March 28, 2004 - Sarasota Herald-Tribune: RPCV Don Ross is EarthBalance's chief executive and a former Charlotte County commissioner

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: March 2004 Peace Corps Headlines: March 28, 2004 - Sarasota Herald-Tribune: RPCV Don Ross is EarthBalance's chief executive and a former Charlotte County commissioner

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RPCV Don Ross is EarthBalance's chief executive and a former Charlotte County commissioner

RPCV Don Ross is EarthBalance's chief executive and a former Charlotte County commissioner

RPCV Don Ross is EarthBalance's chief executive and a former Charlotte County commissioner

Growing naturally
EarthBalance has created an ecosystem niche for itself


NORTH PORT -- Florida's unique wetlands, wildlife and explosive growth provide a laboratory to study environmental management.

EarthBalance, a 15-year-old North Port-based company, is making a name for itself in the fragmented, high-stakes game of ecosystem consulting and restoration.

The industry offers top players a shot at private capital, public stock offerings, lucrative acquisitions and strategic consolidation.

Restoration companies are emerging statewide from the agriculture, land development, mining, forestry, tourism and consulting industries.

EB sees itself as a player, and plans to lead the industry as it moves from a collection of bio-specialists, academics and consultants to a professional, integrated services industry.

Two Local Leaders

Another Southwest Florida company contending for environmental restoration leadership is Biological Research Associates.

BRA is a Tampa based-company with offices in Sarasota which is a decade older than EB, having been founded by USF biologists in 1974.

Steve Godley, BRA's president, thinks his firm and EB are among the top three environmental restoration firms in Florida.

EB offers soup-to-nuts environmental application, permitting, reporting and physical mitigation service to government agencies and landowners. For specific projects, the company acts as in-house environmental manager.

EB delivers technical expertise and handles the maze of paperwork required for environmentally-sensitive land use permitting and reporting.

The company marshals the paper, the experts and the physical labor.

Vertically integrated, EB also owns nurseries where it grows much of the flora its projects require.

There's been a sea-change in environmental mitigation since the company's founding in 1985 as Florida Environmental Inc., a Port Charlotte consulting firm.

The company's name change in 2002 reflected a reactive industry developing into a proactive one, said Don Ross, EB's chief executive and a former Charlotte County commissioner.

Industry "For Real"

"At that point we decided the industry was for real," said Ross, "and we started marketing our capabilities."

As EB transformed, so did the industry, toward using long-term scientific planning and ecological solutions instead of man-made materials or after-the-fact intervention.

An example is EB's use of native grasses to stabilize sand dunes as opposed to fences or artificial sand barriers.

Recently, in a project overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers, EB installed more than a million plants along 21 miles of Myrtle Beach, S.C., in a dune-preservation project.

Seventy percent of the plants were grown at an EB's nursery in DeSoto County, from native seeds harvested by the company in South Carolina.

The scope of EB services is wide for a $12 million company, including wetland creation, phosphate mine reclamation, dune restoration, mitigation banking, native plant supply and water supply consulting.

EB projects range in size from the multi-million multi-year deals to "about $500 to relocate tortoises," says Ross.

Last year, EB was hired by The National Park Service to eradicate non-native and invasive plants on the remote 176-acre Buck Island in the Virgin Islands near St. Croix.

NPS supervisory exotic plant specialist Dan Clark oversaw the company's work: "They did an excellent job" in tough conditions." Clark said the NPS signed a five-year agreement with EB.

Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers needed to create 550 acres of wetland out of farmland.

Church Roberts of Johnson Engineering in Fort Myers manages the project for the Lee County Port Authority and oversaw EB's involvement.

"EarthBalance is very good at what they do," Roberts said. "We're real careful about who we use for a project of this scope, because if you get someone who doesn't, it can be a real mess."

Roberts said the airport project was worth $1 million to $1.5 million to EarthBalance.

"In wetland creation, EarthBalance's input is critical in keeping out plants that could otherwise quickly overwhelm the site," Roberts said. "They're one of the three or four really good companies at what they do."

Government Revenues

EB often finds public agencies are short-handed when it comes to expert environmental evaluation, on-going reporting capability and hands-on mitigation effort.

Consequently, "about two-thirds of our revenues come from government or government-related bodies." says Ross.

That is a drawback, says Steve Godley of BRA, who has a different business model.

"Ours is more profitable," he flatly states, "part of the problem with EarthBalance's model is their focus on public-sector work. It all goes to public bid where low dough gets the job."

Godley says 75 percent of BRA revenues are from the private sector, where "BRA's services are based on quality and client expectations, not price."

BRA is slightly smaller in revenues than EB at about $10 million annually to EB's $12 million.

Asked where he thought the revenues would be in five years, "about double," said Godley.

Ross, however, looks for EB revenues to quadruple in five years.

Botanists, Geologists and Zoologists

Ross assembled a staff of about 40 biologists, botanists, ecologists, wetlands specialists and others. He also employs 60 laborers and nursery workers to provide the muscle his assignments demand.

With a master's degree in ecology and a degree in forestry, Ross is qualified for the work. A Peace Corps veteran, Ross served in South America and dealt with tropical forestry issues.

Ross served as Charlotte County commissioner from 1990 to 1994.

His combination of government experience is key given the preponderance of EB's public-sector revenues.

EB has grown from two million dollars annually to about $12 million, in less than a decade.

Ross sees revenues growing to "about $40 million in the next five years."

Dr. Betty Diener, visiting professor of management at Barry University in Miami Shores, has studied the emerging environmental restoration industry.

She says EB is "one of the industry leaders, no doubt. They can handle a wide range of projects from soup to nuts and they have excellent relationships with government which are very important."

Slice of Development Pie

Diener and Ross estimate that most major domestic development projects will spend between 7 and 10 percent of budget on environmental restoration.

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Story Source: Sarasota Herald-Tribune

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Ecology; Environment



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