A family feud to reshape Florida

The descendants of Ben Hill Griffin Jr. own a chunk of Florida bigger than Pinellas. But will they build on it, or grow on it?

Published October 21, 2007

LABELLE -- It was a family fracas fit for tabloids, featuring larger-than-life characters and spoils worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Nearly seven years ago, the descendants of citrus and cattle baron Ben Hill Griffin Jr. wrangled over his fortune. A courtroom battle settled how the empire would be split, but not before the public got an inside look at the pettiness and greedof one of the state's most prominent families.

The settlement established a new dynastic status quo, which masked further discord among family members controlling one of Florida's leading agricultural companies.

Now that mask is slipping again, revealing another power struggle, but with far greater implications.

This time it's a duel between Griffin's grandsons, both state lawmakers. One favors keeping much of his grandfather's land -- an area bigger than Pinellas County -- in agriculture. The other wants to aggressively develop it.

Unlike feuds from years past, this one will be decided in the corporate boardroom, not the courthouse. And the prize isn't just about money. It's about shaping the future of the state.

Will tens of thousands of acres in central and southwestern Florida remain rural and agrarian? Or will it be developed, with the help of tax dollars, a massive new toll road and the diversion of scarce natural resources like water?

So far, the showdown looks to be a rout. The grandson who wants to develop has a strong upper hand.

Forget about growth management rules and market trends. In Florida, family squabbles can still decide the fate of an entire region.

* * *

Born during a hurricane in 1910, Ben Hill Griffin Jr. tore through the next 79 years at top speed. Working from Frostproof, a flyspeck of a town in Polk County, Griffin amassed a citrus and cattle empire that made him one of the world's wealthiest men.

He died in 1990. His anointed successor, Ben Hill Griffin III, inherited his father's autocratic management style, but not his authority to keep family members from bickering over the nearly billion-dollar estate.

In 2000, his four sisters and their families filed suit against him. They accused Griffin of self-dealing at the expense of the family.Though they settled the lawsuit -- 40 percent went to Griffin III, 60 percent was divided among the four sisters -- the close-knit Griffin clan was splintered.

The brother who was shunted aside, 65-year-old Ben Hill Griffin III, now manages his share of the inheritance from his daddy's wood-paneled office in Frostproof. From here he oversees the state's fifth-largest citrus operation that, like the University of Florida's football stadium, bears his father's name.

"It was inevitable, unfortunately inevitable," he said of the breakup of the family business. "The larger the family became, the more diverse we became, not focused on the same direction."

* * *

The remaining portion of Griffin's fractured empire is headquartered about 80 miles away from Frostproof, in another rural outpost.

In Hendry County, in a modest brick office in LaBelle, is the headquarters of Alico Inc.

The company came under the control of Ben Hill Griffin Jr. in the 1970s and was folded into his agricultural empire. Alico remains one of the state's largest landowners and leading citrus growers, with $77-million in sales last year.

Though publicly traded, Alico is controlled by Griffin's descendants, who own just more than 50 percent of the stock.

Those family interests are now represented by Alico's chief executive, John R. Alexander. Married to the second-eldest Griffin daughter, the 71-year-old Alexander was brought into the family business straight out of college.

After decades taking a back seat to the founder's son, Alexander was installed by the family as Alico's chief executive three years ago. He began rethinking the use of the company's 136,000 acres.

The sign at headquarters on Main Street reflects the change. Under the Alico name, the words "Citrus, cattle, sugar cane" have been replaced. It now reads "Land management."

Alexander saidAlico isn't moving away from agribusiness, it's just "expanding the scope of what we do with the land."

Under his direction, Alico has put developers, not agricultural experts, on the Alico board. Mike Rosen, Alico's former vice president of real estate, said the company gave him clear marching orders.

"They had full intention to develop the land, which is quite a departure, a total change in direction of where the company had been," said Rosen, who left in April to join another developer.

Alico's efforts to find new use for its land are aided by an influential state lawmaker working behind the scenes to steer resources and craft policy to beckon development.

Sen. J.D. Alexander, a Republican from Lake Wales, has become a legislative powerhouse over the past nine years. He also happens to be the son of Alico's chief executive.

A few years ago, Alexander helped draft a law that makes it easier to build dense and more profitable residential and commercial projects on agricultural land, which his family is now trying to apply to some of its holdings.

The senator also backs the proposed Heartland Parkway, a 152-mile toll road that would cut through Central Florida's swamps, ranches and farms.

In addition to the Alico land, the family owns 62,000 acres of groves and cow pasture that are almost entirely within the proposed route. The toll road would transform this remote swath of agricultural land into the region's boldest development gambit and could pay off in a cash windfall for nearby landowners.

J.D. Alexander, 48, declined to be interviewed for this story. He has said that his support for the Heartland Parkway reflects his desire to see the region grow economically, not to enhance his private interests.

He left the Alico board in 2005, after his aggressive style triggered the resignation of five independent directors. His father remains a staunch supporter.

"I value his vision," the senior Alexander said of his son. "I'm looking at the next five years. He's looking at the next 25 years."

The toll road is part of that future. "It's probably the most way-out thinking I've seen happen in this state in my lifetime," the father said. "It's not critical to the development of Alico's land, but it's desirable."

While Alico may cash in with development, opening rural lands in Florida's heartland will cost the public.

Tom Pelham, Florida's secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, said his office has identified plans to develop about 1-million acres in the state's midsection. That worries him.

"The water supply is going to become an increasingly huge problem in that part of the state," he said. "Developments of that magnitude will steer money for infrastructure away from other, more developed areas. It's something we should all watch closely."

To advance its interests in Tallahassee, Alico helped finance the nonprofit group lobbying for the Heartland Parkway. It also chipped in $140,000 to groups opposing Florida Hometown Democracy, a ballot measure that would give the public, not elected officials, veto power over major changes in local land uses.

Lesley Blackner, president of Florida Hometown Democracy, said Alico's political ties illustrate why voters need more say over development plans.

"This state is run like it was in the 1950s, when it was an agricultural state run by a handful of good ol' boys," Blackner said. "Now that same group grows houses, not food."

* * *

Not all of Griffin's descendants are in the pro-development camp.

The new generational feud features former allies: J.D. Alexander and his younger cousin, Baxter Troutman.

Troutman, a Republican who occupies the House seat his cousin vacated in 2002, wants most of his family's 200,000 acres to stay in agriculture.

"Everyone keeps talking about development, but look at where we are today in Florida," said Troutman, who has been on Alico's board since 2004. "We can't even balance the state budget because the housing market has come to a standstill."

The Heartland Parkway, Alexander's pet project, doesn't fit into Troutman's vision for tomorrow.

"If you're looking to pave the state, the Parkway would be okay," he said. "I'd want to move real slow (on development), have a real conservative approach. Once you make changes, it's gone forever."

Feeling stymied in the family business after his grandfather's death, Troutman started his own staffing services company. Now 40 years old, he's worth about $33-million.

That's more than three times the net worth of Alexander, who tapped some of his shares in the family business to bankroll a video-rental business that failed in the 1980s.

But Troutman's success as an entrepreneur hasn't translated to the political world.

Unlike Alexander, who chairs key Senate committees and is known for his fundraising prowess, Troutman is a backbencher, never leading a committee or driving major legislation.

Troutman acknowledged his cousin's legislative accomplishments. "To swim in that fishbowl of sharks and be productive and successful -- and he has -- speaks to his ability to perform." He repeatedly described Alexander as "cunning."

Though willing to be overshadowed by his cousin in Tallahassee, Troutman is balking at Alexander's growing control over Alico. In January, Alexander is slated to rejoin Alico's board, most likely bumping Troutman off.

If Alexander becomes an Alico director, Troutman said there would be little resistance left on the board to blunt the push for development. The nine-member board includes Alexander's father, brother-in-law, college roommate and a former business associate.

Troutman feels powerless. "I'm upset, frustrated, disappointed, downright angry," he said. "I'm pretty put out with leadership using its position to push one agenda over another.

"It's no secret that J.D. and his team are really highly eyeing development."

Troutman is galled by his odd-man-out status, because he owns a greater number of shares of Alico stock than his cousin. But after the court settlement, the family members had agreed that all their shares in Alico would be treated as a single block and voted by one of them: J.D. Alexander.

"I feel like I'm being held hostage with my own gun," Troutman said.

Blackner, the Hometown Democracy proponent, said it's no surprise that family dynamics, not public consensus, can play a dominant role in today's regional planning.

"It's like the 19th century, isn't it?" Blackner said. "This isn't the way the system is supposed to work. I can't comment on the psycho-dynamics of the family. But it sounds like Mr. (J.D.) Alexander is empire building."

Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.