Heirs of Ben Hill Griffin sell shares in company
Published: Saturday, October 19, 2013 at 8:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 19, 2013 at 8:50 p.m.
FORT MYERS — The heirs of Florida citrus baron Ben Hill Griffin Jr., for whom the football stadium at the University of Florida is named, are giving up control of a company that remains one of the state's largest private landowners.
Alico owns nearly 131,000 acres of land spread across Alachua and four other Florida counties — Collier, Lee and Polk. The land in Collier, Lee and Polk is used for citrus groves, sugar cane and cattle ranching.
Two New York-based agricultural companies are spending $137.8 million to purchase shares of Alico Inc. now held by Griffin's heirs.
Not only is the football stadium at UF named Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field, Floyd Hall, one of the university's historic academic buildings, was restored due in part to Griffin's donations and was renamed Griffin-Floyd Hall upon its reopening in 1992.
Griffin founded Alico and helped turn the company into one of the state's most prominent companies.
The Griffin clan has included prominent Florida political figures, including Griffin's granddaughter Katherine Harris, who was secretary of state during the 2000 presidential election recount.
The deal announced Friday means that former state Sen. JD Alexander will be replaced as the company's chief executive. Alexander, who rose to the post of the Senate's budget committee chairman, was considered the driving force of the creation of the state's 12th university, Florida Polytechnic, in 2012.
Under the deal announced Friday, 734 Agriculture is partnering with Arlon Group to purchase nearly 51 percent of outstanding voting stock owned by Atlantic Blue Group at $37 a share. 734 Agriculture is a private investment company owned and controlled by Remy W. Trafelet and George R. Brokaw. Arlon Group is a global food and agriculture investment firm founded by Continental Grain Company.
Clay Wilson, a citrus grower who the buyers plan to appoint as chief executive, said the new owners intend to keep the company's agriculture operations intact.
“We believe that Alico provides a solid platform on which we can continue to build a thriving agribusiness operation,” Wilson said in a statement. “Atlantic Blue Group's announced plan to sell its stake in the company presented a unique and compelling opportunity to make a significant investment in one of Florida's leading citrus producers and landowners.”
Former state. Rep. Baxter Troutman — a board member of Atlantic Blue — said he expects the new owners to operate as good agricultural stewards.
“It's kind of bittersweet, but the end of an era can be the dawn of a new era,” Troutman said. “Alico and its assets are deeply entwined in Florida citrus. I don't think there's any question about their expertise in the citrus industry and agriculture as a whole.”
The sale was not unexpected. Atlantic Blue Group announced earlier this year that it was exploring the sale as a result of changes in the tax code.
Atlantic Blue was formed in 2004 after the settlement of a lawsuit between Ben Hill Griffin III, the citrus baron's only son, and the families of his four daughters: Sarah Alexander, Lucy Anne Collier, Harriet Harris and Francie Milligan. The estate's value was estimated at $300 million when Ben Hill Griffin Jr. died in 1990.