Bradenton's worry: Will largesse go too?

Published Dec. 6, 2003|Updated Sept. 2, 2005

As Nancy Cobb stepped out of her pickup truck to open her downtown antique shop, the familiar citrus scent hit her as it does most mornings.

It was the smell of burnt orange peels used to make cattle feed, a byproduct of Tropicana Products' huge orange juice plant just down the street.

Cobb doesn't mind the wakeup jolt. "Without the smell, Bradenton wouldn't be the same. We need that smell," she said. It smells, Cobb added with a laugh, "like money."

Over five decades, Tropicana has turned Bradenton into something of a company town. There are other businesses with headquarters here, including Beall's department stores and Champ's Sports. There are other industries, like fishing and recreation. But Tropicana is the biggest, best-known private employer and the biggest donor to civic causes.

This week's decision by Tropicana's parent, PepsiCo, to relocate the juicemaker's North American headquarters from Bradenton to Chicago is shaking up the longtime relationship between the company and its hometown.

The move won't affect the 1,900 Tropicana production workers in Bradenton nor the juice processing and distribution network based here.

Eighteen-wheelers loaded with freshly picked oranges will still rumble in from State Road 64 to the juicemaking plant, 260 trucks a day during peak season.

But several hundred employees on the office side _ marketing, research, accounting and the like _ are waiting to hear if they will be laid off, offered a relocation package to Chicago, or stay put.

Beyond the hit to Bradenton's prestige, and Florida's, in losing a corporate headquarters, the relocation could inflict deeper scars.

"Unfortunately, I don't know that the community has yet come face to face with the kind of loss this represents," said Ken Barnebey, a former Tropicana chief executive who spent 26 years with the company before leaving in 1981. "It's not just a loss of jobs. It's a loss of talent."

Barnebey, who still lives in Bradenton, said moving the executive staff will have a ripple effect. Tropicana executives sit on community boards, are active in schools and spearhead civic projects.

The company has been a leader in Manatee County's Chamber of Commerce, the downtown development association, the Salvation Army. It's by far the biggest contributor to the local United Way. Outside its headquarters, near a half-dozen giant orange balls, an oversized fever chart indicates that employees have raised $200,000 so far on their way to a 2003 United Way goal of $350,000.

"Your heart is where you hang your hat," Barnebey said. "In time, I think that they will probably not support the community services as they have historically."

There's more. Bank accounts may be shifted to Chicago. Insurance policies could move.

Barnebey even wonders how relationships will change when the Florida Department of Citrus and Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest grower's group, begin dealing with lower-level executives from one of the most important agricultural businesses in the state.

Greg Shearson, a PepsiCo executive who will take over from Tropicana's departing president Jim Dwyer, flew here to meet-and-greet employees Thursday. His mission: to allay concerns and assure workers the company's commitment to this community will remain even though the corporate letterhead will soon say Chicago.

Tropicana will continue to provide free juice to community programs like Head Start, company representatives said. Its employees will still have cookouts and softball tournaments to raise money for United Way.

"We're still going to be Manatee County's largest private employer, continue to purchase one-third of all the oranges grown in Florida and be the cornerstone of PepsiCo's juice business," said spokeswoman Kristine Nickel. "We will have a huge presence in Florida."

Executives running the manufacturing and distribution operations will still serve on community boards, added Tropicana communications manager Meghan Stout, who is among those waiting to find out if she will be asked to move to Chicago.

"Logic tells you it's going to have an impact," said Nancy Engel, executive director of the Economic Development Council for the Manatee Chamber of Commerce. "The good thing is we do have a diverse economy. We have people moving in all the time."

Booming Manatee County is adding 20 residents a day with a five-year growth rate of 14 percent, U.S. Census estimates indicate.

Still, local business owners, politicians and Tropicana employees this week were eager for Tropicana to release more information, including exactly how many jobs will be lost. "These are the times where confusion makes something difficult even more so," said City Council member James Golden, whose district includes the neighborhood surrounding Tropicana.

Italian's American dream

Tropicana's roots go back 56 years to when Sicilian immigrant Anthony Rossi started a small fruit packing business in nearby Palmetto.

Rossi was already marketing gift boxes of Florida citrus to major department stores when he began experimenting with ways to ship juice to New York without losing the fruit's fragile flavor.

His success in doing so revolutionized the citrus industry and made his Tropicana its leading brand.

Ten years after Rossi died at the age of 92, his presence is still felt. A new Tropicana office building used largely for research bears his name, as does a nearby park. Tropicana employees and politicians still recall their favorite anecdotes involving the feisty businessman known as much for his charitable causes as his penchant to fire employees in anger then quickly rehire them.

Today, Tropicana's facilities are scattered across 265 acres. The endless stream of smoke coming out of the stacks indicates peak season is under way.

As trucks loaded with oranges file into the fruit yard, crows circle above in search of easy pickings.

Inside the plant, the fruit is sorted, washed, fed into extractors that can squeeze juice and pulp at the rate of 700 oranges a minute, and the juice is packaged or stored.

Juice-laden trains bound for Cincinnati and New York routinely tie up traffic in downtown Bradenton.

Not without its problems

Relations between Tropicana and Bradenton haven't always gone smoothly. Anxiety accompanied each move the juicemaker made as it was shuffled from one corporate parent to another before ending up with PepsiCo in 1998.

At one point, PepsiCo turned over sales and distribution of Tropicana products to another of its companies, Quaker's Gatorade division, costing jobs in Bradenton.

After years of trying, Bradenton annexed Tropicana's headquarters into the city's boundaries in 2000, a move generating cash for neighborhood improvement projects.

This month, Tropicana won an appellate court tax case that will cost the Manatee County School Board and Manatee County Commission more than $1-million.

The headquarters shift is expected to take months. Bradenton executives who are offered relocation packages will be given until the end of June, after their kids' school year, to move north.

Tropicana told employees not to talk to reporters. But the company acknowledged anger and confusion among those who might lose their jobs, mixed with hope they can stay with Tropicana, either here or in Chicago.

"There's a lot of love for this company," said Stout, the marketing manager.

Not everyone in Bradenton is enamored with the juicemaker.

Laura Deleruyelle, a nurse practitioner, suffers migraines that she blames on the orange juice smell. Some of the patients she sees have similar complaints, along with swollen, red eyes.

Making matters worse, when Deleruyelle moved into her dream home near the plant she discovered it was close enough to the train tracks to hear blaring horns announce the departure of juice runs throughout the day.

Deleruyelle, for one, would just as soon see Tropicana leave town altogether.

"I know it's not good for the community," she said, "but it'd be good for my head."

_ Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at or (813) 226-3407.

Tropicana by

the numbers

Tropicana Products is in peak production season, which runs from late October to early July. During peak time, the Bradenton plant:

Employs 1,900

Processes 170,000 boxes of fruit per day. Each box weighs 90 pounds and yields about six gallons of juice.

Unloads as many as 40 fruit trailers in a 24-hour period.

Runs 90 juice extractors, each capable of slicing and drawing juice out of 700 oranges per minute.

Has fruit randomly sampled by the Florida Department of Agriculture every 15 seconds.

Rejects an entire load if 2 percent or more of the load is rejected.

Produces about 875 tons of cattle feed per day from orange peels.

_ Source: Tropicana Products

About Bradenton


SIZE: 12.1 square miles

HISTORY: Sugar planter Joseph Braden built his home close to the point where Hernando de Soto had first landed on the Florida peninsula in 1539. When a post office was established in 1878, the spelling was given as Braidentown by error. The "i" and "w" were both later dropped.

GOVERNMENT: County seat of Manatee County

MAYOR: Wayne Poston

LARGEST EMPLOYERS: Manatee County School Board; Tropicana Products; Manatee County government; Blake Medical Center; Manatee County Sheriff's Office

CITY MOTTO: "The Friendly City"

_ Sources: Times research; Manatee County Economic Development Council; city of Bradenton