With the orange industry in decline, one company could have fled Florida. It decided to stay, and is now reinvesting in its facilities with an eye toward diversification.
By John Haughey | Contributing Writer
A few years ago, with the orange juice industry reeling from citrus greening, a bacterium that kills orange trees, there was some doubt about John Bean Technologies Corp.'s future in Polk County.
Economic development officials were concerned Chicago-based JBT might shut down its 146,000-square-foot, citrus-processing equipment plant in Lakeland — and leave its 150 employees without jobs.
JBT, instead, reinvested in its Lakeland facility, another piece of momentum for fast-growing Polk County. “We're continuing to leverage this footprint in Lakeland to become a flexible manufacturing plant to meet JBT's growing demands,” says Carlos Saavedra, global marketing manager for JBT's liquid foods business unit.
Beginning in 2013, JBT has invested $19 million to renovate the plant, Saavedra says. “There was too much floor space, and over the years, the citrus industry had shrunk in Florida,” he says. “We decided to modernize, become smaller and more flexible.”
While the plant's physical size was reduced, JBT actually added 28 jobs and created an office to house marketing and human resources professionals. It also added research and development space. “These are high-skill, high-wage jobs,” says Lakeland Economic Development Council Business Development Director Ashley Cheek.
The company, says Cheek and Lakeland Business Development Manager Jason Willey, also stands out in town for its deep connections with local colleges. “They're plugged in with all our universities — a great asset to the community,” Cheek says.
“We've built very good relationships with Florida Southern College and Florida Poly Tech,” Saavedra adds. “We have two professors who are consultants.”
Despite diversification, JBT's bread-and-butter remains citrus, fruit and vegetable processing, aseptic filling, fresh produce preservation and produce labeling. The company's processing equipment is used in more than 60 countries, and its juice extractors produce more than 70% of the world's citrus juices.
Juice processing also remains a primary focus of JBT's Lakeland plant, which was originally constructed in 1941 to build amphibious landing craft during World War II. After the war, FMC, JBT's former parent company, produced citrus packing and processing equipment there. In 2008, JBT became an independent company.
With the $36 million acquisition of PLF International Limited in late July, JBT will continue to expand its manufacturing capacities beyond citrus-processing equipment at its Lakeland plant, company officials say. That kind of global mindset is the only way to sustain JBT and its Lakeland plant, Saavedra adds.
PLF International, a British manufacturer of powder-filling machines, is JBT's second significant acquisition in 2017. In February, JBT purchased Ohio-based Avure Technologies Inc., which builds high-pressure processing equipment. In 2015, it added Stork Food & Dairy Systems of the Netherlands and Wisconsin-based A&B Process Systems, a stainless steel tank and vessel manufacturer.
The matrix of acquisitions has diversified JBT's status as a “juice company” into a global corporation with varied manufacturing capacities. JBT's FoodTech and AeroTech segments employ close to 6,000 people in 25 countries. The Lakeland plant manufactures equipment for JBT's AeroTech airport services group, JBT's Protein business unit and recently began making dairy sterilizers formerly exclusively produced in Amsterdam by SF&DS.
“We're building that equipment here to meet the needs of the North American market,” says Saavedra, a Tampa native with a bachelor's degree in agriculture and food and resource economics from the University of Florida. He's worked in the citrus processing industry for 35 years — first for Florida Citrus Mutual, then FMC and now for JBT — in Brazil, Mexico and Lakeland.
“The decline of the citrus industry certainly had an impact on Polk County and on us,” he said. “Fortunately, we are a global business, not solely reliant on Florida citrus. Overall, we are doing very well.”
Saavedra says JBT's adaptability and scale will help it survive the scourge of greening. “It's a global economy, even for things like orange juice,” he says. “You think of it being produced in your backyard, but it could be produced almost anywhere and transported right to your refrigerator.”