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'An industry giant’: Ben Hill Griffin III was a colossal presence in citrus

FROSTPROOF – Ben Hill Griffin III stood south of 6 feet tall, but that belied his stature in the Florida citrus industry.

“Ben Hill Griffin was an industry giant,” said Bob Behr, chief executive officer of Florida’s Natural Growers in Lake Wales, a juice processing cooperative. “He was selfless. The industry came before him. That was a wonderful characteristic of Ben Hill. You don’t find that in a lot of people.”

Ben Hill Griffin Inc. joined Citrus World Inc., the parent corporation of Florida’s Natural, in 1985, and Griffin served on the board for the following six years.

Griffin died on Saturday of cancer, which had been diagnosed just weeks earlier. He was 78 years old.

Griffin and his father, Ben Hill Griffin Jr., presided over one of the largest and most influential citrus operations in Florida. At one time, it encompassed all aspects of the Florida citrus industry – growing, juice processing, a fresh fruit packinghouse and a fertilizer company. The elder Griffin died in 1990.

Other Florida citrus officials agreed with Behr that, despite those widespread economic interests, Griffin’s lodestar was always the best interest of the industry, even if it conflicted with personal interests.

“I think Ben Hill Griffin was the heart and soul of our industry,” said Ned Hancock, an Avon Park grower and chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission, the governing body of the Florida Department of Citrus. “He always looked at what’s best for the industry. He could have easily looked at it as to how it affected his company and his bottom line, but he always looked at what was best for the industry. There are a lot of people in that position who aren’t that way.”

Griffin, a former member and chairman of the Citrus Commission, demonstrated that selflessness during the past two years when he advocated for higher taxes on growers to expand the Citrus Department’s marketing program for orange juice, the state’s largest citrus commodity.

The department is a state agency supported primarily through taxes levied on growers on every commercial box of citrus harvested in the state. Its mission is to support Florida citrus products, primarily orange juice.

Other citrus industry leaders sought Griffin’s input on all issues impacting Florida citrus, said Mike Sparks, the chief executive of Florida Citrus Mutual in Bartow, the growers’ trade group.

“It showed the respect so many industry people had for him, and they valued his judgment,” said Sparks, who started his citrus career in 1977. “When you look at leaders in the citrus industry over the decades, I can count only a few on one hand, and Ben Hill Griffin was one of them.”

An example of that influence came in February 2016, when Griffin and 11 other large Florida citrus growers led a successful effort for massive tax reductions and downsizing of the Citrus Department. The successful effort cut the juice orange tax by 70%, and the department staff downsized by two thirds since its 2016-17 fiscal year.

The move, however, was not uncharacteristic of Griffin’s concern for the entire Florida citrus industry, several people said.

“I can’t think of a thing they (Griffin and his father) did in their business that was also not good for the Florida citrus industry,” said Joe Davis Jr., a large grower based in Wauchula and former chairman of Citrus World. “I think they had a deep love for and faith in the long-term interests of the Florida citrus industry so it could be passed on to their kids and grandkids.”

Davis knew Griffin Jr. and Griffin III since the 1976, he said.

Sparks and Hancock agreed the industry’s interests were different in 2016, and Griffin believed the downsizing was still in the best interests of Florida citrus.

At the time, fruit production was the major concern in Florida citrus groves as they battled the fatal bacterial disease citrus greening, they said. As Griffin and the other growers argued at the time, production costs to deal with greening had skyrocketed, and growers needed money to stay in business in addition to investing money in research to combat the disease.

At the time, Griffin expressed the hope that the downsizing would be temporary and that the Citrus Department marketing program would be rebuilt, Hancock and Sparks said. That’s why he backed higher taxes in recent years.

Florida citrus people described Griffin Jr. and his son as consummate businessmen.

“He followed in his dad’s footsteps in being hard-driving people and hard-driving citrus men,” said Frank Hunt II, 92, who built his family’s Lake Wales citrus business, Hunt Bros. Cooperative, into one of the state’s largest growers. “He was a great promoter of anything he believed in, and he worked at it.”

Both showed a commitment to the future of Florida citrus when others bailed out, industry officials said.

Griffin Jr. built his grove holdings substantially during the 1980s, when three major freezes destroyed tens of thousands of grove acres. The elder Griffin double-down on the industry, purchasing thousands of those acres and replanting the groves.

Griffin III adopted the same strategy in the face of citrus greening, which has also forced many growers out of the business.

Griffin purchased hundreds of groves ravaged by greening and replanted, said Davis, who helped the company with many of those transactions through his real estate business.

Griffin Inc. also built a new citrus nursery near Frostproof so the company had enough new trees for replanting, he added.

The jury is still out on that gamble as scientists have yet to find an effective treatment to counteract greening’s damage to citrus trees, Davis said.

“He did continue to buy adjacent groves when the opportunities came up,” he said. “He was very aggressive at replanting.”

Griffin Inc. had its share of failures under Griffin and his father.

The company sold its juice processing plant in the 1980s to Procter & Gamble. At the time, the Griffins hoped the Cincinnati-based consumer products corporation would create an OJ brand, Citrus Hill, that would rival industry leaders Tropicana and Minute Maid, Davis said.

But the corporation lost interest in the project and later sold the plant to Cargill Inc., which closed it in 2007.

Griffin Inc. also ran a successful packinghouse in Frostproof until greening diminished the supply of its main products – grapefruit, tangerines and Navel oranges, Davis said. It closed in April 2017 at the end of that season.

The parent company currently includes grove operations over tens of thousands of acres across the state, cattle ranches and the Griffin Fertilizer Co. in Frostproof.

Griffin was influential in state and local politics as a supporter of prominent state leaders, including Lawton Chiles of Lakeland, a former U.S. senator and governor, and Adam Putnam of Bartow, a former U.S. representative and Florida commissioner of agriculture.

“If he was with you, he was all in. There was nothing tepid about his support,” said Rick Dantzler, the chief operating officer at the Citrus Research and Development Foundation in Lake Alfred and former state representative, senator and lieutenant governor candidate. “A great light has left the world, and the citrus industry has lost its leader.”

Characteristically, he supported politicians who most of all supported Florida citrus, officials said.

“I’m absolutely convinced he got into politics at that level to protect the Florida citrus industry,” Sparks said.

His citrus colleagues also noted Griffin had the common touch with help and advice for small growers as well as large ones.

He frequently extended credit through Griffin Fertilizer to growers just starting out, Hancock said.

“He gave a lot of people their first job,” Hancock said. “A lot of people in that position would walk right by you, but not Ben Hill.”

Griffin also showed great love for his family. He hosted many political and social events at his beloved Peace River Ranch in Hardee County, where he enjoyed square dancing with his family.

Griffin showed the same regard for other people’s families, Hancock and Sparks said.

“I can’t recall a conversation where he didn’t ask about me and my family,” Sparks said. “And he loved to talk about his family.”


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