Originally from Upstate New York, Sarah Laroque, President and CEO of EarthBalance, started her career in Florida in 1985. Fresh out of college from SUNY at Plattsburgh, she worked as a biologist for Charlotte County Mosquito Control. As Laroque candidly shared, she didn’t really know what she was getting into with Mosquito Control. However, it was entomology, which was related to her degree in Environmental Science, and it sounded interesting. After three years with Charlotte County, she spent a few years at home raising her young boys before joining the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) as an Environmental Scientist. Laroque’s job at SWFWMD involved working with other environmental consulting companies to review their field work and environmental permit applications. That’s how she was first introduced to EarthBalance.
“At the time, EarthBalance was called Florida Environmental Inc.,” she said. “I joined the team in 1993 and basically worked my way up through the company over the past 26 years. I started as a Field Biologist, where I worked on wetland and wildlife surveys to obtain state and federal environmental permits for clients. After working as a Field Biologist, I was promoted to Project Manager, then Sr. Project Manager, next COO and then President/CEO. People often ask me how I made it to the top spot. I’m good at getting the right people around me who have the expertise and talents needed to grow the company. I enjoy helping people succeed and I understand how to work with people.”
Founded in 1985 as Florida Environmental, Inc., the company changed its name to EarthBalance around 2002. Through a set of core values that include, Service, Teamwork, Integrity and Quality, the EarthBalance team manages, controls, and maintains invasive and non-invasive vegetation in preserved and natural areas throughout Florida and the United States. EarthBalance services are broken down into three categories: Ecosystem Restoration, Environmental Consulting, and Mitigation Banking. These services include: Planting and Seeding, Vegetation Control, Mangrove Trimming, Beach & Coastal Restoration, Mitigation Bank services, and environmental consulting. EarthBalance also maintains a native plant nursery that grows and supplies native plants and grasses for commercial landscaping, golf course enhancements, upland and wetland habitat restoration, erosion control, shoreline stabilization, and beach renourishment projects.
“In some cases, we work on large and remote projects in places like The Everglades, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Loxahatchee,” Laroque said. “Other times, we’re working in residential areas or on golf courses to improve stormwater ponds, plant native landscape areas, or manage preserved areas. We also work on wildfire fuel reduction projects in places like Texas, Washington, Idaho and Colorado. We’ll trim under-growth and trees to reduce the vegetation that intensifies fires. These days there’s a lot of federal dollars being spent in western states to hire contractors to remove vegetation to help prevent wildfires. We bid on work across the country as long as it fits our skill sets, makes sense for the business, and is in line with what we do – improving and managing natural environments.”
Maintaining a Competitive Edge
As Laroque shared, competition in the state of Florida is pretty fierce, but EarthBalance maintains a competitive advantage for a few different reasons. “The heavy competition is partly because of all the large tracks of preserved land, a climate that supports growth all year-round, and an abundance of endangered and protected wildlife species. The ecosystem restoration industry basically started here in Florida so it’s no surprise there’s a lot of competition. We stand out because we’re much more than just a contractor. We’re a company of environmental scientists who manage projects with teams of skilled crew members and specialized equipment. We employ wildlife biologists, environmental scientists, natural resource managers and other professionals that understand the goal of what we’re trying to achieve. We have the scientific base for what we are doing and why we are doing it. We also have a culture of project management. I’m a Project Management Professional (PMP) and we have other PMPs on staff as well. Our clients have confidence in us and like the fact that we bring more depth to the table.”
In addition to the aforementioned advantages, EarthBalance is also employee-owned. The Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) was formed in 2007 and managed to reach 100% employee-owned status by 2015. Since then, the ESOP has managed to define company culture and created a sense of connection and collective effort that unifies employees. It gives the employees something to rally around. Along with a strong sense of ownership, EarthBalance employees also receive extensive financial, procedural and safety training.
When it comes to EarthBalance’s marketing strategy, it’s about forming strong relationships with government and private clients. “A lot of the work we do is for federal, state and local governments,” Laroque said. “It’s mostly low-bid, so there’s not a whole lot of strategy to that. However, even winning as low bid, we always want to exceed the expectations of our client. Our marketing efforts involve getting our name out there via social media and networking with land managers, dredgers, engineering firms, contractors and environmental firms for potential teaming partners. Through social media we are able capture what we do with photographs and show people natural areas they might not be able to access on their own. Consulting is very relationship-oriented, your clients need to believe you’re as smart as you say you are.”
The workforce at EarthBalance typically runs around 100 employees. At the core is a group of 65 full-time crew members. Other staff include project managers, project management support personnel, nursery personnel, equipment management, finance and accounting, sales, operation managers, and the leadership team. As an employee-owned company, Laroque teaches that collectively each person’s actions can have an impact on everyone’s future.
EarthBalance is also heavily involved in many communities across Florida. “We just finished a fundraiser for DeSoto County Middle School where we handed out 800 EarthBalance rulers,” Laroque said. “We had a blast at the City of North Port Halloween gathering where we give out Frisbees. We support Wounded Warrior. We also do food drives and turn them into little competitions between our employees. Across the state, we’ve donated native plants to various groups, supplied sea oats in Brevard County and will provide plants to Osceola County for Earth Day. We’ve even put together backpacks with school supplies for the kids of our crew members.”
What it Means to be a Florida Companies to Watch Honoree
“This honor belongs to the employees,” Laroque said. “We used to call ourselves the best kept secret, so this recognition is special. We understand that what we do is not always understood by the general public, but we know it’s important to manage natural areas for current and future generations. GrowFL has given us a platform in which to tell more people about EarthBalance and showcase our efforts.”
Laroque continued, “Through my involvement with the GrowFL CEO Roundtable Program I’ve met some incredible people. One of them is Mel Thomas, who’s in Economic Development for the city of North Port. She’s a firecracker ball of energy! She nominated us for this award, so she’s someone I’d definitely like to thank.”
Looking ahead, Laroque is focused on transitioning EarthBalance to become a more professionally managed company with the structure needed to support future growth. She wants to train existing employees to higher levels and bring in new talent to allow for smart growth that doesn’t sacrifice the company’s reputation. She’s always focused on increasing the value of EarthBalance’s Employee Stock Ownership (ESOP) plan.
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
“It’s not easy,” Laroque said. “Especially when it comes to hiring good people. Before you meet with a prospect, put some thought into what exactly it is you need from them in terms of their skill set and personality. Take your time to think about if this hire will help get you to where you want to be. Once you have your team in place, get out of their way and let them do their job. Give them credit and allow them to be creative and express their ideas. Also, as the boss, you need to be open to the ideas of others.”