Stephen M. Caruso

/Stephen M. Caruso

Stephen M. Caruso (1948)

Inducted 2014

Highlights

  • Citrus World Inc
  • Florida Citrus Processors Association
  • Florida’s Natural Brand
  • Blue Bird Brand
  • Juice Products Association

Bio

Steve Caruso was born in Orlando, Florida on January 2, 1948 to Marie and Austin Caruso.

At that time, Austin was President of Southern Fruit Distributors, a citrus processing, marketing and distribution company which he and his brothers and brother-in-law owned and operated in South Orlando. Austin’s father, Philip, was an Italian immigrant who started off pushing a produce cart in New York City and turned it into a string of produce houses before moving to Florida in the 1920s and amassing thousands of acres of citrus groves.

Steve, along with his brothers Austin, Jr. and Jim, as well as his many cousins, worked in various facets of the family’s business beginning at an early age. They all started on the ground floor and learned the rigors of hard labor while performing numerous tasks in the family groves and packinghouse. That taught him early on what he didn’t want to do, so he concentrated on the books side of the business because that showed him what was going on in every department.

Steve earned a B.S. in Finance from Florida State University in 1970 and went on to spend 6 years in the Reserves while working as the comptroller at Southern Fruit. It was during this time that he married his high-school sweetheart, Jill Weiss, and bought their first home together in the Orlando area. Steve took on a variety of additional roles at Southern Fruit Distributors, eventually becoming involved in the sales and marketing aspects of the business. He helped expand the company’s processing volume and market the BlueBird brand in both domestic and export markets. At the height of the citrus industry, Southern Fruit Distributors generated nearly $100 million a year in sales.

The freezes of the early ’80s decimated the family groves and the housing boom took over the acreage, eventually leading all of the family but Steve out of citrus and into real estate. Southern Fruit’s CPA, Pete Hartsaw, also did the books for Citrus World and introduced Steve to Joe Marshburn, the CEO at that time. Citrus World wanted to expand their business and was interested in acquiring the Bluebird brand, which was firmly established in the food service area and in overseas markets. The role Steve played in the negotiations so impressed Marshburn that he retained Steve as a consultant in order to transition the business. Steve’s leadership skills and knowledge of citrus processing led Marshburn to offer Steve the job of Chief Operating Officer in 1989 and in 1993 he became Citrus World’s CEO upon Joe’s retirement. Over 20 years later, Steve is still at the helm and Citrus World has enjoyed unparalleled success under his guidance.

Citrus World, which formed in 1933 as a federated cooperative, is the oldest Florida processing company and Florida’s only remaining citrus processing cooperative. For most of its history, Citrus World operated like a production cooperative – accepting whatever fruit the cooperative members delivered, and then trying to sell the corresponding juice production. In big crop years, that led to low cash fruit prices and high fruit volume, while a small Florida crop meant a fight in the cash fruit market to get enough volume to handle its regular customers. Therefore, Steve began the process of changing Citrus World from a production cooperative to a marketing cooperative.

The first significant change was the introduction of the Florida’s Natural Not-From-Concentrate Brand. While Citrus World had marketed brands under several labels, including Donald Duck, no brand brought the prospect of national prominence like Florida’s Natural. During the late ‘80s, it was clear that premium not-from-concentrate orange juice was fast becoming the growth segment in the orange juice category. Citrus World’s Board and Management Team recognized these trends, and made the capital investment necessary to launch Florida’s Natural NFC brand products. By the mid-’90s, Florida’s Natural NFC juice had achieved national distribution, and today accounts for 20% of the premium orange juice category.

In order to be a reliable supplier of a premium juice line, Steve led company efforts to manage fruit supply by implementing a Marketing Agreement that bound members to deliver a specified fruit commitment that included severe penalties for failure to deliver. Furthermore, changes were instituted in Citrus World’s Pooling Agreement, which encouraged members to deliver the highest quality fruit. These two important changes helped to restrict member supply to meet the needs of Citrus World’s premium juice line and assure that Florida’s Natural NFC citrus juice products would be produced to the highest quality standards. As a consequence, Citrus World successfully transformed from a production to a marketing cooperative, and now was positioned to meet ever-changing consumer needs with the right mix of member fruit quantity and quality. Importantly, the fruit prices paid to Citrus World members would be tied to a value-added product portfolio, which offered the prospect consistent above-market returns.

The number of achievements Citrus World has made under Steve’s leadership is remarkable. Citrus World has witnessed consistent and record-breaking revenue growth during the past 20 years. In 2013, Citrus World had gross revenues of $625 million, 100% higher than Steve’s 1st year as CEO. Stockholder equity soared to new heights under Steve’s watch, reaching a record $164 million last year. And Citrus World has consistently delivered superior fruit returns to its members. The success of Citrus World is directly related to its push to become a marketing cooperative under the umbrella of the Florida’s Natural Brand – which is even more remarkable when the primary competitors are the leading cola companies in the world.

Another significant achievement was the acquisition of the Umatilla packaging facility, which was the former Golden Gem processing and packaging plant. In the midst of a rapidly consolidating industry, Citrus World was expanding its Bartow processing facility to accommodate the growth of the Florida’s Natural Brand. Following another tough negotiations process, Steve successfully brought this facility under Citrus World’s management and it is now known as Florida’s Natural Umatilla. This facility has been an extremely important asset for Citrus World in support of Florida’s Natural brand growth. Interestingly, the concentrate tank farms that were purchased with the property helped to finance the lease and purchase with revenues from 3rd-party storage arrangements.

Another key leadership moment came following the hurricanes and canker eradication of the 2003-2005 period, in which over 100,000 acres of Florida citrus was decimated. With future Florida citrus production in doubt, Citrus World was at a crossroads in terms of its ability to meet financial objectives and pay competitive returns. Steve led company efforts to right size the business because of the changing structure of the industry. During this period, Citrus World sold its Bartow processing plant and its west coast packaging operation. These decisions were not made lightly as it affected many people; nonetheless, these decisions were necessary in order to sustain Citrus World’s future. Steve played a visionary role in this regard, seeing what was inevitable; in contrast, the competition observed that the industry was only going through a cyclical change, and not a major structural transformation as has transpired.

Steve is a strong supporter of cooperative agriculture and the benefits that come when growers work together for a common goal and he helped engineer a cooperative relationship between a Texas citrus processing cooperative, Texas Citrus Exchange, and Citrus World 15 years ago that was a tremendous success for both parties.

Steve’s service to the Florida citrus industry and to U.S. cooperative agriculture extends well beyond his work with Southern Fruit Distributors and Citrus World. Steve was very active in both the Florida Citrus Processors Association (FCPA) and the National Juice Products Association (NJPA) (now called Juice Products Association). Steve served as the Director on both the FCPA and NJPA Boards, and served in a number of Officer Positions, including Chairman, of both associations. Steve also was elected to, and served for 6 years on CoBank’s Board of Directors. CoBank is one of the largest lending institutions for US agriculture and cooperative interests. Steve continues to serve on the Board of the Graduate Institute of Cooperative Leadership (GICL), and was past Chairman. GICL is a post-graduate program at the University of Missouri that provides excellent training to cooperative leaders.

Steve has also been a proponent of giving back to the communities where Citrus World’s members and employees and their families live and work. Five years ago, the Florida’s Natural Foundation was created as a vehicle to give back to the communities that play such an integral role in the Company’s success and has given in excess of $500,000 to deserving programs throughout the Ridge area.

A long-time, active member of Orlando’s St. James Catholic Church, family has always come first for Steve, and for over 20 years he has commuted daily from Lake Wales to his home in Orlando. Jill has been by Steve’s side along the journey, helping sell BlueBird products in the far corners of the world, and raising three children – Leslie, Julie, and Steve Jr. – to adulthood and independence.

A soft-spoken, brilliant leader, with a gracious, southern-gentlemanly manner, Steve has been a lifelong supporter of Florida’s citrus industry. His accomplishments and contributions towards the betterment of the Florida citrus industry are many, spanning over five decades, and have been achieved with an unmatched degree of leadership, respect and integrity. We are honored to welcome him to The Florida Citrus Hall of Fame!