In early 2019, the New England Patriots, a six-time Super Bowl champion, resurfaced their Empower Field House indoor practice facility after more than a year of testing various types of turf and vetting companies across the globe to install the massive indoor surface.
It was a job any major brand name in the artificial turf industry would want.
But the Patriots went with a relatively new product called Ironturf, manufactured by GreenFields USA, and installed by its exclusive distribution partner, GeoSurfaces.
Landing the Patriots facility marked the first big break into the world of professional sports for GeoSurfaces, a small-town company from south Louisiana that has seemingly flown under the radar for years, while building a business empire headquartered 15 miles south of Baton Rouge on an inconspicuous gravel road in St. Gabriel.
GeoSurfaces started out small, with founder Charles Dawson selling turf from the trunk of his car in the early 2000s, but has grown at break-neck pace since then, installing more than 300 sports fields across Louisiana—everything from recreational parks to Division I colleges—as well as facilities in states such as Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
By Dawson’s guess, GeoSurfaces has now cornered at least 80% of the region’s market share. The numbers support his claim, boasting 10% to 15% year-over-year revenue growth in each of the past five years.
This year Dawson expects company revenue to hit the $100 million mark.
It’s remarkably rapid growth in an industry dominated by big-brand names like Germany’s AstroTurf, Canada’s FieldTurf and Shaw Sports Turf, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.
Dawson’s business model, though, is different from his competitors. It’s about more than just artificial turf, touting a suite of vertically integrated, turnkey sports surface solutions.
GeoSurfaces not only constructs and installs, it also designs and develops sports surfaces, with several patented or patent-pending products, including its own structural base, shock pad and drainage technology. In 2013, Dawson added sports lighting to the repertoire. So from the surface below to the lights above, GeoSurfaces basically does it all.
“We want to control the job from start to finish. That’s why our business model has been so successful,” Dawson says. “Nobody in the world does this, that I’m aware of, except us in little old St. Gabriel.”
That turnkey business model makes them unique, but what’s made them a force on the national playing field is a fortuitous partnership in late 2018 with a major player in the industry: GreenFields USA and parent company TenCate Grass, a global provider of synthetic turf components, including Ironturf. Worth noting is that TenCate has been in business for more than 300 years, making it older than the United States. It’s this partnership that paved the way a month later to land the New England Patriots job.
But a small-town company making it the big leagues almost overnight is a perception that worries Dawson. Those who know him attest that he’s fiercely loyal and hands-on when it comes the company and those responsible for its early success. He’s not one to forget where he came from.
“We’re not better than you,” Dawson says emphatically, sitting inside his office nestled off the quiet, gravel road in St. Gabriel. “We want people to know that. They still call my cell. I’m the CEO—fancy title, right? But I’m nothing without our people grinding every day. I’m still the guy who will go meet with Parkview Baptist or Louisiana Tech if they make the call.”
The business, no matter how wide its reach, remains focused on “the hometown, the small-time” because that’s where Dawson started.
“Sometimes it almost scares me for people to think we’ve maybe outgrown them or they’re not important to us,” he says. “The smallest guy is the most important—because that’s us, too.”
‘IT JUST EXPLODED’
Unsurprisingly, Dawson’s career in sports didn’t begin with GeoSurfaces, but it did lead him to it. Before entering the real world of work, the Arkansas native played professional baseball as a catcher with the Atlanta Braves organization in the mid-1990s before finishing his playing career in the Independent Leagues after sustaining an injury. Later he became an assistant coach at his alma mater, Southern Arkansas University.
In the early 2000s, Dawson was working for Cal Ripken Baseball in Maryland, where he met Daniel Daluise, a retired engineer and the inventor of a new type of turf, who was partnering with Ripken to sell the product. Overnight Dawson became a salesman, hitting the road in search of teams interested in installing the turf.
His first successful pitch was to West Monroe High School, a north Louisiana football powerhouse with a legendary coach—the late Don Shows—who Dawson happened to know.
It also helped that he was growing closer to Louisiana, with his parents moving to Baton Rouge to take a job at Parkview Baptist while Dawson was in college, making the city his new hometown.
As one of the nation’s top prep football programs, landing West Monroe was something of a coup for Dawson, with Daluise telling him at the ribbon cutting this was was something he should be doing full-time.
Staring down 30, with a wife and small child, Dawson hesitated at the thought of quitting his job—and its steady income—to chase something new. Despite the apprehension, he went for it anyway.
He was now on his own, forming GeoSurfaces as a sole proprietorship, but still selling and installing Daluise’s product. He would eventually reform the business as a limited liability company in 2008.
“I crawled in the dumpster at West Monroe and cut out samples of leftover turf,” Dawson says. “I had connections because I coached on the college level and played professionally, so I started going door to door with samples saying, ‘Hey, this is what West Monroe did—are you interested?’”
Dawson installed his second football field a year later, in 2003, at Shiloh Christian High School in Arkansas; another year later a third field went in at St. Thomas More Catholic High School in Lafayette.
Business was steady, but the company’s ascent truly began in 2005, landing its first college football field at Arkansas State University. This was also when GeoSurfaces introduced its shock pad technology, incorporating something known as vertical-to-horizontal drainage capabilities. It was the first of what has now become nearly 10 controlled patents for the company.
Growth accelerated and soon enough GeoSurfaces had a résumé full of college facilities, including LSU and nearly every major Louisiana university. Dawson also picked up work along the way for well-known companies like Marucci and, most recently, Top Golf in Baton Rouge.
Meanwhile, the company began developing more of its own patented products, including the GeoBase structural technology for an improved subsurface, as well as the making of the company’s own turf. Both are manufactured, along with the shock pad, at a Georgia facility that opened in 2014.
A few loyal, long-time employees have been with Dawson since his early days, experiencing the successful ride first hand. One of them is Mark Roussel, now the vice president of construction at GeoSurfaces. The Kaplan native owned a laser leveling company when Dawson reached out to him in the mid-2000s for help with the field in Lafayette and then another in Zachary. The jobs kept coming so Roussel put his company on the back-burner and joined GeoSurfaces.
Growth was slow but steady at first, and then it came all at once.
“We were small, doing three to four fields a year. Now, just last week, we did five,” Roussel says. “I thought we’d stay kind of on the smaller end, but it just exploded. I love it. Every time I turn around we’ve got another field to do.”
FUTURE OF THE SPORT
By 2016, GeoSurfaces was producing its own turf, base and shock pad technologies under one roof at the Georgia facility as well as lighting at its St. Gabriel location, evolving into a turnkey—manufacturing, construction and installation—sports surfaces provider.
All the while, the company’s client list continued to expand, even winning over those once skeptical of artificial turf, like Glenn Moore, the head softball coach at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
A self-described traditionalist, Moore prefers natural grass in his softball field, where he runs one of the nation’s top programs. The thought of switching to artificial turf was something he didn’t want to consider, but his team was losing too much practice time on the field due to rain and maintenance.
So Moore did his homework, researching turf options and asking colleagues for advice. As the former LSU softball coach, his connections in Baton Rouge recommended GeoSurfaces.
Moore had Dawson’s team come out in December and install the entire field, except for the natural dirt infield, and complete a full LED retrofit for lighting.
“I thought my window had closed to get it done this season, but they came and the organization was unbelievable,” Moore says. “It was fun to watch.”
Studies show artificial turf over the long-term is more cost effective as it not only involves less ongoing maintenance but it’s also playable as soon as the rain stops. Studies show the injury risks are similar to those of natural grass.
“Everyone I’ve talked to felt this is the future of our sport,” Moore says.
It’s taken several decades for the wider sports community to embrace artificial turf as a preferred playing surface over grass. For years, most only knew of the first generation of turf, which gained attention in the 1960s when it was installed at the Houston Astrodome, giving it the name everyone came to know—AstroTurf.
But newer turf technologies, like Dawson’s, have since replaced that first-version product, which he acknowledges was abrasive and unforgiving. GeoSurfaces, on the other hand, touts surface products designed by engineers and based on science, offering a vastly superior product to turf’s early days.
“We were a bit ahead of the curve,” Dawson says. “Remember old school AstroTurf? This is what replaced that. This is what led to one of first bankruptcies of AstroTurf. The old school nylon pads basically became obsolete almost overnight.”
Although GeoSurfaces still flies under the publicity radar in Baton Rouge, it is making quite the name for itself in the regional sports industry. It’s also attracted at least one high-profile local who now acts as an adviser.
Paul Rainwater, a former chief of staff under Gov. Bobby Jindal and a well-known strategist, serves as vice chairman of the GeoSurfaces advisory board, offering Dawson advice about the company’s future direction. The two met about five years ago through their children, who played sports together. Both had a mutual respect for each other’s respective careers.
What Rainwater finds impressive about GeoSurfaces is not just the “phenomenal” products—which he has had installed in his back patio—but also the founder’s hands-on approach.
“Charlie knows his projects like the back of his hand, he knows his crew members, he knows his managers,” says Rainwater. “The thing about him is he’s extremely loyal to his people and his community. The dedication and level of energy, it’s impressive.”
He compares the business model of GeoSurfaces to “something akin to Sam Walton of Walmart,” and believes the company will only continue growing from here, especially now that it’s broken into professional sports with the Patriots.
In fact, GeoSurfaces recently began opening up satellite offices to handle work in other states. There’s one in New England to build off the Patriots job, as well as offices in North Carolina, Florida and Oklahoma. Plans are also in the works for offices in southern California and Texas.
But don’t expect any of that to change Dawson, who Rainwater jokes is “so hands-on, he doesn’t own a (sports) jacket.”
Despite heading a company projected to do nearly $100 million in revenue this year, Dawson still looks and dresses more like a baseball coach—which he once was—than a C-suite executive. But that’s who he is. And that person, as he has said, is not better than you.
“If I ever have to wear a suit, I don’t want the job,” Dawson says with a straightforward smile. “I still wear my hat to every meeting, and I still wear my $12 Wranglers.”