The Business of Being Green

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2005

A high school science experiment led Larry Leetzow, president of Magnaray International in Sarasota, to a 40-year career in environmentally conscious lighting. His simple experiment, demonstrating how minerals can be illuminated by a black light, proved to Leetzow that lighting had infinite possibilities. Better yet, they were possibilities that might bring a profit.

Leetzow is an example of the distinction between the myth of tree-hugging eco-warriors and the reality of today's green consumers and businesses. For him and other local green business owners, "Green means savings. It's positive. It means 'Go,' and everything good," he says.

Green businesses have an environmental ethic, and attempt to practice this ethic by their buying and operating decisions. They incorporate many types of green initiatives into their business plans, including energy efficiency, water conservation and recycling.

A green business pioneer decades before it became fashionable, Leetzow has been reducing light pollution and lowering his customers' utility bills since 1964 with his Sarasota-based energy-efficient lighting business. Leetzow, who bids mostly for commercial work, has installed energy-efficient lighting systems at recreation centers, apartment complexes and tennis courts. He says Sarasota residents are becoming more accepting of green businesses like his.

Indeed, when it comes to understanding the benefits of being green, Sarasota County is a national trendsetter. The county has a population that likes things clean and healthy, has a supportive government and a number of eco-friendly businesses ranging from health food stores to salvage yards.

Greg Andrews, regional team leader in Atlanta for the Department of Energy, is involved with the Rebuild America program, of which Sarasota County is a member. (Rebuild America is a partnership of businesses and governments across the nation that shares ideas on using energy efficiently.)

Andrews cites Sarasota County's energy management plan for its judicial center, completed in 1998, as a model for other counties. With high-efficiency lighting and air-conditioning systems, and environmental landscaping with native plants and micro-irrigation, that plan has successfully reduced operating expenses in the judicial center by 40 percent, or $80,000 annually. The judicial center earned an Energy Star rating from the EPA that places it in the top 20 percent of most efficient buildings in the United States.

"In the last number of years Sarasota has been successful in its projects and initiatives," Andrews says.

But sustainability-preserving the quality of life in Sarasota without depleting its natural resources or polluting the environment-isn't just about energy efficiency or recycling, says Tom Geriak, marketing and product development coordinator for Kimal Lumber in Venice. "It's about living healthy, building for longevity and adaptability," Geriak says.


Kimal Lumber, like several other local builders and building supply companies, has been quietly going green for years, says Geriak. The lumber company, which had $37.5 million in sales last year, searches out green building materials for customers such as floor tile adhesives that won't emit chemical by-products.

"From the corporate level down through the supply chains there is a national movement in the construction industry toward sustainability," Geriak says. It's happening primarily behind the scenes, he says, like managing lumber harvests and staving off deforestation by planting more trees.

Major communities like Lakewood Ranch and Venetian Golf and River Club, and many local builders like Brian Pruett and Lee Wetherington, are setting stringent green construction standards for energy efficiency and environmentally conscious construction products. "They're proving that it isn't just a trend," Geriak says. "It's profitable." Pruett Builders, in fact, set a statewide precedent when the Florida Green Building Coalition adopted the company's green building standards in 2002.

Brian Pruett of Pruett Builders says it only makes smart business sense for contractors to go green. "Consumers are growing more savvy about green building, and if you don't react to consumers, you're going to be in trouble," he says. He admits that the learning curve takes time, energy and money for the builders. And, although green building has been slow to catch on, Pruett remains optimistic. His company builds 25 to 40 green homes each year, and he says the question is not whether his homes are green, but rather to what extent they are free of toxicity. Pruett admits there is an initial expense to building a green home, but says the payback can be as much as a 15-percent return on the investment with lower utility bills.

"We were a part of starting this and the end result is that we'll make an impact on our world, at least our world as we see it in Sarasota and Bradenton," Pruett says.

That impact is also seen in developments like the Venetian Golf and River Club in Venice, a WCI Community. The Venetian is the fourth development in Florida to pass the Florida Green Building Coalition (FGBC)'s communitywide green building standards. The project took into consideration the nearby land and wildlife, as well as the Myakka River, which runs next to the development.

All 150 homes in the upscale golf community have received green certifications. In addition, WCI restored wetlands and introduced more than 1,000 native plants around the gold course. Karen Childress, environment stewardship manager for Bonita Springs-based WCI Communities, also serves as FGBC board president. She says that WCI, which develops communities around Florida, formed a partnership in 2001 with nonprofit Audubon International to help their business understand national green practices and principles.

"We'd had success building in Palm Beach, so when we began planning the Venetian we decided to take what we'd learned and apply it," Childress says. In 2004, the Venetian Golf and River Club was certified as a Gold Audubon Signature Sustainable Development.

Having the Audubon designation, Childress says, does help sell homes and increases the value of Venetian residents' properties. And she says residents appreciate the developer's extra effort; even those who don't golf will still frequent the greens just to gaze at the wildlife. The Audubon logo is featured prominently in the clubhouse and sales office.

Bob Sisum, director of builder programs at Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, oversees the activities of all residential builders at Lakewood Ranch to make sure they conform to the community's green guidelines. These guidelines specify more than 200 construction options builders can utilize to be considered green, including energy-efficient appliances, low-flow plumbing fixtures and carbon monoxide detectors.

Lee Wetherington, one of Lakewood Ranch's green certified builders, successfully lobbied the Sarasota county commission in 2001 to pass a water-efficient landscape ordinance. The ordinance became the first in Florida to require limiting "high-irrigated water use areas." Now drip lines are used to water concentrated areas in yards rather than sprinklers spraying water willy-nilly over sidewalks, driveways and streets.

The intent of the ordinance was to reduce energy waste and to encourage water conservation, says Nina Powers, education specialist for Sustainable Sarasota, a Sarasota county government office that mandates policies, guidelines and goals to promote the sustainability of Sarasota, including eco-tourism, green business development and ecological research about the community. In 2002, Sarasota County received a first-place award for water-conservation leadership in Florida for the ordinance at the American Water Works annual conference.

Jesse White, owner of Sarasota Architectural Salvage, is another business owner who found a way to use his interest in recycling to benefit from the green movement.

He says the art community in Sarasota naturally promotes a more environmentally aware population. "In general we're a pretty well-educated and affluent people in Sarasota, and there is a fair amount of disposable income and time here," White says.

The success of White's business of salvaging and selling doors, windows, bricks and other decorative elements that might otherwise end up in the county's landfill demonstrates Sarasota's progressive nature. "We're still on the leading edge of the green business movement," White says, but adds that one of his biggest challenges is constantly defining "green business" to customers while still making sure to offer value.

"The customer still wants to have the best product at the best price. You still have to meet that value equation for them, even if you are a green business," he says.


Cherie DiNoia, president of Shelby Financial Group in Sarasota, focuses on socially responsible investing. DiNoia won't support investing in companies that don't support the environment. In fact, if a client wants to diversify into tobacco or defense contracting companies, DiNoia will turn them away.

DiNoia says she doesn't really advertise her company, and gets most of her business through word of mouth. Her clients, she says, are "purpose-driven people who are interested in using all of their assets-time, talent and money-to invest in a world that works for everyone."

"When you look at the numbers, you don't have to sacrifice profitability by doing socially responsible investing," DiNoia says. Among her top picks: Whole Foods Market and Gaiam, "a provider of information, goods and services to customers who value the environment, a sustainable economy, healthy lifestyles and personal development."


Kimal Lumber's Geriak, a child of the '60s, says he remembers the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. Despite the excitement and awareness the huge grassroots demonstration generated among millions of Americans, he says it seemed like decades went by before people really began to talk about the environment.

"Now, at least in Sarasota, the conversation of environment has gained a head of steam and that's exciting," he says.

Schroeder-Manatee Ranch's Sisum agrees. "Sarasota is one of the foremost leaders, along with Gainesville," he says. "Gainesville has the ordinances that expedite permits and reduced fees for green building. But Sarasota is getting there."

Geriak calls Sarasota County the greenest county in Florida. There are other cities across the country known for their sustainability efforts, such as Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Gainesville, but they are dictated by government regulations and building code ordinances. Sarasota County leaders, on the other hand, deliberately chose to avoid the strict regime of regulations, says Jim Ley, Sarasota County administrator. "Sarasota County is trying to re-connect to people's values and not legislate sustainability," Ley says.

It's not a new theory for the county to embrace. "The county has been involved in sustainable initiatives much longer than the fad of sustainability," says Jodi John, manager of Sustainable Sarasota. Its newest effort: an incentive program rewarding contractors that use green building standards with fast-tracking of building permits and a 50-percent reduction in their cost of up to $1,000.

More than 25 years after developing a collection of environmental information and research housed at the Selby Library, county employees now tool around town in eco-friendly hybrid Toyota Priuses and Ford Escapes and purchase recycled office products.

And the community continues to show support in the greening of Sarasota County with programs like Preservation 2000, a taxpayer-funded initiative to purchase environmentally sensitive lands. Since the program started in 2000, more than 14,000 acres have been purchased.

County leaders have long supported a greener community, starting with The Florida House Learning Center, an environmental model for homebuilding and landscaping that has hosted nearly 150,000 visitors from across the nation and the world since the county built it 10 years ago. The Florida House, which regularly sponsors free classes on composting and other green programs, has inspired similar projects in Cairo, Egypt; Baton Rouge, La.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Wilmington, N.C. and Charleston, S.C.

John Toppe, president of the U.S. Green Building Council's Florida Gulf Coast chapter, says Sarasota is proving its commitment to protect the environment by using a nationally accepted standard for its own new building projects. The standard, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System, (LEED), has most recently been used for the Twin Lakes government office complex and the north county library.

Andrews says he has confidence that Sarasota will continue to be a model for other regions looking to become green or push environmental consciousness even further.

"By making environmental responsibility a fundamental pillar of all county activities, the entire community's attitude will gradually change as the word spreads and the concept of green living becomes mainstream for all of us," Andrews says.

Let your fingers do the walking

Mary Ann Bowie, president of Bowie Urban Planners, founded the Sarasota Green Connection in 2003. Originally a monthly outdoor marketplace where people could purchase eco-friendly products from local businesses, the connection has since gone virtual with the Sarasota Green Pages. "We're like a mini green chamber of commerce for Sarasota," she says.

Bowie says she started the marketplace to promote local green businesses and to let residents know they have a choice when purchasing products for their home or office. "We're building the green economy by helping people understand that green choices are available," Bowie says.

The online Sarasota Green Pages includes more than 100 green businesses and will be available in print in May. For more information visit

Green Celebrations

Sustainable Sarasota is pulling out all the stops for its first annual Efest, which organizers say stands for "energy, economy, environment, equity, entrepreneurs, ecology, education, earth and excellence."

On Friday evening, May 27, opening festivities include the premiere of Footprints: On the Crossroads of Change, a documentary about Sarasota's eco-consciousness, and a keynote speech by Ray Anderson, called "the greenest chief executive in America." On Saturday, May 28, there will be more speeches by such activists as Rod Dodson, CEO of Audubon International, and over 100 environmentally friendly local businesses and organizations displaying their wares.

All activities take place at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. For details, visit

Also in Sarasota, on May 25-27, is the Florida Green Building Coalition's statewide conference and trade show, Green Trends 2005. The conference includes speakers, tours and workshops and will be held at the Chelsea Center, 2506 Gulf Gate Drive, Sarasota. For details, visit

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