The McLean Family
by Ernie Neff
reprinted from Citrus Industry, 12/1996
Ben McLean, Sr. drove to Clermont High School to watch grandson Ben McLean III play a home football game one Friday night 13 years ago.
Next day, he caught a plane to Baton Rouge LA, to watch son John, a Florida State University linebacker, play against Louisiana State University.
From Baton Rouge he drove to Dallas, TX, to watch son Scott, a Dallas Cowboys linebacker, play in a Monday night National Football League game.
Not many Florida citrus growers have been able to watch their sons and grandsons play high school, college, and professional football live over a span of four days and three states. But then, few citrus families are as passionate about their football as the McLean clan.
Starting with Ben McLean Sr., now 77, every adult male family member has played high school football. Four of Ben Sr.'s five sons played major college football, and two became pros.
It's also unlikely that any family is more passionate about the citrus business or about working in it together than the McLeans. Ben Sr., four of his sons, and two grandsons make their living in the citrus industry. Though they're in different segments of the industry - including production consulting, spraying, fertilizer sales, and juice exporting - they service many of the same customers, usually by intra-family referral.
The son who's not yet in the citrus business, Jeff, is a high school athletic director and assistant football coach. Even he has worked part-time in the family citrus ventures and plans to eventually make his full-time living from citrus.
This family-wide passion for citrus is doubly noteworthy since the freezes of 1977 and the 1980's killed all the family's groves and put them out of production.
"There are three passions of the McLean men - citrus, football and their wives, not necessarily in that order," Jeff said. "I'm their connection to the football passion. I always told my wife, there's only two things I'd ever do - coach or work in citrus."
Jeff easily could have added a fourth passion of the McLean men - family. All of the men are fiercely proud of their family and its football and citrus heritage, and of each other. Ask one of Ben Sr.'s sons or grandsons about his life, and the others eagerly jump in to tell about his accomplishments. If one forgets a citrus job he did or the score of a football game he played in, another clan member will usually fill in the gaps.
"The heritage we received, we want to continue and pass on," Ben Sr. said. "Family is important to us."
"We're fortunate to be in an industry that's close-knit, that has a lot of the same family values that we have," his son Mark added. He said the McLean men have kept their citrus businesses closely related by design. "We all were trying to find our niche yet still work as a family."
The Family Heritage
Ben Sr., whom the other McLeans call Pappy, was born in 1919 on a citrus and vegetable farm near Bartow. The fifth generation Floridian and second-generation citrus grower worked on the farm and in the groves and went to the University of Florida on a football scholarship. However, an injury in football practice ended his collegiate career before it began.
He earned a degree in soils and fertilizers in 1940. He worked the next six years as a fertilizer salesman in Lake and Polk counties, then became a citrus caretaker for five years. In 1946, he started buying Lake County citrus groves.
In the early 1950's, Ben Sr. spent a year teaching a Florida Southern College's Citrus Institute in Lakeland, then returned to citrus consulting. After his first wife died in 1952, he moved to Clermont in Lake County to develop and caretake several thousand acres of grove for Polo Grove Service. He would raise his five sons and three daughters in Clermont.
By the mid-1970s, Ben Sr. had accumulated about 300 acres of citrus in Lake County. He took care of his own groves at the same time he worked long hours caretaking the Polo groves. He said his citrus acreage "started to dwindle with the freeze of 1977. Due to the freezes, I conentrated on expanding the consulting business to the south."
In thos days, the southern citrus belt was Highlands and Polk counties. Ben Sr. became production manager for Bob Paul, Inc. in 1980 and moved to Sebring in 1982 to be closer to his work. While with Bob Paul, he gradually expanded his consulting business on the side and watched all his own groves destroyed by the freezes of the 1980s.
He left Paul around 1990 and has since worked full-time with first son Ben in a worldwide citrus consulting business. "He (Ben Sr.) works more than the rest of us put together," son John said recently. The other sons and grandsons laughingly agree that no one in the family matches the 77-year-old patriarch's work pace.
Ben Sr. had five sons over a 21-year period, starting with Ben Jr., 54, and ending with John, 33. Although the brothers were born in three different decades, all had a similar introduction to the citrus business. "All of us worked in the family groves from the time we got old enough to hold a hoe," Ben Jr. said. They progressed rom hoe to pruning saw to the ultimate job for a young citrus worker - tractor driver.
Ben Jr. went to his father's alma mater, the University of Florida, to earn a degree in agricultural economics in 1965. "I had a goal that I wanted to be self-employed in the citrus business by the time I was 30," he recalled.
Ben Jr. worked for Florida Crop and Livestock Reporting Service (now Florida Agricultural Statistics Service) for three years. He then worked two years as assistant production manager for Libby in Clermont, and sold fertilizer for the next three years.
In 1972, at the age of 30, he realized his goal of self-employment. He bought a 10-acre grove and started his own business as caretaker.
On Dec. 1, 1983 Ben Jr. went back to work for Libby as production manager. The first big reeze of the 1980s hit 24 days later. on Christmas day, wiping out all of Libby's Lake County groves. Libby phased out its operations and closed down a year later.
In Deember 1984, Ben Jr. took on the job of production manager for a 5,000-acre citrus project Bin Harmon owned in the Bahamas. Ben Jr. planted the groves and oversaw them for the next five years. "I stayed there Monday through Friday and came home (to Clermont) on the weekends."
He and his father went into citrus consulting together in the late 1980s as W.B. McLean and Sons. "We did consulting in Venezuela, the Bahamas, Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, and South and Central Florida," Ben Jr. said. They even spent several weeks consulting on a proposed citrus project in Indonesia.
Today, Ben Sr. and Ben Jr. both tend their Florida customers, and Ben Jr. also deals with customers in Belie, Costa Rica, and Mexico.
Ben III, oldest son of Ben Jr., is the unofficial historian of the family even though he is only 30. He's the one most likely to remember a football score from one of his uncles' old college games.
Although he's now president of McLean Chemical Sales, he seriously considered being a medical doctor after graduating from high school. In his senior year in high school, the great freeze of 1983 devastated the family groves. The next summer, he ran a crew of 50 laborers pruning frozen citrus groves in Lake County. "That was the toughest work you could imagine," he recalled.
When he went off to the University of Florida, he said, "I wanted a career change."
But while he was a pre-med student for three years, he came home often to drive a tractor for his father's caretaking business. "When I came home on the weekends and worked, I realized agriculture was what I liked."
Ben III graduated first in his class when he earned a degree in health and human performance, then earned a masters degree in horticulture science in 1991.
Fresh out of college, he went to work at the family's caretaking project in the Bahamas for two years, staying on Abaco Island 330 days out of 365. His father and uncles John and Scott were also on the island most of the time.
When Ben III returned to Florida in the summer of 1993, he, his father and his grandfather started McLean Agricultural Chemical Sales, Inc. He's been the company's president from the start. Although the company's sales efforts have concentrated on Florida citrus growers, Ben III has recently traveled throughout the Southeast US and Central America seeking new accounts.
Ben Jr.'s other son, 25-year-old Matt, is the youngest of the McLean men. "I was the last and probably the slowest and smallest," he said, but he nonetheless played football at Clermont High.
A Family Citrus Philosophy
"We like to think of ourselves as pioneers in low-input tehnology," Ben III said of the McLean family philosophy of citrus production. He said low input tehnology lets growers get the most fruit for the least expense, but requires more active management. He cited the family's mission statement: "Pioneering low-input technology to help Florida citrus growers become the lowest-cost producer domestically and abroad."
Ben III said each of the McLean men has a specialty that can help growers become low-cost citrus producers. "You understand more of the problems that the individual grower has to put up with to survive in the citrus industry," added his grandfather Ben Sr.
Ben Sr.'s sons and grandsons give him the most credit for the family's success in the citrus industry. "As a family, we use Pappy's decades of consulting and occupational expertise," Ben III said.
But they claim Ben Sr.'s character is more important to them and their success than his expertise. "He's not known as much for his accomplishment as for being honest and fair," said son John. "We've all benefited from that by trying to follow in his footsteps.
This group of McClean men, by the way, probably won't be the last of the citrus McLeans. Although Ben Jr.'s two sons have already grown into the citrus business, his younger brothers have several more McLean boys who are just little tykes now. But it won't be long before their little hands can fit around a grove hoe, and maybe even put a spiral on a regulation football.