Egan family has been a stalwart in the citrus industry for more than a century
BY BERNIE WOODALL
While many of its competitors were felled by the extremely challenging business environment of the Florida citrus industry in the past 15 years or so, Bernard Egan & Co. remains a solid fixture.
The vertically integrated grower, packer and shipper is much smaller than it was during the heyday of Indian River and Florida citrus production, partly because of the overall industry’s decline, and because six years ago it sold DNE World Fruit, which was the largest citrus marketer in Florida.
The company has one packinghouse, down from five, and it has about 8,000 acres of citrus groves, down from 18,000 acres.
Numbers and dates are one way to tell the story of Bernard Egan & Co.
Another way to tell the tale of this 109-year-old company, known during its first 75 years as Egan, Fickett & Co., is to focus on the three men who have had the longest tenures at the helm.
They are founder Joseph Bernard Egan, who bucked family tradition in County Mayo in Ireland and immigrated to America; his youngest child, Bernard A. Egan, who transformed the company, moved it to Florida and became a legend known as the “Godfather of Grapefruit;” and his second wife’s youngest child, Gregory P. Nelson, who diversified the business to steer it safely through the most difficult period of the Florida citrus industry.
The longest tenure was that of the company’s namesake, who worked there 67 years, and in whose shadow current chief Nelson is happy to stand.
Bernard Egan spoke quietly. To demonstrate this, Nelson lowered the volume of his own speaking voice and used one of his stepfather’s favorite phrases: Always remember, everything in life is relative … except for your relatives.
In the Egan family, the name Bernard is pronounced the old-style European way of two syllables spoken so fast they sound like one, Burnurd, rather than the more modern and Americanized pronunciation that is said slower and with two distinct syllables, Bur-Nard.
Much of the following family and company history was researched by Bernard Egan’s oldest daughter, Patricia Egan. It was related by Gregory Nelson, who listened to stories his stepfather told, and archived by Anne Nelson Sinnott, who organized the boxes of papers and documents Egan left behind.
FROM IRELAND TO NEW YORK
By the time Joseph Bernard Egan was born in 1867 in County Mayo, the Egan family for more than 10 generations had been following a tradition that called for the eldest son to become a Roman Catholic priest. Joseph, the eldest son, completed secondary school in Ireland, then went to the University of Paris, where he became fluent in French. He was able to read both Latin and Greek, expanding on his long-held languages, English and Gaelic.
He finished his studies in philosophy and was on course to enter the seminary and become an educated priest. Problem was, in addition to learning all those languages and writings of philosophers like Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas, he found out he didn’t want to be a priest after all.
It was 1888 or so when Joseph wrote a letter to his father saying sorry to disappoint but rather than becoming a priest he was going to America to see the new country. This led to cold silence from Joseph’s father, despite beautifully written imploring letters that for 15 years went unanswered. Finally, the two men resumed communication.
When Joseph arrived in New York in 1890, he found a job at the docks on the Hudson River unloading ships and became interested in the wooden boxes of fresh oranges from Florida. At the time, the only way to keep fruit fresh during shipment was over water because ship hulls could hold lots of tightly packed ice. Refrigerated rail cars from Florida were still decades away.
Over time, the well-educated Joseph Egan advanced to become president of A.F. Young & Co. in New York while he lived with his growing family in New Jersey.
In 1914, the same year the youngest of his nine children, Bernard, was born, he co-founded Egan, Fickett & Co. Co-founder Stephen Fickett supplied the money to start the company but was not involved in the management of it.
Early on, Joseph Egan took several ship voyages from New York to Jacksonville, where he caught a train to Titusville. There, he formed a partnership with a Florida state senator named Jesse J. Parrish to create Nevins Fruit Co., named, for branding purposes, after a well-known fire chief in Brooklyn. It was also the first foray into Florida citrus farming by the Egan family company.
Joseph Egan continued as head of Egan, Fickett & Co. until he died suddenly in 1937.
BERNARD EGAN JOINS THE COMPANY
Bernard Egan grew up across the Hudson in New Jersey but went to St. Francis Xavier High School in New York City before attending Fordham University in the Bronx. He planned to be a lawyer but left after his sophomore year for a job with Refrigerated Steamship Line, a unit of the huge United Fruit Co., which later became Chiquita Brands. Three years later, when his father died, Bernard joined three brothers at the family business, seeing a bright future in sales.
He helped steer the company through the Great Depression, focusing on the marketing of fresh Florida citrus, which he did until the week of his death, a day after his 90th birthday in 2004.
He, like his father, lived in New Jersey and with his wife, Helen, had five children. A son named Bernard died as an infant.
In 1948, Bernard Egan became general manager of Egan, Fickett & Co.
From the time he signed on with the company, Bernard Egan made numerous trips to Vero Beach and Titusville and other places where the company got Indian River citrus.
By 1962, he bought out the two brothers who remained
with the company and took the helm at the company his father co-founded.
He bought the company’s first packinghouse in 1965, East Coast Packers in Fort Pierce. BECO still owns this building close to its current headquarters on Old Dixie Highway near the bridge to North Beach, but it is no longer used as a packinghouse. BECO now has a single working packinghouse in Fellsmere.
Egan’s frequency of trips increased to what later became known as the Treasure Coast.
In 1968, he moved Egan, Fickett & Co. to Wabasso, where at first he shared an office with another citrus company. Then, it was just Bernard Egan and a bookkeeper.
BERNIE & BETTY
Elizabeth Nelson went by Betty. Egan was Bernie to friends and others who knew him well enough to do so.
Like Bernie, Betty was born and raised a devout Catholic in New Jersey. She was born Elizabeth Selzer in 1929 in Irvington and grew up in Short Hills. She was obligated to quit college early for family financial reasons.
She married and spent the 1950s pregnant, having seven children in 10 years, the eldest a boy followed by five girls and then Gregory, who was born in 1960. The family had a dairy farm in Wilmington, Delaware, before moving in 1958 to Lighthouse Point, north of Fort Lauderdale. In 1965, they moved to Vero Beach. About that time, Betty and Bernie were divorced from their first spouses.
A single mom, Betty lived with her family in the McAnsh Park neighborhood of Vero where the kids had an easy walk to St. Helen Catholic School.
Anne Sinnott said she and her siblings “definitely were not spoiled” and the girls all wore hand-me-down clothes. Grandparents on both sides helped with finances.
Single mom of seven notwithstanding, Betty needed a job. She found one as a hostess at the Riviera Restaurant, a mainstay in Vero at the time, located on the mainland side of the Indian River near the base of the old Merrill Barber Bridge.
Betty’s former in-laws must have had a great affection for her. They were the ones who introduced the Riviera hostess to a frequent diner, Bernie Egan. The couple dated several years and married in 1971, blending her seven and his four children. Sinnott says she doesn’t remember the family ever watching TV’s blended family The Brady Bunch. “We were living it,” she said.
They had a boat called the B&B.
The Nelson children called Bernard Egan “Pop,” a practice they carry on today when they speak of him.
Betty’s children say the couple remained close and loving until Bernie died in 2004, three years before she passed away.
MOVE TO FLORIDA
Egan and his company moved to Florida the year he turned 54. That year, Egan established DNE World Fruit Sales, which he pushed to be the largest fresh citrus marketing agent in Florida.
Soon after moving, he worked to expand shipments of fresh fruit to foreign countries. Eventually, DNE exported to countries on four continents. Egan and DNE won a coveted E Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1979 to recognize his role in exports.
Getting a name early for exporting premium fresh Indian River grapefruit paid off handsomely.
It was in 1971 that several Japanese businessmen surprised Egan when they walked unannounced into his office, at the time in Vero Beach. We want to import fresh grapefruit, they said.
Sounds lucky, but it was Egan who made his own luck.
In 1972, he moved the company’s offices to Fort Pierce and that year purchased the DiGiorgio Corp. packinghouse when DiGiorgio was shedding its Florida citrus properties. DiGiorgio, which no longer exists, was founded about the same time as and by a man about the same age as Joseph B. Egan. It was once a vast holder of fruit acreage in California and Florida, and later became a conglomerate and food distributor.
With the purchase, Bernard Egan owned two packinghouses within several stone throws from company headquarters.
In January 1978, to facilitate exports, Egan bought the 45-year-old terminal at the Port of Fort Pierce and by November, with in-house stevedores, loaded 50,000 boxes of grapefruit bound for Rotterdam, Le Havre and Dover. The port is now the site of the world’s largest mobile boat lift, as well as a megayacht boatyard of Derecktor Shipyards.
EGAN TEES OFF
When it came to exporting fresh Florida citrus, the top two companies were DNE and Sealed Sweet Growers. Sealed Sweet was then a longtime cooperative based in Tampa that eventually moved its headquarters to Fort Pierce. While Egan headed up DNE, Sealed Sweet was led
by Don Lins, who had a degree in agricultural economics from the Ivy League’s Cornell University.
At an industry dinner in Lakeland held to honor him, Lins gave an acceptance speech with Gregory Nelson in attendance as his stepfather stayed home in Vero Beach.
“I came back and told Pop that Don
Lins spoke for 20 minutes, and for 18 minutes, he spoke of you,” Nelson said recently. Lins told his audience that he worked so hard in order to keep up with Bernard Egan and his accomplishments were related to that competition.
Nelson said that Lins told the following story.
“I called a Japanese customer and said I’ll take you golfing. We can get an 8 o’clock tee time at this club [in Tokyo].”
Despite the trans-Pacific flight, Lins went straight to the golf course.
“I think I’m doing well. And I show up at the golf course at a quarter to 8. Who do you think I see on the practice tee? Bernie Egan’s there! I just couldn’t beat that guy.”
Lins and Egan are both in the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. Each was inducted six years after his death.
Bobby Sexton, president of Oslo Citrus Growers Association, a cooperative that no longer boxes fruit at its packinghouse in Vero Beach, was partnered in business with Bernard Egan and also competed with him. Sexton is a grandson of the fabled Indian River entrepreneur Waldo Sexton who co-founded Oslo Citrus in 1919 and started the Indian River Citrus League.
“Bernie was a hard-charging person. No nonsense,” Sexton said. “I always liked being around him. Extremely sharp mind.
“And he had a lead foot. I think he set land speed records between here and Lakeland where the [Florida] Citrus Commission met.”
If you talk to 10 people who knew Egan, 10 people will tell you that he had a lead foot when it came to driving his newest late-model car.
Doug Bournique is the longtime executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League. In the early 1980s, he worked closely with Egan, who was the League’s president at the time. Bournique and Egan traveled together to Tallahassee and Washington, and he got to know a bit of the soft side of this “rough, tough” citrus baron.
“Everybody kind of feared Bernie because he was so tough in driving a business,” Bournique said.
One day, Egan had to go for the first time to Lakeland where many of the Florida Citrus Commission meetings were held. He asked Bournique how long it takes to drive there. Bournique, who had made the trip dozens and dozens of times, said it always takes about two hours to drive to Lakeland.
That day, Bournique was a passenger in Egan’s Mercedes-Benz, and they made it to Lakeland in 90 minutes.
“When we got there he was mad at me for misappropriating his time. He said, ‘I lost a half an hour’ that he could have been working. I had no idea he drove like a bat out of hell,” Bournique said.
In the 1970s when CB radios were popular, Egan used the handle White Rabbit because he drove a white Mercedes and he used it to “hop” over slower vehicles, Nelson said.
WAS OF KEEN MIND AND CHARITABLE
Bournique, who has known pretty much every leader in the Florida citrus business since 1979, says of Egan, “In the history of the fresh fruit industry, he was one of the one or two smartest. The competitors knew him as a fierce competitor. They all had an opinion of him but the one thing they agreed on was that he was very, very good at it.”
Egan had a few phrases he used like company mottos, one being, “A quality product is the only way to build a business.”
There are too many tales, accomplishments and honors to mention here. One was Egan’s work for the restoration of the headwaters of the St. Johns River in Indian River County. Another is his paying to pick up and ship a large, beautiful church organ from a church in Ireland to Trinity Episcopal Church in Vero Beach, at the request of Bournique.
Egan supported many charities, including those for education and for Native American causes. In the mid-1990s, he started the Bernard Egan Foundation, which is directed by his oldest stepdaughter, Bernadette Nelson Emerick.
On Gregory Nelson’s business card, under the company name and before his own, it reads, “Together, guided by His Word, we strive to ‘Bear Good Fruit.’”
FAMILY, FAMILY AND FAMILY
Egan’s son-in-law, Jean Jacques “JJ” Gilet, joined the family company as director of European exports in 1979. A native Frenchman and a businessman, Gilet was familiar with retail grocers in France. He is now in his 44th year with the company and expanded the sales of Indian River grapefruit to eight other European countries.
Egan’s nephew, Bob Egan, retired in 2016 after more than four decades with the company. His focus was on Far East sales that included six countries, the largest volume going to Japan.
Michael Joseph Egan, Egan’s son born in 1943, became executive vice president and general manager of Egan, Fickett & Co. and of DNE Sales. Like his father, he was a lively dancer, a hard worker and therefore, as family lore has it, only a mediocre golfer. He had a sharp sense of humor and was fond of a quick joke. He battled colon cancer for several years before dying at 36 in December 1979.
THOUGHTFUL NELSON TAKES THE REINS
Gregory Nelson was a sophomore at William & Mary College when Michael Egan died. His plan was to become an attorney and he carried on that path after graduation from the highly selective Virginia institution. He spent three years at the Florida State University College of Law, then worked at a national law firm in Coral Gables before Pop asked him if he wanted to join the family business.
He was 26 when he joined Egan, Fickett & Co. as general counsel. In 1993, at 33, he became president. His stepfather became general manager of the same company when he was 34.
“Greg’s very thoughtful in everything he does,” said Bobby Sexton, who for a while partnered with Nelson and BECO on the premium fresh fruit company Orchid Island Juice that Sexton and his wife, Mary Grace, now own. “He thinks things through logically. He never gets riled up. He’s even-keeled.”
Nelson is credited by others in the industry with further diversifying BECO which increased its chances in an industry that was increasingly more challenging. In times of industry overproduction, BECO found new foreign markets. In years of thin yields, it was able to source fruit from countries on five continents.
In Nelson’s first years with the company, there were freezes that altered the citrus industry, and citrus canker was the disease that threatened it.
But for the most part, those were also the heydays of Florida citrus. His stepfather remained active in the company as chairman, but Nelson was holding the reins during the three years that were the apex of the firm’s sales, 1998-2000.
In annual citrus exports, BECO was shipping about 3.5 million cartons of the Florida industry’s 10 million cartons.
A freeze in 1989 meant higher prices for citrus, which led growers to plant twice as many trees. It takes four years for a tree to begin producing fruit, which increases until a tree’s peak production at age 11 or 12, Nelson said. The overplanting in the early 1990s led to an oversupply from about 1999 to 2003, and a crash in prices that caused grove foreclosures and forced some out of the business.
Two 2004 hurricanes damaged many groves, which led to price recovery.
Then came citrus greening, which led to a plunge in per-acre yield for growers, and forced more of them to leave the industry.
BRIGHT SIGNS ON CITRUS GREENING
Only family members sit on BECO’s board. There are no outside directors.
There are three major BECO divisions. Farming and packing together account for 70% of BECO’s revenue. Blue Goose Construction, which includes mining of coquina for road-building, is about 20%, and real estate leasing and sales accounts account for about 10%.
Most of the citrus grove acreage is in Fellsmere. Through the 1990s, BECO employed 800 during peak season. It now employs a third of that figure.
“We all lament the good old days,” Nelson said.
Bournique said BECO is one of the top two or three fruit packers in the Indian River area, along with two Vero Beach-based companies: Riverfront Packing Company, which is 22 years old, and IMG Citrus, which is 44.
Florida’s citrus acreage was once 1 million acres, but is down to 200,000 acres, yet Nelson is optimistic that the amount of producing land has stopped declining.
That’s because he sees hope in the war on citrus greening.
Nelson’s optimism is fueled by a promising gene-editing technology that so far has allowed young citrus trees being tested to stave off citrus greening. After a few more years of testing, it will be clear whether this technology will work well enough for Florida companies to plant a large number of trees protected from greening, which is spread by a small insect that feeds on citrus tree leaves.
“We have been in survival mode for the last seven or eight years,” Nelson said. “Now, at least in the Florida industry, we can see a light at the end of a tunnel that is not a train heading for us. That’s the first time in a while.”
CHILDHOOD CHUMS WORKING TOGETHER
The second highest-ranking official at BECO is Richard Carnell Jr., who is general counsel and executive vice president.
Carnell became BECO’s general counsel in 1998 when it became clear to Nelson that he could no longer perform the duties of a one-person company law office as well as run its day-to-day operations as president. Nelson knew he could count on Carnell.
The two have known each other since 1966 when they struck up a friendship as fellow first graders at St. Helen Catholic School in Vero Beach. They were also neighborhood buddies so close that once when Carnell got a new bike, he gave Nelson his used but still highly desirable Schwinn Sting-Ray, better known as a spider bike with a banana seat. Carnell’s mother taught Nelson how to ride a horse, and Nelson showed his pal how to shoot basketball free throws. Later, Nelson was second in a statewide free-throw competition, and Carnell in 1977 was the Florida 4-H Horseman of the Year. He was also president of the state 4-H council.
In 1977-78, they both were senior starters on the basketball team at John Carroll High School in Fort Pierce. Nelson and guard Brian Jenkins were the leading scorers as the Rams had one of their few winning basketball seasons of the 1970s and won the district championship. They both also competed in the Florida State High School Track and Field Championship. Carnell ran the 440-yard-dash and ran a leg of the mile relay, and Nelson was a high jumper.
After a year training horses in Colorado, Carnell attended law school at Florida State University, joining Nelson who was then in his second year. Along with a future Orlando judge, they roomed together and regularly had contests over who could produce the least expensive dinner. Macaroni-and-cheese was a staple, and if tuna was on sale, it was a good day. The idea was to feed the three of them on less than a buck.
Nelson and Carnell are still teammates today as leaders of BECO, which employs about 260.
They all, Nelson said, honor the legacy of Bernard Egan.
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