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East County Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022 5 months ago

Growing Green

In 1982, Ed and Betty Rosenthal launched Florikan ESA, a manufacturer of environmentally sustainable fertilizer. The company has earned top awards for its innovative tech and environmental leadership.
by: Eric Snider Contributor

Who knew a career in fertilizer could be so exciting? Fulfilling, maybe, but exciting? 

It happened.

Ed Rosenthal started a business in Sarasota with his wife, Betty, in 1982. They christened it Florikan ESA. That dangling acronym stands for Environmentally Stable Agriculture. “Adding it was like a (promise) that we would only develop products that were beneficial to the environment,” Ed says.

At first, Ed sold plastic grow pots to farmers out of the trunk of his car. Betty handled the books. But the couple had bigger things in store. Ed, who has a master’s degree in polymer chemistry, found the Sunshine State’s farming techniques primitive and a terrible waste of water. He wanted to move past peddling pots and get into the solution business. Working with a manufacturer in Japan, Ed developed a polymer-coated, controlled-release fertilizer, a breakthrough invention that upheld the company motto: helping the grower find a better way to grow.

Ed continued his research and development and in the early 2000s invented Staged Nutrient Release, or SNR, which delivers nutrients “at scheduled times when the plant needs them,” he explains. When SNR won Best Innovative Product from the National Society of Professional Engineers in America in 2004, Ed got a plaque.

But he also received something far more valuable: 40 hours of collaborative research with NASA’s Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program. During his week at the Kennedy Space Center, Ed collaborated with NASA scientists to further advance his controlled-release technology.

All told, Ed has developed five patented agricultural products, each a significant piece of green technology.

In 2013, NASA began using Florikan’s SNR product to fertilize its hydroponic vegetable garden on the International Space Station. Ed still consults with the agency on the “Veggie System” project, which thus far has developed 12 leafy green crops that grow in microgravity. Ed’s contributions played a key role in his 2017 induction into the Space Technology Hall of Fame. He was honored along with his son, Eric, who took over as Florikan’s CEO in 2013.

These days, Ed lives with Betty in a condo in downtown Sarasota. Eric, 44, resides next door with his wife, Courtney, and their three children. They’re staying there for a few months until the construction of their new home in Lakewood Ranch is finished.


A Family Windfall

Last October, Eric worked out a sale of Florikan to Illinois-based Profile Products. “When he brought the idea to me, he said, ‘Dad, this will be a life-changing wealth event for all of us,’” Ed recounts. “We agreed right away. It was Eric who really built the company. Without his work, no way the sale happens.”

Eric is staying on as CEO under a year-by-year employment agreement. “I plan to stick around for awhile,” Eric says. “I no longer have to sign checks and call customers to collect money or worry about when to pay a vendor. I can focus on sales and growth.”

Florikan generated roughly $60 million in revenue in 2021. Eric envisions a pronounced upward trajectory in the coming years. “The expectation is that Profile is going to invest quite a bit of money and double our size in five years,” he says. “At least, that’s the marching orders I’ve been given.”

Ed continues to work in an advisory role with the company he founded. His infectious enthusiasm over a two-hour phone interview could convince even the most cynical that a career in fertilizer could indeed be exciting.


Humble Beginnings

Ed Rosenthal was born in New York City to Celia Lerner Rosenthal, a native of the Bronx, and Morris Rosenthal, who grew up on a family farm in Romania and moved to Canada to escape antisemitism. The couple lived on a small farm 50 miles west of Montreal. When Celia was nine months pregnant, she took a train to New York to make sure her son was born an American.

The agriculture techniques Morris learned in Romania did not translate to Lachute, Canada, and life was a constant struggle. Ed remembers times when the fridge held only bottles of well water — no food. Morris ultimately opened a women’s clothing store in Lachute to make ends meet, while continuing to farm. Celia was miserable living in the remote north, so during winter and summer school breaks she would return with her only child to New York, where she took Ed to see plays and bathed him in the city’s culture.

Ed was a stellar student. His grades and off-the-charts SAT scores earned him a scholarship to Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University in Montreal, where straight out of high school he enrolled in master’s programs in both arts and sciences. Ed simultaneously became a Herman Melville scholar and studied the emerging discipline of polymer chemistry.

After college, Ed signed on with a startup company in Ontario that had developed plastic growing pots, which were lighter and cheaper than standard clay ones. He sold them out of the trunk of his car.

In the 1970s, the Quebec sovereignty movement was in full froth. Ed recalls receiving a letter in the late ’70s telling him he’d have to send his two young sons to “French immersion school.” He wanted no part of it.

Florida seemed like a good place to live and sell pots, so he pointed his 1975 Pontiac Grandville south for a scouting trip. Wanting to live in a thriving Jewish community and be near the farming hotbed of Homestead, he leaned toward Miami. “Right about that time, Time magazine published an article saying it was one of the three most dangerous cities in America,” Ed recalls. He crossed Miami off his list.

After a brief stop in Naples, Ed found his way to Sarasota and met with the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom. Ed instantly fell in love with the city and soon moved his wife and two young sons from Canada into a two-bedroom house just off South Beneva Road. He commuted to southeast Florida during the work week, bonding with the farmers.

The husband-and-wife team incorporated as Florikan, a portmanteau of “Florida” and “Canada,” with the “K standing for knowledge.” In ’85, tired of bringing in product from Canada, Ed and Betty built their own plant in Sarasota and began manufacturing pots.

Pursuing the company’s loftier goals, Ed set up a lab in the plant and developed a fertilizer casing in the form of a small polymer-plastic nugget called a prill. (Eric says they resemble Nerds candies but would not recommend eating one.) The casings can be customized to release the fertilizer inside over specified periods, be it 90 days, 180 days, a year, or whatever is appropriate for a particular crop. “Control-release means using less fertilizer because it’s applied only once per crop cycle,” Ed explains, adding that the product also helps reduce harmful nutrient runoff.

Although control-release makes up only 2% of the fertilizer market, according to Eric, Florikan cornered it and began to thrive. One day, three guys showed up at the office and offered Ed a chance to carry their line of pesticides and fungicides. The opportunity promised a serious spike in revenue. “I told them, ‘I will never sell a pesticide or a fungicide,’” Ed recounts. “‘I’m not interested in selling poison and doing damage to farmworkers or the environment.’”

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew flattened Homestead and destroyed its agriculture industry. Ed immediately launched a relief effort. His six company trucks made regular runs to Homestead with bottled water, food and other essentials. Ed adds that he also put the farmers’ receivables on hold, continued to extend credit and deliver his product, while “other companies made it strictly COD. You know what? Every one of those farmers paid the old debt to the penny as well as anything current. We didn’t lose a dime.”


Expanding the Family Business

Meanwhile, in the late ’90s, Eric, who had graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in computer science, was living in Atlanta and working on “Y2K compliance issues.” His older brother, Jonathan, lived in the city as well, working as an attorney. In 2001, Eric recalls, “some massive hurricanes crippled the farming in Florida. The company was struggling financially, so my parents asked if I would come down for a few months to help out.”

He learned the business from top to bottom and contributed to Florikan’s rebound as South Florida built back its agriculture industry. The company vastly expanded its sales reach, mostly in the Southeast and Texas. For Eric, “It was the old story: You never leave the family business.”

Ed says that by 2009, Florikan had “perfected control-release (fertilizer) and was selling a whole lot of it.” But that year presented the biggest crisis yet for the company — and for Ed. The Great Recession did not spare the farming industry, and Florikan took a significant hit. Also, “I got really sick that year,” Ed says. “I had sleep apnea that was life-threatening. I literally could have passed away in my sleep on any given night.”

Ed traveled to Stanford University Medical Center in California for maxillomandibular advancement surgery, in which jaw bones are repositioned to relieve airway obstruction and help alleviate sleep apnea. His recovery did not go well. “I was comatose on my feet,” he says. “I couldn’t eat anything. I didn’t know if I would live, so I turned over the company to Eric and Jonathan. It was like my last will and testament.”

Ed survived. Eric took over running Florikan. Jonathan stayed in Atlanta but made a business move that might well have saved the company. He orchestrated the sale of one of Florikan’s controlled-release patents to a large potato producer. The $6 million it brought in saw Florikan through the rough patch. Subsequently, Ed says, the company suffered from mismanagement by a few newcomers placed in executive positions — including a CFO who was “completely incompetent” — so, in 2013, he and Betty returned to help nurture the company back to health. Part of the process was getting rid of the bad seeds.

Eric took over as CEO that year and put together a top-notch team, Ed says. In 2015, Florikan opened another, larger plant in Wauchula, about 50 miles east of company headquarters in Lakewood Ranch.

Eric allows that the business relationship with his father was rocky at times, but says it with a chuckle. “Like any family business, we’ve had plenty of drama along the way,” he explains. “My father always thinks he’s right; he has a very strong personality, and I have a lot of that, too. We eventually separated our roles and found the right things to do. Dad was the visionary. I ran the company.”

Ed’s consulting agreement with Florikan finds him in the office a couple of afternoons a week, where he continues to work on fertilizer technology.

“It’s very nice now,” Eric says. “The business is doing well. Dad has things to do and people to talk to but is no longer controlling. And he has his NASA work.”

Ed and Betty leave their condo door unlocked so the grandkids can come and go, grab an ice cream from the fridge, take a shower, hang out with Papa Ed and Mimi. “There’s nothing better in life,” Ed intones tenderly.

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