Mike Padgett runs a shady business. But it’s cool, his customers expect it.

Padgett is the owner of Florida Shade Co., a Sanford-based firm that designs and builds outdoor shade structures for commercial and residential uses.

Using tension-fabric canopies in various geometric shapes, Florida Shade Co. recently completed a high-profile build-out in Orlando’s tourist corridor, as well as at Bishop Moore Catholic High School.

The Grove at Mead Botanical Garden
The Grove at Mead Botanical Garden

Padgett had no plans to build a business around shielding Floridians from the sun when he received a call from the city of Sanford in 2007. At the time, he owned a handyman business that specialized in repairing historic homes.

Sanford officials were looking for someone to build a shade structure in a parking lot that doubled as the city’s farmers’ market on the weekends. The city suggested stretching fabric sails from metal poles on the edge of the lot, a concept that gained popularity in Australia and South Africa in the 1990s.

The project was not financially feasible for the city, but Padgett was intrigued by the concept. (His company eventually built a shade structure in Magnolia Square for the city.) He began researching the sail shade business and made the decision to start a new company with the potential to earn more money.

Giraffe Exhibit at the Central Florida Zoo
Giraffe Exhibit at the Central Florida Zoo

“There weren’t a lot of people in Florida building these things. It just seemed like the Sunshine State would be the perfect place for a shade business,” Padgett says.

He set aside $20,000 to launch Florida Shade Co., had a website built to market his new business and taught himself how to use Google Ad Words to drive traffic to his site.

He also flew to California to meet with a company that manufactured the fabric shades he intended to use in his business. He timed his visit to coincide with a major install the company was doing in Marina del Rey.

“I spent three days giving them free labor, but in return they taught me the ins and outs of how you actually install these sail shades,” says Padgett.

By mid-2008, Padgett had installed several residential shades and a few smaller commercial jobs when he was contacted by Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress hotel near Walt Disney World. The hotel wanted to purchase some standard-sized fabric sails for a dinner event it was hosting near the pool area.

Padgett learned the 815-room resort had requested proposals from several contractors to build large shade structures at several sites on the 1,500-acre property. None of the proposals managed to capture the imagination of the Grand Cypress management.

Private residence in Ormond Beach
Private residence in Ormond Beach

Padgett began a nearly two-year courtship, during which he provided multiple designs for shade structures.

At the same time, he was also proposing a long-term deal with a large regional property management company to install shade structures at apartment complexes across Florida.

“It was frustrating because I was providing multiple redesigns, but I didn’t have any guarantee I would get any business,” Padgett says.

Though he has owned several companies — from landscaping to handyman — Padgett had never negotiated contracts that reached hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To keep the frustration at bay, Padgett approached each new meeting with the hotel and property management as a learning experience.

Seminole State College
Seminole State College

“I felt like each time I was sharpening my skills as a salesman and a negotiator,” he says.

It paid off. He landed an ongoing contract with the property management company. And he’s completed three major projects worth more than $750,000 for the Grand Cypress, including the recently completed wedding pavilion.

Those successes helped Padgett’s company land multiple contracts to build shade structures in Orlando, Tallahassee and Oxford, Miss. for Collegiate Construction, an Atlanta-based firm that builds off-campus residential communities near large universities. Florida Shade Co. has also completed a string of high-profile local projects, including:

  • The Grove, an outdoor, multipurpose performance venue at Mead Botanical Garden in Winter Park
  • The Giraffe Exhibit at the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Sanford.
  • Congregation Ohev Shalom, the Jewish synagogue in Maitland.
  • Seminole State College
  • Camp Challenge
  • Aviation Institute of Maintenance in Casselberry.

With annual revenues now approaching $1 million, Padgett says his biggest challenge is stepping away from the fieldwork to focus on sales and administration. He is Florida Shade Co.’s only full-time employee. He hires part-time employees to help with the installations.

“I’ve always worked in the field. Now I not only have to hire someone, I’ve got to pass those responsibilities on to them if I want to continue growing my business,” says Padgett. “I’m really at a tipping point.”

— By Dan Ping

 (An older version of this story written by Dan Ping was published June 2011 in the Gulf Coast Business Review)

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