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Born into citrus, Bernard A. Egan pioneered an international industry

“A quality product is the only way to build a business.” — Bernard A. Egan

Citrus industry legend Bernard A. Egan was literally born into the business, arriving in Elizabeth, NJ, on June 7, 1914, the same year his father, Joseph, an Irish immigrant who had come to the United States in 1890, launched Egan Fickett & Co. and the Nevins Fruit Co. in New York City.

Mr. Egan was the youngest of nine children. He attended Catholic grammar school, went on to the Jesuit academy St. Francis Xavier High School, and then began pre-law studies at New York’s Fordham University.

Harsh reality intervened in the form of the Great Depression. The older Egan children managed to complete college, but Bernard had to go to work instead, signing on with Refrigerated Steamship Line, a subsidiary of United Fruit Co. (later Chiquita Brands), in 1934.

When Joseph Egan died in 1937, Bernard joined his brothers in sales at Egan Fickett, where he helped steer the company through turbulent financial times with a focus on marketing fresh Florida citrus. By 1948, he had risen to general manager, and by 1962, he had bought out two brothers and taken the helm of Egan Fickett.

Regular trips to Florida convinced Mr. Egan that the Indian River region had a unique combination of soil, rainfall and temperature that resulted in the finest citrus in the world, grapefruit in particular. In 1966, he founded East Coast Packers in Fort Pierce, FL, and two years later moved his entire operation to Vero Beach, FL (it would return to its current home, Fort Pierce, in 1972).

Bernard Egan photo
Bernard Egan, circa 1980. While Mr. Egan was roundly considered to be a hard-nosed, no-nonsense businessman, he was a tireless supporter of charities as well, especially favoring those related to church, education and Native American causes.

“I have confidence in the profitability of Indian River grapefruit,” Mr. Egan said at the time. “It’s a limited area, but the largest area in the world growing superior-quality grapefruit.”

That same year, Mr. Egan launched another subsidiary, DNE Worldwide Fruit Sales (now one of the world’s larger citrus import-export firms), as Egan Fickett’s marketing arm.

For more than half a century, Egan Fickett had been a major player in the U.S. citrus market. The founding of DNE foretold Mr. Egan’s intentions to broaden those horizons. Under his leadership during the early 1970s, the company expanded or opened new European markets for fresh Florida citrus and pioneered exports to Japan and the Far East.

Years earlier, Mr. Egan had grown Egan Fickett by adding a trucking division to carry its products domestically. Now, international success convinced him that it made similar financial sense to control his own overseas shipping, so he bought the Indian River Terminal Co. at the port of Fort Pierce in 1977.

Since then, the company has continued to grow and diversify. In 1989, Egan Fickett was renamed Bernard Egan & Co. DNE became the first U.S. company to import Australian citrus, starting in 1992, and now has operations in almost two-dozen countries. In 1997 the company struck a name-brand distribution deal with Ocean Spray. A dozen divisions currently operate under the Egan umbrella.

In 1979, Mr. Egan received the Presidential “E” Award for Export Excellence. In 1988, he was deemed a “Special Honoree” in the Florida Department of Commerce’s Industry Appreciation Program. The Florida Citrus Packers Association gave him its John T. Leslie Award of Excellence in Marketing in 1990. Shortly thereafter, he received the President’s “E Star” Award for Excellence in Exporting given for outstanding contributions to the increase of U.S. trade abroad. In 2002, Mr. Egan was inducted into the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame.

The final goal Mr. Egan set for himself was to celebrate his 90th birthday. He did just that in 2004, and passed away the following day.

Mr. Egan built an empire through an unwavering commitment to quality. “The emphasis on quality was actually my father’s principle,” he once said. And by controlling growing, picking, packing and shipping, he was able to ensure quality control from grove to customer.

By all accounts, Mr. Egan was a hard-nosed, no-nonsense businessman. George Hamner Jr. of Indian River Exchange Packers Inc. once called him the “Godfather of Grapefruit,” a nickname that stuck and became widely known.

But away from the office, Mr. Egan had a softer side. He was a shrewd businessman, but a tireless supporter of charities large and small. He and his wife Betty founded the Samaritan Center of Vero Beach, a shelter for homeless families. Although he gave widely, Mr. Egan favored church-related charities, education and Native American causes.

Doug Bournique, a 30-year veteran of the Indian River Citrus League and its executive vice president, was a wet-behind-the-ears citrus neophyte when he first met Mr. Egan in 1979. He never worked for Mr. Egan, but, like many others, benefited mightily from the older man’s knowledge.

“I was new, didn’t know a soul in this region. He kind of took me under his wing and taught me a lot about the industry,” Mr. Bournique told The Produce News in a recent interview. “Mr. Egan was very generous with his time and knowledge. I’d go sit in his office and just get a feel for how it all worked. He took the time to make sure I knew how the industry worked, from growing to marketing globally. I was young and anxious to get going.

“Later on down the road in life I realized I couldn’t have had a better teacher. He was tough on me; he made sure I got it. He’d school me. At first I was going, ‘God this guy is tougher than nails,’ but I still operate with that basic working knowledge he gave me. As tough as he was — here’s a guy running the biggest fresh fruit business in the U.S. for grapefruit and I was just a young kid making 20k a year and nervous about buying my first little lot — he drove an hour each way to come and make sure that I was making the right investment. When my dad passed away, he was one of the first people to call. He took that kind of time out of his busy schedule, with all his employees and global ventures, to make sure this little cowboy was OK. It was pretty touching. And if I made a bad investment, boy would he scold me. Just like my dad would have.

“I really learned to appreciate his guidance not only in industry but his guidance in life,” Mr. Bournique added. “He was a good man. He was tough on you, but tough in a good way. I didn’t appreciate it fully for some years, I just assumed things like that in life just happen to you, but when I look back, I just think, ‘Holy cow, I couldn’t have handpicked a better individual as a mentor.’ And his decision making for our industry was spot-on. He did it without a lot of help. Mr. Egan, he didn’t go with the flow. When he thought it was the other way, he went that other way.”

Mr. Bournique’s story is not unique.

Said Ben Bailey III, a close friend and fellow citrus grower, “He was the foremost citrus man in the area and probably the state. I think he forgot more about grapefruit than we’ll ever learn. He was respected on both sides of the ocean. Anyone he did business with could count on anything he said. He was a wonderful man.”

Added Dan Richey, president of Riverfront Packing and former Florida Citrus Commission chairman, “He was the go-to guy in this business here. My fondest memory of him was that special smile and twinkle in his eye.”

“I miss him,” Mr. Bournique said. “Like anything in life, we don’t realize how good something is until it’s gone. I was so danged lucky, just lucky to be around and get the knowledge he passed on to me. A lot of people knew the business side, how tough he was, and he had to be. Yet he had a soft, human side that was really bighearted and generous. One time I was on the local YMCA board and the Y was in major financial trouble. There was a goal was for the directors to raise a total of $50,000. I went to Mr. Egan and told him my personal goal was to raise $5,000. He said, ‘I tell you what, I’m in a hurry, I gotta go, here’s my check, I gotta run.’ The check was for $50,000.

“The board carried me around on their shoulders for a week,” he said.