Ben Hill Griffin (1910-1990)
Ben Hill Griffin, Inc.
Highlands County Bank
Griffin Motor Company
Griffin Fertilizer Company
Air Pollution Committee
Finance & Taxation Committee
Ad Valorem Tax Committee
Agriculture & Citrus Sub-Committee
Florida Citrus Mutual
Florida Canners Association
Florida Citrus Showcase
Sealdsweet Growers, Inc.
Florida Citrus Commission Advertising Committee
Whenever the Florida citrus industry is a topic of conversation, one name is certain to crop up: Ben Hill Griffin, Jr. In spite of a folksy small business mindset, his enormous work ethic, combined with frugality, fairness, and a rather good intuition, to make him one of the greatest citrus barons Florida has ever known. And as his success multiplied and spilled over into multiple industries, the “Florida Legend” remained down to earth, generous and never lost touch with his family roots.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Ben Hill Griffin, Jr. was born during a hurricane on October 20, 1910 in Tiger Bay, Florida, a town close to Fort Meade. Griffin began working in his family’s groves at the age of five, where a life-long love of the land and a feel for agriculture and the citrus industry was instilled in him. After graduating from high school, Griffin attended the University of Florida where he studied economics and agriculture but left for New York before completing his degree. In 1933 Griffin returned to his family in Frostproof and soon thereafter married. As a wedding gift Griffin’s father gifted Ben Hill and Eleanor Griffin a ten acre orange grove. Griffin’s father taught him many things about citrus growing but among the most valuable of these lessons was citrus planted on the Southern slopes of deep, large lakes tend to escape freezes the best. With this in mind, Griffin steadily bought up such groves, but only when he could afford to. And still in the midst of hard times, he operated his business with few frills, never getting too far ahead of himself or losing sight of good opportunities.
With the profits he secured in the first years, Griffin reinvested in additional groves when Floridians were virtually giving away land for as little as $2 per acre. And in 1938 Griffin acquired the 16,000-acre Peace River Ranch, and not long after made an even larger purchase buying up a 55,000-acre ranch in Highland County Florida. By the end of his lifetime his holdings included over 10,000 acres of groves and 85,000 acres of ranch and timber land in central Florida, not including the additional 2,000 acres he managed for absentee owners of out-of-state landholdings.
Griffin’s enterprise quickly grew to become one of the largest independently owned citrus-based operations in the country, but the road to success was certainly not an easy one. He was able to overcome almost every adversity that came his way through ingenuity. He was not afraid to take risks in order to seize opportunities. In the 1940s, the citrus industry was undergoing fundamental transformations as new technologies became available. Prices for fresh fruit began to fall and refrigerated rail cars and trucks became widely available. Many citrus growers and processors began shifting their investments towards the frozen concentrate market. Even so, Griffin, a bold entrepreneur, refused to move hastily. He was confident in his product and believed that the price of fresh fruit would eventually rise, and so going against the common trends, Griffin bought a packing plant in Avon Park. That same winter, California suffered a serious freeze, and the price of fresh Florida oranges increased dramatically. Along with other independent citrus growers in Florida, Griffin felt the strain of a slow moving economy and severely fluctuating prices in the late 1940s, but unlike most, he was determined not to sell his businesses to a major corporation.
As the years went on, careful planning allowed him to do more than stay afloat. When Minute Maid was broken up in an antitrust suit in 1958, Griffin bought one of their processing plants for one million dollars. Under the terms of the agreement, Minute Maid financed the deal and added a packinghouse to the operation. As Griffin’s enterprise grew and flourished, he never lost touch with his small business mentality. Long after Ben Hill Griffin, Inc. grew to integrate virtually all phases of the citrus operating process, he continued to view his company as small, remarking once that “in big companies…everyone’s a number. We don’t want to have that feeling in our little business.” From 1951 through 1981 he became a major producer of concentrate, and was particularly proud of his regional blend, which he named Orange Nip. In 1962 his groves escaped a freeze that wiped out many other groves in the state, bringing the price of concentrate up drastically. This made Griffin a millionaire overnight and allowed him to market his product to international markets, and invest in out-of-state facilities such as a chilled juice plant in Plymouth, Indiana.
But Griffin did not limit himself solely to the citrus industry. He was the founder of the Highlands County Bank in Avon Park, owner of Griffin Motor Company, Griffin Fertilizer Company, as well as the Peace River Ranch where he raised commercial cattle. Before running unsuccessfully for governor in 1974 he served in the state legislature for twelve years. Griffin served on the Finance and Taxation, the Ad Valorem Tax, and the Air Pollution committees, and he chaired the Agriculture and Citrus Sub-committees, the last two being the most vital to Florida’s citrus industry. As a politician, Griffin showed remarkable dedication to the citrus industry, and consistently introduced legislation that helped farmers remain competitive.
Throughout his life, as frugal as he was, Griffin always believed in donating as much time and money as he could to the community. He was part of the interim committee for the formation of Florida Citrus Mutual. He was a member of the first Board of Directors of Florida Citrus Mutual. At various times he served as president of the Florida Canners Association and Florida Citrus Showcase. He also served on the Shippers Advisory Committee of the Growers’ Administration Committee, the Seald-Sweet, Inc. board of directors, the Florida Citrus Commission, the Advertising Committee of the Florida Citrus Commission. While serving on the Florida Citrus Commission, he personally raised funds for a laboratory at the University of Florida Medical School that conducts research on the nutritional benefits of citrus fruit and juices. He also gave willingly to the University of Florida for a number of caused and because of this generosity, the University of Florida named a stadium in his honor–the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, which is the largest in the state of Florida, with a seating capacity of at least 84,000 people. Griffin also served on the Board of Trustees of Florida Presbyterian College (Eckerd College) and was honorary Chancellor of Florida Southern College.
Griffin is remembered for his generosity and love for citrus. His hard work and his influence on so many peoples’ lives have had an immeasurable impact. Before he died on March 1, 1990, he inspired his family with his generosity and good work ethic. Of these are his son Ben Hill Griffin III, his four daughters Harriet, Sarah, Lucy Anne, Francie, his stepdaughter Julie, 16 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. Several of these descendants have risen to prominence in business and politics.