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Fertile ground: The export market is hot for eco-friendly fertilizer

Amir Varshovi had no desire to move to New Jersey after the company he was working for was bought out in 1999. Rather than keep his corporate position, the University of Florida-trained scientist decided "to start something new."

At UF, Varshovi had studied the impact of commercial fertilizers. He knew of a way to produce a more eco-friendly fertilizer using local, renewable resources. So he and his wife decided to take out a second mortgage to fund his venture, GreenTechnologies, in their Gainesville garage.

Under his patented process, nutrientrich biosolids from wastewater treatment plants are repurposed into slowrelease organic fertilizers for farms, golf courses, landscaping projects and other uses.

"I had no doubt that this is something that's needed, but a lot of things have to come together for a business to get off the ground and become successful," he says.

As a research scientist in UF's Soil and Water Science Department, Varshovi hired a law school student named Marla Buchanan to help him in the lab. Buchanan eventually got her law degree and joined a law firm in Jacksonville, but the two stayed in touch. Buchanan recalls accompanying Varshovi to workshops on starting and financing a business put on by the Small Business Development Center at the University of North Florida 16 years ago.

"There was a lot to learn, and it was at times overwhelming," she says. "They helped with the nuts and bolts of operating a business day to day" — things like collecting sales taxes and complying with workers' comp laws. "If you've always worked for another company, these are things you're not necessarily going to know."

Varshovi says the money from his second mortgage "went fairly quickly" on equipment purchases, but he soon secured a $50,000 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration for working capital. His big break came in 2001, when he persuaded the Jacksonville Electric Authority to provide him the byproducts he needed to manufacture his fertilizer.

Today, GreenTechnologies operates a manufacturing facility on 25 acres near JEA's central wastewater treatment plant in Jacksonville. Its fertilizer products are sold under the GreenEdge name at hardware and gardening stores nationwide, including Ace Hardware and HomeDepot.com. Annual sales exceed $2 million.

"Our growth has accelerated in the past three years," Varshovi says, noting that he provides utilities a waste disposal option to landfills and incineration. "When the economy took a downturn, we became a cost-effective alternative for some utilities. Also, environmental regulations are tightening, so we've become more attractive to utilities needing to stay in compliance. Supply is abundant."

In 2012, Varshovi and Buchanan returned to the Small Business Development Center at UNF looking to grow outside the U.S. They participated in an SBA pilot program designed to increase the number of small-business exporters nationwide, and the SBDC helped them develop an export marketing plan focused on Australia, Canada, Chile, Ecuador and India.

"Obviously in the spring and fall, we have very strong sales, and in the summer and winter, sales tend to drop off. Going to Latin America helps even out the seasonality of our product line," Buchanan says.

Last March, Buchanan left Rogers Towers law firm in Jacksonville, where she was a shareholder, and joined GreenTechnologies as COO. Meanwhile, Varshovi was recognized as the SBA's State of Florida Small Business Person of the Year for 2014, receiving praise for making a sustainable product and pursuing growth overseas.

"There are a lot more customers outside the United States than inside the United States, so he sees the opportunity," says Cathy Hagan, area director at the Small Business Development Center at UNF. "He's also found some good partners to help him do that. He worked with us to get an export marketing strategy in place. And he now works with the U.S. Department of Commerce and Enterprise Florida to go on trade missions and make contacts in other countries."

Varshovi plans to build a $10-million manufacturing facility on 23 acres near a wastewater treatment plant in Lakeland and expects to initially produce about 5,000 tons of fertilizer a year and eventually double capacity.

"We're growing, and we need an additional manufacturing center," he says.