Prioritizing People Over Profits
San Jacinto Environmental Supplies is changing more than just landscapes
Flexibility, money, control, teamwork and legacy are all reasons many people leave the title of employee behind to take on the role of entrepreneur. For Mike Serant, co-founder and owner of San Jacinto Environmental Supplies, none of these factors were as rewarding as building a business alongside his mother, Joyce Serant. Now, 34 years after taking the big leap into entrepreneurship, Mike reflects on the journey and his relationship with his mom, who passed away last year.
Best Friends Become Business Owners
Joyce grew up during the Great Depression, which had a huge impact on her life. “My mom’s upbringing made her a very strong, ethical, principled and kind woman,” Mike says.
As a single mother raising her only child, the survival skills and traits Joyce developed as an adolescent were put to the test. And she instilled those characteristics in her son. “It was the two of us against the world,” Mike says. “We always had a really great relationship. She would never stop loving me, even when I was a difficult teenager. I really appreciated that. She always stood by me. She truly was my best friend.”
In January 1984, Mike and Joyce each found themselves at one of life’s intersections, questioning which road to take. Mike had just graduated from college and was contemplating his future, while Joyce was in a dead-end job and wanted to make a change. “A lot of times you think ‘one of these days I’m going to start a business,’ ” Mike explains. “But it doesn’t happen. Well, we actually did.”
Given their relationship, common aspirations, shared values and strong work ethic, the decision to become business partners made sense. “We faced an enormous amount of financial dark times as a startup company,” Mike says. “I know for a fact I could not have done this business by myself. I needed a partner who was very strong and positive.”
Growing a Business
This mother-son team was ready to start their entrepreneurial journey, but they needed to determine what type of business to establish.
“We went to an ‘Own Your Own Business’ trade show,” Mike recalls. “We were pretty naïve, and it turned out it had a lot of gimmicks and multilevel marketing stuff. But we found this one product that really captivated us.”
That product was the Gro Tube, a vertical growing system that consisted of a plastic cylinder—3 inches in diameter and 36 inches in length—with watering and drainage features and multiple holes, which held plant cuttings. “If you put the right plant in there, plants that grew from cuttings, you had this really lush, vertical garden,” Mike says.
The Serants invested in the business, bought inventory, and then went to a public garden show six weeks later. The product sold like crazy. “We were making so much money, I had an armed guard follow me out to my car for three days,” Mike says. Although initially everything was coming up roses, it quickly became hard work and the Gro Tubes were not bringing in enough revenue.
So, San Jacinto Environmental Supplies expanded their product catalog to offer a wide range of landscape and general contractor supplies, which they still sell today: geotextile fabrics; design-build, erosion-control, tree-staking, water-management and edging products; and everyday maintenance items. The Houston-based company also briefly sold chemical fertilizer and pesticides, which served to inform the Serants of their harmful impacts and fuel a new passion for the company owners—organics.
Passion + People = Purpose
“Organics is the story of nutrition. When you give any organism the highest nutrition possible, that organism—be it soil microbes, plants or humans—will achieve its optimum genetic expression. That means fewer problems and greater results,” explains Mike.
In 1988, after much research and development, Joyce and Mike launched MicroLife, a wholly owned subsidiary of San Jacinto Environmental Supplies that manufactures organic fertilizers and soil amendments.
“We just fell in love with organics,” Mike says. “I adore everything about what it means. It means the best future possible. We definitely believe that organics will be humankind’s best salvation going forward.”
Why be so passionate about organics? From a business perspective, organics provide an opportunity for the company to have a positive impact on the world by educating people and providing products that enable them to live healthier lives. It’s about being ethically responsible in business and prioritizing the customers’ well-being over the lure of huge profits. “People go into organics not because of the money but because of the mission. I believe it’s about doing what’s right,” explains Mike.
For the Serants, “doing what’s right” is not a professional tagline, it’s their personal belief. Providing services and products rooted in honesty and integrity are foundational values Joyce knit into Mike’s moral fiber, and these have been passed down to the next generation. Mike describes his 26-year-old son, Michael Serant, as “smart, personable, a great supporter and very ethical”—characteristics that have been cultivated while working for the family business since he was 15 years old.
With a solid moral compass, the Serants don’t see their clients as line items on a sales spreadsheet. Their customers are people with whom they can relate—fellow small business owners who have faced similar challenges of building something from the ground up. They are industry peers, whom Mike describes as “ethical, hardworking, self-reliant, bright, very good, decent people.” They are one of the reasons Mike loves his job.
The other people who drive his love for his job are his employees. “We have a really good company. Everybody gets along, so it’s a joy to work with these people,” Mike says. The organization’s nine employees share in the mission of influencing the greater good.
Since Mike is not one to micromanage, he appreciates that his workers each accept their various responsibilities and get their jobs done. In turn, Mike tries to create a fun work environment—where employees can bring their dogs, go to a doctor’s appointment without taking leave, and enjoy being treated to tacos every Friday.
Joyce was an integral part of establishing and maintaining a culture of caring. Well into her late 80s, she would still go into the office every day, bringing with her an optimistic, cheerful demeanor—evidence that she truly loved her work.
“I think the business’ success gave her a lot of pride,” Mike says. “She created something from absolute scratch and built it into a very viable business.” For the Serant family, the company is not merely a source of pride, it’s also about fulfilling a purpose.