Bobby McKown (1936)
- Florida Citrus Mutual
- Florida Canners Association
- Florida Agricultural Research Institute
- Citrus Canker
- North American Free Trade Agreement
- General Agreement for Tariff and Trade
Bobby McKown established himself as one of the premier businessmen to ever be involved in the citrus world. A self-made man, he arose from humble beginnings to the forefront of the citrus world by leading the 12,000 member Florida Citrus Mutual through a critical period in the Florida citrus industry.
He was born on September 7, 1936 to Delma and Harry McKown in the town of Doerun, Georgia. His father had never finished college but was known as an excellent tradesman and mill worker. During McKown’s youth, the family was forced to move frequently in order to accommodate his father’s work. His father worked at a Panama City shipyard during World War II before settling in Winter Haven shortly thereafter. Displaying an initiative which was to become his trademark, a nine year old Bobby McKown took on a paper route delivering the Tampa Tribune to help supplement the family income. As a teenager he worked for Winn Dixie, which provided him with a scholarship that helped him pay for college tuition. Working for the Winter Haven News Chief during high school, he became inspired to pursue a degree in advertising and management.
McKown graduated from Winter Haven High School in 1954 and eventually entered the University of Florida, where he worked odd jobs to help support himself and pay for tuition. While in college, his strong work ethic and studious nature earned him the respect of his peers, including future Florida politician Bob Graham, with whom he was a fraternity brother. Earning a degree in advertising and management with honors in 1959, he once again joined the Winter Haven News Chief, where he was held a variety of positions, including assistant retail advertising manager, classified advertising manager and circulation manager.
In 1962, he met his future wife, Yvette, on a blind date, and the couple married only three months later. The two had a daughter, Mia, in 1966. Even though Bobby’s work schedule steadily increased, he was always noted for still being a strong family man.
Bobby’s career began to take off in 1965 when the Florida Canners Association hired him as an assistant to the assistant vice president. This was also his venture into the citrus world. In 1975, he became president and general manager of the Florida Agricultural Research Institute. McKown’s defining role began in 1979 when he became the executive vice president and general manager of Florida Citrus Mutual. At the time, the organization was declining in membership and struggling financially, but in time McKown’s expert leadership helped to re-invigorate the organization from within.
His influence was to extend far outside the realm of the organization. He earned a reputation as an expert negotiator, with an in-depth understanding and detail-oriented approach. He also helped to cultivate political connections and used them to strengthen the industry. During the 1980s, when the industry was ravaged by citrus canker eradication programs and devastating freezes, McKown fought for and earned both state and federal assistance for growers.
He took part in the development of four different trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement for Tariff and Trade. He was often forced to take on the role of lobbyist in order to protect the industry’s interests, most notably involving the issue of tariffs. He helped to secure a 15-year tariff phase-out in NAFTA, for which he received a great deal of criticism from those within industry at the time. In hindsight, many agreed that he had secured the best position possible for the citrus industry, as citrus had received more favorable terms in the final treaty than many other similar American industries. On other occasions, McKown fought for foreign imports to be sold at a fair price so as not to put Florida growers at a disadvantage.
After 19 years at the helm of Florida Citrus Mutual, he had re-invented the 12,000 member organization while helping the industry to protect its interests against formidable foreign competition. He retired on September 14, 1998, but stayed on for three more years in a consultant role.
Due to his important role in protecting the interests of growers, Bobby McKown was once dubbed “the voice of oranges in Florida.” An endowed fund at the University of Florida was established at his retirement. His accomplishments were recognized by the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame when he was inducted in the class of 2005.