At first glance, it may seem surprising that this Florida company has devoted part of its 90-acre property to space for employees to practice sports — a soccer field, basketball hoops and a volleyball court. After all, what does that have to do with running a successful business?

As it turns out, everything.

Hazeltine Nurseries  didn’t get to be the largest design-build landscape company in the Sunshine State by thinking conventionally. The couple who founded the award-winning, Venice, Fla.-based firm in 1983 knows that employee-friendly policies ultimately lead to a happier, more productive work force.

That lesson has not been lost on pool service professional Rich Tarricone, whose friendship with company co-owner/president Stephen Hazeltine dates back to their teens.

“I went to high school with this guy — we sat next to each other in creative writing class — and now he’s a huge success,” says Tarricone, who is successful in his own right. The owner of Aquatic Pool Systems in North Port, Fla., has a degree in business administration and marketing from the University of South Florida. He has been a tech since age 17, servicing approximately 40,000 pools over the course of his career.

Nowadays, his specialty is pool repair and consulting, and though he doesn’t mention it, Tarricone was named Pleatco’s first-ever “Perfect Pool Guy” in 2010.

He says he really admires how Stephen Hazeltine and wife Michelle run their company. “The way they treat their staff, you don’t see that level of support at most places,” Tarricone notes.

The rec area “helps keep employee morale high and relieves stress,” says Michelle Hazeltine, co-owner. “On occasion, we also use this area for catered company gatherings, such as family picnics and Christmas parties.”

As popular as the recreational perks are, though, there are even more reasons why many of the 150 employees stay on board for decades. The firm also offers full medical benefits and a 401(k) plan. And the management team is pro-active in helping employees get promoted from within, Michelle notes.

At a time when businesses of every stripe are trying to survive and thrive, this full-service landscape development and lawn maintenance company, which includes a growing nursery and tree farm, is still very much in demand. Hazeltine’s upscale clientele is attracted to the innovative, eco-friendly designs, which are tailored to each exterior living area. Additionally, Lawn & Landscape magazine recognized the firm as one of the Top 100 companies in the landscape industry nationwide.

“Anyone with a sizable company and a fair amount of employees could learn from the Hazeltine model,” Tarricone says. He’s impressed with the way his friend systematically took a mom-and-pop company to the next level, making effective use of business tools such as branding. “Their truck fleet is candy-apple red,” Tarricone says, “and whenever you see one in the area, you know it’s theirs.”

Then there are the high-tech touches, such as fingerprint scanning instead of time clocks to ensure that the right worker gets credited with the right number of hours, and video surveillance of the premises to keep an eye on attrition and trespassers.

It all adds up to a top-notch operation.“I’ve told [Stephen] that of all the people I went to school with, I’ll tip my hat to him,” Tarricone says. “He built a really professional organization.”