April 22, 2024

Profile: Skip Clements

Sour Grapefruits

Ten years ago, Skip Clements saw himself as the king of citrus marketing. A scam dethroned him, and today he’s consumed with a quest for redemption and retribution.

Mike Vogel | 2/1/2008

[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

Henry T. “Skip” Clements tells this story: There he was, a citrus entrepreneur from Florida, in an auditorium in Philadelphia in 1997, sitting in the front row
between the chairmen of Boeing and General Motors, an invited guest to hear the president of China give a speech. The two corporate big shots ignored Clements and talked across him, especially after he told them, “I sell oranges for a living.”

The Chinese president concluded his remarks to a standing ovation, exited the stage and stopped near the three men.“Thank you, Mr. Clements, for being here. Hope you can join us for dinner,” the Chinese president said. He left without a word to the two chairmen. The Boeing head turned to Clements and said, “What did you say you do for a living?” Recalls Clements,“I smiled and walked away.”

The tale follows a template for plenty of other Clements stories: The lowly outsider, dismissed by the elite, redeemed at the end — with those who dismissed him getting their comeuppance.

The Philadelphia meeting became just a piece of a much larger story — one that Clements hasn’t been able to make fit his template. It’s a story of a crooked lawyer, a scam — and Clements, the dreamer, who says he wound up going from “the king of the citrus industry to being homeless in just a number of days.” He craves an ending of his own writing, one with his redemption — and retribution for those he blames for his downfall.

Silver-haired, big and broad-shouldered, Clements, 56, is a U.S. Marine veteran. A Long Island native, he came to Stuart on Florida’s east coast after the Vietnam War. He earned a bachelor’s in education in 1974 at Florida Atlantic University, didn’t want to teach and went into the citrus business. In a few years he became a partner in a packinghouse, where fruit is processed and packed.

He became an investor and officer in a private-sector consulting business in Stuart that taught companies how to prevent industrial espionage. When that consulting business ended, Clements returned to citrus.

Stuart lies in the Indian River citrus region where, as Doug Bournique, executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League, says, the “Rolls-Royce” of fruit is grown. The problem in the 1990s was that growers were producing citrus like Fords. Prices fell by a third. Grapefruit and orange growers statewide needed a new market. Says Dan Richey, former chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission and third-generation grower, “Obviously, we’re drooling when we see the population China has.”

Growers and Florida urged the U.S. government to pressure China to open its market. Clements had another idea. Using Washington contacts, he wooed the Chinese directly. For backing for his Clements Citrus, he got an investment from Joseph Rizzuti, an accountant in nearby Palm City, and later from other local business luminaries.

Clements began attracting media attention after making arrangements for the Chinese ambassador to visit Martin County.

After Clements invited the Chinese ambassador to Martin County and hosted his visit, he landed on National Public Radio — bringing out the TV crews and politicians who had until then ignored him. Clements became a celebrity, and his efforts and love of the spotlight made him a household name in Stuart for a time. The Stuart News, which sent a reporter with Clements to China, wrote that Clements “literally could save Florida’s $8-billion local citrus industry.”

Tags: Politics & Law, Treasure Coast, Agriculture, Government/Politics & Law

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