod and financially supported the University of Florida turfgrass program over the years, and a building at the university’s research farm in Citra was renamed the Bispham Turfgrass Support Building after Bailey’s father.

“It’s not a one-man show,” says Kevin Kenworthy, a professor of turfgrass breeding and genetics in the University of Florida Agronomy Department. “I could develop something that I think meets the needs from my perspective as a scientist and researcher, but if the sod grower can’t grow it economically, then it will never make it to market.

“Bayside has always been one of the leading farms, in my perspective, since I’ve been here [since 2004], in terms of they’re both involved and eager to be involved in what the university is doing with its turfgrass science programs,” he adds. 

Bayside has also helped Sod Solutions test new grass products. “There’s a lot of testing that needs to be done in real-world conditions,” says Mark Kann, director of Florida operations for Sod Solutions. “Until you put it out in the real world and grow a higher acreage, you really don’t know what you have. Bayside has always been very supportive of new grasses.”

 

Future vision 

These kinds of relationships have helped Bayside Sod respond to the environmental pressures and concerns both the company and its customers face today. “We’re able to grow our turf with less fertilizer and water than ever before, and we always want that to get better and better,” says Bailey. “And people are wanting options; I think just the traditional big lawn is changing. And that is something we certainly look at, to see how we can satisfy the customer’s changing wants.”

She’s waiting to see how the local real estate market is affected by Hurricane Ian and its aftermath, and that’s why growing the retail, direct-to-consumer side of the business is crucial. “Right now I’m feeling thankful for that decision, since there are a lot of things sort of threatening the housing market right now,” she says. “I fully believe that if we have the right people and make the right strategy decisions, we’ll find the right markets that match what we can do.”

Hiring new COO Jeff Murphy earlier in 2022 was also an important strategic move for Bailey to help support further growth. “We want to become stronger in these next couple of years,” she says. “We want to make sure our culture stays strong and that we have the right people in the right seats. We want to make sure that we’re measuring a lot more in the business, so that we can see in real time that handful of numbers that really matter.”

Fine-tuning the company’s vision is another objective. “I want every employee to know where we’re going and to feel a part of it,” says Bailey. “And to know how their work can affect our future and how important everybody’s job is for us achieving something greater than any one individual.”

Bailey has followed her father’s lead when it comes to taking care of those employees. Other lessons for her dad resonate today as well. “My dad just had this drive to be great at work,” she says. “He and I approach that in different ways, but the underlying passion that he had for his work, I absolutely share that and bring that to my company just like he did. I feel a big sense of responsibility around my work, and I definitely get that from my dad.”

Nokomis-based freelance writer Beth Luberecki, a Business Observer contributor, writes about business, travel and lifestyle topics for a variety of Florida and national publications. Her work has appeared in publications and on websites including Washington Post’s Express...

See All Articles by Beth

Related Stories

Advertisement