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Robert McLaughlin of Manatee Fresh: “Pioneers get slaughtered and settlers prosper”

“Pioneers get slaughtered and settlers prosper.” People that typically pioneer an industry do it but often fail to become leaders in it. Those that come in after and improve upon it tend to be those leaders of industry. This goes back to our third pillar of sustainability. Move to make changes at a pace you […]

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“Pioneers get slaughtered and settlers prosper.” People that typically pioneer an industry do it but often fail to become leaders in it. Those that come in after and improve upon it tend to be those leaders of industry. This goes back to our third pillar of sustainability. Move to make changes at a pace you can afford. Standing on a soapbox until you are broke does not ensure you will be around to do your best work.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert McLaughlin, Founder/President of Manatee Fresh, has been a relentless advocate, industry driver, and true influencer of sustainable floriculture and human rights of farm workers for over 30 years. Long before these moral imperatives became popularized, Robert has been a true industry pioneer, insisting that every grower he works with maintain the highest standards in how they care for their workers and the local and global ecology. With certifications including Rainforest Alliance, USDA Organic, Florverde and Fair Trade, Demeter Biodynamic, and Flor Ecuador, all partner farms are third party inspected annually, AND personally inspected by Robert, ultimately changing the way brands meet the desires of today’s socially conscious consumer. “Sustainable floriculture has been a passion of mine over the past 30 years — specifically, the rights of workers on floral and produce farms throughout the world. Our passion for our people is what makes us different, transparent, and the best possible company and global citizens we can be.”


Thank you so much for doing this with us, Robert! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I was born at Reynolds Army Hospital on Fort Sill, Oklahoma. My mother used to joke that she knew I would be a handful because it took two Special Forces soldiers to help bring me into the world. As an ARMY brat — a kid growing up in a military family on the move — I never spent two full years at any one school. I bounced between good behavior and bad behavior depending on the year and who I came into contact with at each new school. I started my career in the floral industry at age 14, working on a farm in Central Florida. I began in the packing sheds where I learned to weed, feed, and spray the plants and flowers. After that role, I moved on to driving the floral trucks, then to buying product and selling to national accounts. After 36 years in this industry, I still enjoy what I do. It has taken me around the world and given me the opportunity to learn every step of the way.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Sustainable floriculture is the pursuit of growing, shipping, selling, and distributing the most beautiful blooms with the least negative impact on our planet.

Our company, Manatee Fresh, is doing big things in sustainable floriculture by focusing on our footprint and offering consumers “Choices that Matter” when buying flowers and plants. We want to be transparent in our business, help consumers understand why sustainable floriculture is important, and educate people about why they should seek out retailers that carry these products.

Three pillars of sustainability stand as the mission and foundation of our company: Environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability. Each pillar requires us to ask important questions to positively affect the floriculture industry and the world at large. We are answering these questions with solutions and resolution.

Environmental sustainability consists of understanding and controlling our impact on the environment. How are we growing it? What agro chemicals are we using? Are we using the most earth-friendly chemicals available? Are we ensuring farms we buy from never use any agro chemicals banned by the World Health Organization or the US EPA? After that, we carefully consider: How are our products shipped and distributed? Is it in the most Earth-friendly manner? Are we accurately calculating our carbon output and offsetting where we can?

Social sustainability is how the workers on farms are treated. Are they paid fair, livable wages? Do they receive proper safety equipment and training to perform their jobs and return to their families safe and healthy each night? Both domestically and abroad, we have responsibilities to ensure every person working in this industry is treated well.

Our third pillar, economic sustainability, is something many people miss. A company that does good while doing well can make far more positive impact if it is economically sustainable.

Complete sustainability is a destination to strive for every day, but I don’t believe anyone can say he or she has reached 100% sustainable. Our footprints have an impact on this earth. It’s managing the impact we all make and offsetting the negatives with positives that we should all strive for.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

In the 1980s, my first boss was a greenhouse grower who cared about the environment. This was long before eco-friendly practices were mainstream. Outside the greenhouse, he taught me to manage insects on plants using a mixture of soap and water, and weeds on the sidewalks with rock salt and water. Inside the greenhouse, however, nasty agro chemicals, some banned today, were used on plants and flowers to produce the most profitable crops. We often took off our shirts and shoes to avoid getting soaked with the toxic overspray of what we were doing.

At first, it wasn’t anything I thought much about because that was industry norm — everyone worked that way. But in the early 90s on a trip to Ecuador to source flowers, I saw conditions that were distressing — workers soaked in toxic chemicals without any way to protect themselves. And, they were doing it for a pittance. I knew this was wrong and developed a passion for the workers at these farms. It became logical to believe that there had to be a better, safer way for these people to work in greenhouses while also ensuring they received fair, livable wages. I challenged myself to take active measures that could drive the change I knew was necessary.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “A-ha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

My a-ha inspiration came from a grower friend in Ecuador who developed programs to help his workers avoid predatory lending schemes. Ill-intentioned salesmen would come to the small rural farms and villages to sell the workers basic supplies like pots, pans, and clothing. Except they would sell on credit — at over 80% interest, returning each week to pick up/shake down the interest on these accounts. Between their wages and the outrageous interest rate, these workers could never make headway, paying several hundred times the original cost of these cheap products.

To help end this cycle of exploitation, my grower friend decided to create a 401k-like program for his workers, managed by his workers, and helped them devise a lending program at low interest rates for the things they needed.

I was so horrified by what was happening to these workers — and so impressed by what this grower was doing to make a positive difference — that it opened my eyes to our collective responsibilities when we support a farm or buy a product. The choices we make really DOmatter.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Know what your mission is, what your core passions are, and then get to it. START! No one accomplishes their business (or life) goals immediately — if ever. So consider them a destination and start working towards them now.

At my company, we want what we do on this earth to mean something beyond a paycheck. We look at every product, every promotion, every packaging change and ask the simplest of questions: Is it grown or produced sustainably? Can this promotion benefit one, two or all three pillars of our sustainability model? How can we make the most positive impact on our suppliers, their workers, our staff, our customers and their customers?

For a company focused on sustainability, be transparent and clear about your mission and the steps you’re taking to get there. Don’t make claims about being eco-friendly or sustainable when you’re not. You don’t have to be perfect overnight, but you do have to be genuine in your approach to achieving your goals.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

My career in the floral industry has spanned over 36 years and counting — and it’s definitely been interesting. With 80% of flowers sold in the US coming from Colombia and Ecuador, I’ve had the opportunity to travel there regularly. In my upcoming book, Sense of Source, I share some wild experiences in Colombia during the days of the Medellin Drug Cartel, as well as my car chase with police down the streets of the capital of Ecuador.

These days, finding new ways to create opportunity of benefit to everyone during especially challenging times has been a most interesting and rewarding story itself.

My newest company, Manatee Fresh, was born out of the ashes of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic hit, I was consulting for a company that sold to event planners and florists in Florida. Because of the sudden cancellation of virtually all events, conferences, weddings, and other celebrations at which florals are standard décor, company sales quickly declined 80% year-over-year. We had two choices: fold the business or change its direction. We opted for the latter and I stepped in as part of a management buyout.

I rebranded the company as Manatee Fresh and pivoted the business to new channels from what had been well-established albeit narrow operations. I moved to buying only from farms that are certified sustainable. I began selling nationally to wholesalers and supermarkets. And, I am proud to say that I’ve assembled a team comprised of the best people from that former company. Together, we have been on a rocket ship of a ride, with sales now far exceeding those of the long-established prior business. We also completed a strategic merger, further expanding our reach in Florida while adding new partners, talent and a new branch office in Orlando.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

So many mistakes early in my career actually led to promotions and my ability to grow within this industry. In the 80s, I was just starting out and employed as a farm worker. One sunny afternoon, I put a stack of boxes on the seat of a golf cart parked in the greenhouse. Somehow, the boxes slid off the seat and square onto the gas pedal, sending the driverless cart careening down the aisles of plants — and right through the side of the greenhouse. This got me promoted to driving the lawnmower.

In my next ’80s era job as a truck driver, I was first for everything and proud of it! I made the fastest deliveries AND I was always quickest back to the warehouse to get the next load. Well, that drive (both literal and figurative) came with so many speeding tickets that the insurance company threw me off my boss’s policy… so I got promoted to Buyer in the main office.

My key learnings from all this? A strong work ethic prompts forgiveness for mistakes. Whether you are the company president or a driver, if you come to work each day with the mindset of being an integral part of the company’s success, there will be a spot for you and your unique talents.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I’ve had many mentors and much help along the way, from family to people in the business. In my 20s, I was fortunate to work side by side with executives in a large supermarket chain, men and women at the peaks of their careers. I listened and learned everything I could. In my 30s, I was working internationally with large farm owners who helped me understand the industry from the source. This made me a better salesperson and, ultimately, a better businessman. Mentors and cheerleaders are around us every day. We have to be open to listening and hearing them, and never discounting their perspectives.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I truly believe in the expression “Choices that Matter.” Communities, societies, and the people within them can take the time to learn about the brands they buy and make choices that matter when spending their money. Whether purchasing from large corporations or small businesses, every consumer dollar has the power to help this world heal and improve itself. In terms of sustainability, supporting companies that share and reflect our own positive values will encourage more of the same, and this key to driving to meaningful social and environmental change.

It is important to realize that politicians alone cannot accomplish true social and environmental change simply by legislating and regulation: expanding or limiting globalization is both artificially induced and it progresses and/or recedes with each election cycle. We, the people, our communities and our society CAN make a more permanent impact on the world. Here’s how:

Buy from companies that support sustainability

Spread the word when you find a brand that shares your values

Be positive. You’ll help more by supporting companies you like than by yelling at ones you don’t. Let your dollars do the talking.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Within floraculture, there are many advantages to focusing on sustainability. At the farm level, there are several certifications available to the floral industry. Fair Trade, USDA Organic, and Rainforest Alliance resonate the most with consumers. While none of these are perfect standards, they are important steps in the right direction that help ensure farms adhere to definable standards for workers and the environment.

Farms that certify are responsible for both completing an enormous amount of paperwork and following specific processes that can help them operate more profitably. For example, agro chemicals are expensive, so using less (or none!) saves money. Controlling hours and offering benefits and social programs often improves employee retention and access to new ones, saving the business time and money. Obviously, operating efficiently impacts the bottom line, and importantly, being a company that authentically shares like values with its customers can give it an edge against the competition.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

“Pioneers get slaughtered and settlers prosper.” People that typically pioneer an industry do it but often fail to become leaders in it. Those that come in after and improve upon it tend to be those leaders of industry. This goes back to our third pillar of sustainability. Move to make changes at a pace you can afford. Standing on a soapbox until you are broke does not ensure you will be around to do your best work.

Organic is not the brass ring. Organic is a growing method. Certified Organic fertilizers made of concentrated fish emulations will burn the skin right off a worker if sprayed on them. Certified organic products do nothing to ensure workers are paid fair and livable wages or are treated properly. Organic is a valuable growing practice we support, but we should not mistake it as sustainable in and of itself.

It takes money to compete on a large scale. At some point after bootstrapping and grass roots, you’ll be faced with raising capital. Whether you sell online or in national retailers, the cost to reach millions is millions. Be prepared with a long-term plan, because reaching millions IS achievable.

Be prepared to work harder and longer than everyone else in your organization.

Frequent travel to customers, suppliers and new markets keeps you out of the rut and exposed to new opportunities. Sitting at a desk or standing on a loading dock will never allow you necessary thinking time or exposure to new opportunities.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, what would you tell them?

Think beyond yourself to the world that surrounds you. Together we can make more of a positive, lasting impact than any government organization. The innovative thinking of small businesses often finds solutions. And if government or a large corporation expands upon it, there is a place for everyone to succeed. In the end, we all win.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

By far, “Choices that Matter” is my favorite quote. I think of it whenever I buy a product, meet with a new farm, hire an employee, or take on a new customer. I also consider it in my own life outside of business. Every choice I make matters: each has consequences and benefits. Whether it’s for the environment, a group of people or the advancement of the business, every choice has an outcome.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

In my opinion, John Mackey of Whole Foods created a movement that stimulated an industry of small business owners and gives them an outlet for their products on local, regional and national levels. I would love to hear from him, in person, about the early years of his thoughts, ideas and vision for what he was creating.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/robertm895/, Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/robert.mclaughlin.5015983 and I post updates and other interesting content at our company website www.manateefresh.com

This is very meaningful, thank you so much for sharing your story — and your role as a Social ImpaQ

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