- December 27, 2019
Lifetime Polk County resident Ben Hill Griffin III could have played off his family name. That name is so widespread in the state that the University of Florida football stadium, among other sites and streets, bears its name.
Instead, Griffin III, known as Ben Hill, worked his way up in the family orange grove and farming business, Frostproof-based Ben Hill Griffin Inc. That ranged from 18 months in the fertilizer division to three years in harvesting, mixed with two years each in processing and sales, according to an account in Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. “He often said it was almost harder being a son than an employee,” the Hall of Fame post states, “because his father could switch hats in the space of a heartbeat.”
That upbringing helped define Ben Hill’s life: an influential force in agriculture, higher education and other areas of Florida, mixed with a strong sense of humility. Ben Hill died July 25 after a short battle with cancer. He was 78.
“He was this enormously powerful person in the state, but on a personal level he never played that card,” says Florida Gulf Coast University President Mike Martin, whose school in Fort Myers sits on 1,000 acres Ben Hill donated. “He always told me he was who he said he was, a dirt farmer from Frostproof.”
Ben Hill’s legacy and accomplishments, of course, go much deeper than that. He worked his way up to become president of the family business, guiding the company through several challenges in production and other issues. At one point Ben Hill Griffin Inc. was a rare Florida juice conglomerate, handling juice processing, a fresh fruit packinghouse, growing citrus and fertilizer.
Ben Hill was president and chairman of Fort Myers-based Alico from 1990 to 2004, leading the orange grove and land firm to a then record $176.9 million in assets. He was also chairman and CEO for a stint at Orange-Co., a public entity that owned a juice processing plant and citrus groves. All told, according to the Citrus Hall of Fame, Ben Hill oversaw care and marketing of more than 40,000 citrus acres over a decade.
A board member of several banks and hospitals in Polk County, outside that and agriculture, one of Ben Hill’s most noted accomplishments was providing the land for what’s now FGCU in 1997. He also donated $5 million for the Alico Arena at FGCU and supported an endowed chair in the Lutgert College of Business.
Martin, in lauding Ben Hill’s accomplishments and initial and ongoing support of FGCU, notes his friend also has had a high business IQ. “He was able to analyze a situation and come to a decision that turned out to be spot on,” Martin says.
Baxter Troutman, a former Florida state representative from Polk County and Ben Hill’s nephew, recalls a similar business focus in his uncle. Troutman called Ben Hill a few years ago, seeking his opinion on a large and complicated land deal. “He was unflappable in his advice,” Troutman says.
Troutman and Martin also say Ben Hill had a witty guy’s guy sense of humor, mixed with a blunt candor that could be disarming — and belie his genuine sense of caring for others. “I’m going to miss Ben Hill,” Martin says, “but I’m glad I didn’t miss Ben Hill.”