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Orange Groove

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  • | 6:00 p.m. February 2, 2008
  • Entrepreneurs
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Orange Groove

entrepreneurs by Mark Gordon | Managing Editor

It takes more than picking to squeeze a profit from a fruit farm, even in Florida. An entrepreneurial couple has the $3 million bill to prove it.

Despite the obvious connection between oranges and Florida, running a small independent citrus grove on the Gulf Coast isn't exactly a high-growth business these days.

A declining citrus market, competition from large growers and the lurking threat of bacterial diseases such as canker are three major hurdles. What's more, the work is labor-intensive and generally produces low margins.

Still, Dean and Janet Mixon, the husband and wife team behind Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton, have spent more than $3 million over the last year to try and turn their third generation family-run grove into a thriving entertainment-focused business.

"We started off as a little something," Janet Mixon says, "and then it grew into this continuing care kind of thing."

In addition to growing, packaging and selling oranges, the new-and-improved Mixon operation has several new features. There's a 66-seat tram that provides tours of the 50-plus acre grounds; a wedding pavilion made up of a gazebo, banquet rooms and a half-acre Koi-filled pond; and an animal sanctuary and wildlife education center made up of a quirky combination of rescued animals, including a Muntjac deer, an African tortoise and a 10-foot long Burmese python snake.

The company has expanded its retail side, too. It added 3,000 square feet of space to its Cracker Barrel-like souvenir store, expanded its lunchtime deli and upgraded its juice machines. And, starting this summer, it will be open year-round for the first time, as opposed to just being open from November to April.

Janet Mixon considers the expansion, and more specifically the financial risk that preceded it from a combination of loans and family savings, an absolute survival necessity. The idea to expand in so many different directions, she says, came to her and husband in the middle of a sleepless night two years ago as they lied awake worrying about the future of the business that has been in the Mixon family since 1939.

"You can either do well or lose everything," Janet Mixon says. "To us, it was a big leap of faith."

Adds Dean Mixon: "We knew we needed to do something different. We wanted to preserve the memory-making part of it."

Monitoring expenses

In attempting to create new memory-making opportunities for Gulf Coast brides and families, the Mixons have begun creating their own memories. Only these memories will be of the small business growing pains variety.

For instance, the company has more than tripled its full-time employee base, from four to 13. That includes hiring an events coordinator to handle weddings and meetings and a local wildlife expert to run the animal sanctuary. The company also has about 50 part-time employees, a group made up mostly of retirees.

Janet Mixon says she is learning it takes a lot of effort to manage so much growth. She has taken the basic step of instituting a weekly meeting with every department head, to both look for new opportunities and keep track of potential problems.

The Mixons are also learning to monitor expenses more closely, especially considering the sizeable investment they now have in the business. Up until now, the company's revenue stream was completely connected to citrus and fruit-gift related products, so the bookkeeping process was pretty simple.

But with the new business units, that is going to change. On just the wedding business alone, Janet Mixon is projecting the company will be able to book at least one event a year. As of early February there were already 10 confirmed bookings for 2008, even though the pavilion was only completed in late January.

The Mixons declined to release past revenue figures or future financial projections. But the company did well enough to survive purely as an orange grove for 65 years. In fact, over the years, the company had grown into one of the largest fruit gift businesses in Florida, with more than 10,000 customers nationwide and in Canada and Europe.

Dean Mixon's grandfather, Willie Mixon, was actually a caretaker for the land in the early 1930s, before he bought it outright in 1939. Back then, Willie Mixon ran the farm operation, while his wife, Rosa Mixon, ran a cannery business with a niche in shipping oranges to customers up north.

The farm, located about halfway between downtown Bradenton and Interstate 75, faced several weather- and disease-related struggles over the ensuing decades. It survived a 1944 hurricane that uprooted almost 1,000 trees and it weathered through deep freezes in the 1950s and 1960s that ravaged a majority of the crops.

Then, in 2000, citrus canker destroyed 25 acres worth of trees. Around the same time, the virus known as citrus tristeza was spreading across Florida and it didn't spare the Mixon farm, killing more than 15,000 mature trees that take as long as five years to replace.

Further complicating matters, the business of selling fruit gift packages through catalogs and later, the Internet, began to slide downward. The diseases and viruses, combined with low sales, squeezed the Mixons into a difficult decision: Whether to sell a large chunk of land to a developer.

Restless nights

In late 2005, the couple made their choice, deciding to sell about 250 acres of the farm for $10.86 million to Tampa-based Metro Development Group, which planned a 1,400-home project on the land. The current housing market has forced the company to put that project on hold.

Meanwhile, the Mixons held on to about 50 acres of the grove, the same land that would cause some sleepless nights about how they could turn it all into a viable business.

But after a few tough nights, Janet Mixon says the ideas of how to overhaul the business started coming to her and her husband. They stem partially from the old business axiom that says do what you know.

Take weddings. While the Mixons knew next to nothing about wedding or event planning, they do have three 20-something daughters, including one that's engaged. So the topic is a popular one in the Mixon household.

The Mixons consulted with their daughters for help in getting things going. The result was building fancy dressing rooms for brides and grooms, as well as designing a green aisle for ceremonies. The ides flowed from there, including the gazebo and expanded pond. Says Janet Mixon: "Everything we like to do, we added it."

The Mixons applied the same thinking to the rest of the new business plan. "We wanted to make this a place you could relax with your family," Mixon says. "And we wanted to produce something for the area people will see as unique."

(Review contributor Pam McTeer assisted with this story.)


Business. Mixon Fruit Farms

Industry. Agriculture, retail

Key. The company has spent $3 million to overhaul the entire business.


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