PRODUCER UPDATE

Sod Solutions Celebrates 30 Years: From Kitchen Table to Around the World

As Sod Solutions celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2024, it’s essential to look at the key moments that have shaped the company, the people who have played pivotal roles in its success and the vision that has guided its growth throughout the past 30 years. What started as a company with one product and two employees has grown into a longstanding company within the turfgrass industry. Sod Solutions’ commitment to innovation, diversification and relationship-oriented business style has driven its remarkable success within the industry.

Tobey Wagner holding a slab of Palmetto® St. Augustinegrass almost three decades ago.

Tobey Wagner, President of Sod Solutions, started his journey into the turfgrass industry shortly after graduating from Auburn University in 1987. Following graduation, Tobey took a job at Martin Marietta Aerospace and moved with his wife, Lee Ann to Orlando, Florida. Taking after his father’s and grandfather’s interests, Tobey spent most of his time off work outdoors, gardening and tending to his backyard. Like most people in Florida at the time, his lawn was made up of Floratam St. Augustine, and he was having trouble caring for it. “I had a neighbor right up the street with one of those yards that was just a beautiful tropical paradise of palm trees, bananas and citrus fruits. He taught me a lot about general landscaping and I learned from him about the equipment and how to maintain the yard. That’s when I got interested in the caretaking of plants, which led to lawns and grass,” Tobey said.

Tobey’s fascination started to grow as he learned more about the emerging opportunities and developments that the turfgrass industry had to offer, propelling his interest forward and eventually changing the trajectory of his career path. Through his love of learning and meeting new people, Tobey formed many relationships with growers and other turfgrass professionals in Central Florida. “Tobey came home one day and said, ‘Grass for lawns is being sold as a commodity’ Lee Ann shared. “There’s an opportunity to sell it as a value-added product and get patent protection. That way, you manage the people who grow, get a higher quality product and put forward quality control guidelines. We could create a brand with enough added value to earn a royalty on that brand. We started to think about that idea and over time it developed until ultimately, we decided to try it.”

It took a little while for Tobey’s vision to grow into reality. From contacts in Florida, Tobey met a researcher at the University of Florida named Dr. Phil Busey. Dr. Busey taught Tobey a lot about patenting grass varieties and introduced him to a grass variety he was breeding called FX-10. At the time, this grass was only in Florida and was touted to revolutionize the industry with its drought and disease tolerance. Tobey proposed bringing FX-10 to the Southeast coast to see how it would grow outside of Florida and eventually sell it to growers in South Carolina.

The Wagners formed a strong business relationship with a farm in Central Florida called Kirkland Sod, run by Elmer Kirkland. Around the same time Tobey was working on spreading the word about FX-10, Kirkland came to him with another grass variety that he believed had improved characteristics that would help the grass “take off” outside Florida.

Elmer Kirkland and Tobey Wagner

After living and working in Florida for a few years, Tobey and Lee Ann relocated to South Carolina and eventually settled in Charleston. Tobey brought both grass samples back to South Carolina and tested them throughout the cold winter months. Kirkland’s grass was the one that survived the extreme winter cold of 1993. FX-10, “the grass which was supposed to take over the world”, froze out, died and is no longer on the market. To this day, Kirkland’s grass, which we now call Palmetto® St. Augustinegrass, is the most sold patented turfgrass in the world, with over 3 billion square feet sold. It is sold across the United States and in multiple countries. Palmetto® St. Augustine was the first Sod Solutions product and remains an industry legacy product.

Pictured above is Tobey Wagner with Palmetto® St. Augustine in greenhouses in the 1990s.

The early days of Sod Solutions looked a lot different than they look now. As the Wagners got to work on establishing Sod Solutions, they worked out of their kitchen and dining room while simultaneously starting and raising their family. They didn’t have the money to hire a big staff, so Tobey and Lee Ann did most of the work.

Tobey traveled a lot, focusing on building relationships in the marketplace with farms and landscapers. At the same time, Lee Ann anchored the business from home, working on administrative, accounting and communication matters, making sure everything was running smoothly on the back end. Lee Ann learned much about running a business from working for and watching her parents run their business. “As an entrepreneur, it brings a lot of flexibility to your life, but you also work very hard. You get to decide where you want to invest your time and money,” Lee Ann said.

Juggling parenthood and starting up a business can be difficult, but the Wagners overcame this challenge by integrating the values of family into their business matters from the very start. Business trips consisted of Turfgrass Producers International (TPI) conferences and trips to different farms, with their children tagging along. “Many farms we worked with were family businesses that were also raising children. So, it wasn’t unusual for Tobey to take the kids with him to the farms in the summer. We integrated it into our lives. We raised our family and did our work. It was very commingled but in a healthy way. Our family was very involved in our business from the beginning,” said Lee Ann.

As business and clientele grew, they started looking to bring on employees to help them out, one of whom still works for Sod Solutions today, Brenda Roberts. Tobey and Lee Ann approached Brenda at a school fundraising event shortly after the start of Sod Solutions, asking her to join their team, and she eagerly accepted the invitation. Brenda recalls Tobey going to Jennie Moore Elementary School, where both of their children attended school, and speaking to the classes about his trips to international sod farms, showing the students photos and samples of the signature grass, Palmetto.

With no marketing department or official employee titles, Brenda picked up any work that needed to be done, whether taking licensing agreements to get signed, organizing files or making phone calls. Brenda describes the Sod Solutions work environment at this time as quiet and relaxed, where she would come to the house, have breakfast in the kitchen with Lee Ann and then head into the dining room to get the workday started. Brenda is grateful for the family atmosphere Tobey and Lee Ann brought to their business. “I was able to do so much more with my kids and for my kids than I would have ever been able to do in any other job. If one of the kids was sick, or if there was a school field trip, I was given the ability and flexibility to be here for my kids and work too,” she said.

The Wagner family in Hawaii for a Turfgrass Producers International Conference in the 1990s.

Very early on, Tobey was interested in diversification, and he saw that happening geographically. Most of what Sod Solutions was doing started in Florida, but after some consideration, Tobey decided to check out improved varieties in other parts of the world. Although expensive, Tobey began investing in international travel, looking at varieties in other countries that had succeeded. He arranged to bring them back here to license for the US market. The money and time spent on these international ventures paid off, as this is how Celebration® Bermudagrass and EMPIRE® Zoysia, the company’s two other legacy brands, found their way into Sod Solutions portfolio.

The story of EMPIRE Zoysia began with a simple yet transformative international email exchange between Tobey and an agronomist in Brazil named Roberto Gurgel. Through an advertisement in a TPI magazine, Roberto was introduced to Palmetto and became interested in growing it on the farm where he worked. During that time, the internet was starting to take the world by storm and the most common forms of communication were by email.

Roberto Gurgel

So, Roberto reached out to Tobey to inquire more about Palmetto, and to his surprise, Tobey answered that very same day, saying, “Hey, it’s Tobey Wagner here! This is exciting because this is my very first international email exchange!” The two continued to communicate back and forth, eventually planning a trip for Tobey to visit Brazil and see the production going on there. Tobey spent 10 days in Brazil, visiting several farms and securing the contract for Palmetto.

But the Palmetto contract wasn’t the biggest blessing from Tobey’s trip to Brazil. During this time, Roberto was also researching and working towards developing a new grass variety. After showing Tobey this variety, which we now call EMPIRE, Tobey immediately liked it and knew it would succeed due to EMPIRE’s coarser-bladed look. Before they knew it, a contract was signed to have EMPIRE brought to the US, where over time, it became wildly successful, especially in Florida, Texas and across the greater Southeast. This deal started a solid international partnership and lifelong friendship between Roberto and Tobey. “I call that calculated risk by prayer,” said Tobey. “When I think about the trip to Brazil, I think about God putting me where he wanted me. At first, I thought I was wasting time and money, two things we didn’t have, making that trip. I ended up bringing back one of the most successful products we’ve ever had and it continues to grow.”

Three years later, Tobey asked Roberto to join the Sod Solutions team as the Executive Director of Research to oversee producers in the Central Texas territory. Moving across the world was a big move for Roberto and his family. Now 21 years later, Roberto still works for Sod Solutions and remains an integral part of the company’s success.

Roberto Gurgel and Tobey Wagner visiting farms together almost three decades ago.

Celebration Bermudagrass originated from Tobey’s desire to enter the sports and golf markets, which meant finding an improved bermudagrass over widely-used Tifway 419. After a business trip to Australia, Tobey was introduced to the Celebration variety by Rod Riley, turfgrass breeder and Keeper of the Greens for Australia’s national sport, Lawn Bowls. Celebration thrived on the Lawn Bowl courts, rapidly recovering from heavy wear and tear. Tobey acquired international licensing rights and eventually brought the grass back to the US, where Celebration continues to succeed decades later.

Tobey explains that what motivated him throughout the company’s significant growth years was seeing new places and meeting new people. His spirit for adventure and building relationships brought the company success not only across the country but also around the world. Sod Solutions continues to develop new and successful products, but to this day, Palmetto, EMPIRE and Celebration continue to perform.

After solidifying these initial three grass varieties, Tobey wanted to get more organized and bring more science behind the work Sod Solutions was doing. “Our commitment to innovation is one of our biggest growth factors,” said Chief Operating Officer Christian Broucqsault. “We are never satisfied with what we currently have. We’re always asking how we can be better. That’s what’s brought us down this research path. Otherwise, we would have just had three grasses and focused on those.” Through industry networks and relationships with several breeders and farms, programs were started in Florida, Texas and North Carolina, directly involving growers in targeted, grass-specific programs with university turfgrass breeders. The goal was to get the growers grasses with specific traits they needed in their geographic areas.

Tobey is confident that Sod Solutions has many products needed in the industry and said the company is focused on educating customers on what those products are.

Sod Solutions has advanced to multiple business units outside turfgrass licensing. “We built new businesses because of our commitment to innovation. We have a software technology division. We moved into online sales, which developed into our Lawnifi brand. We have Sod Home, which was born from our education process of helping homeowners. And Sod Solutions Professionals, which came from the desire to build deeper relationships with professional clients,” Christian said.

With Tobey and Lee Ann involving their family within the company from the very start, it wasn’t much of a surprise when their oldest, Drew Wagner and now Sod Solutions Chief Technology Officer, developed an interest in the family business. As Drew traveled with his dad to farms, he met producers and learned much about the industry and the sod-growing business early in his childhood. Drew graduated from Auburn University with a degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering, and it didn’t take long for him to start contributing his ideas to his parents’ company.

Drew’s first contribution started with Turf Logistics®, a software management tool to help aid Sod Farms with organizing orders, invoices, harvesting and deliveries. “I would go with Dad to see these producers, and it’d be a trailer or small building on the side of a farm. We would walk inside, and they would have a whiteboard or stacks of paper scattered over their desk. I would always think there must be a better way. You’ve got people that are running multimillion-dollar businesses with paper. There’s software for every other industry, and every other company digitizes its paperwork. So we saw this opportunity to create something to help with that,” Drew said.

Merging his knowledge of the turfgrass industry and software technology, Drew continued contributing ideas that have strengthened the company from within, including Sod Solutions’ new business unit, SatQuote. Drew’s ability to recognize needs within the turfgrass and landscaping industry inspired his idea to create this software to measure, design and quote landscaping work. Drew feels confident about where the company is now but is eager to find more ways to expand the business and promote success in the future. “Our team is always looking for new ways to leverage the expertise we have built across agronomy, technology, and marketing. What’s fun for me is finding unsolved problems, investing in solutions and seeing how our products and services help our customers. That’s what gets me up in the morning and gets me excited. We’ve got a group of people here who are passionate, share our vision and are really invested in our mission.”

Tobey and Lee Ann have other members of their family working for the business as well. Their son-in-law, Addison King, is the Chief Financial Officer and he works alongside Lee Ann with the financial department.  Their son-in-law, Whit Jacobs, worked as Sod Solutions South East Territory Manager and is now working on new projects for Innowave, a new division of the company’s Software Technology business unit. “If you would’ve asked me 10-20 years ago if we would have so much family in this business, I would have told you no way! We’ve been very fortunate that our son, Drew, has always been interested in the business and our daughters have married just incredible men who are working for us. If you combine that with our leadership team in the company, all these people have made huge contributions to our team. Both family and non-family employees really matter to us. Over time, the non-family employees become more like family,” said Tobey.

Maintaining culture when you’re a growing company can be challenging. However, Tobey and Lee Ann have cultivated a company based on family values, even as they continue to grow. “We believe in a good, healthy work-life balance. Having a work environment that also allows you to have a healthy family life. With that in mind, we’re always including our family in the business, so there’s always been kind of an invitation to include our employees’ families,” Lee Ann said. She and Tobey feel that Sod Solutions employees are an extension of their own family, and their employees feel the same way.

Sod Solutions’ success isn’t just defined by its profitability but by the determination, unwavering passion and employees that Tobey and Lee Ann have behind their company. In this ever-evolving business landscape, Tobey and Lee Ann express that they are excited about this 30-year milestone and are confident about the people they will leave the business to. “We feel very blessed to be where we are,” Tobey said. “We’re excited to celebrate our 30th anniversary in 2024 and I truly think the best is yet to come.”

This article was written by Elyse Kann, Sod Solutions 2023 Marketing Intern.

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