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Domino sweetens a sugar empire

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Alfonso Fanjul Jr. was barely out of college in the fall of 1959 when he and several attorneys sat nervously at a conference table in his company's headquarters waiting for Fidel Castro's men to arrive. The soldiers, who had overthrown dictator Fulgencio Batista, were coming to announce the fate of the sugar business that Fanjul's great-grandfather had started in Cuba more than a century earlier.

Even though private property was being confiscated all around him and his family had fled the country, Fanjul believed he could save the business.

Finally the militiamen entered, tossed their machine guns on the table and declared that all of the family's land belonged to the government. Fanjul can almost laugh today at the memory of himself as a 22-year-old trying to reason with them, pointing out that Castro's plan called for only nonproductive land to be taken over.

"One of the men picked up his machine gun and stood up and just looked at me," recalled Fanjul, 64. "There was a map [of Fanjul's property] on the wall, and he pointed on the map with the machine gun and made like a big circle over it. He said, 'We're going to take it all away.'

"He was looking at me straight in the eye and said, 'We will pass the laws to do it afterward.' I knew then it was time to shut up."

Castro's militia had been installed in the family mansion, so instead of returning home, Fanjul hid out in the sugar mills and at friends' homes for several nights. Later, while he was driving through a checkpoint, plainclothes officers fired at him.

He narrowly escaped, drove to the airport and, without a suitcase, boarded a commercial jet bound for the United States. A former schoolmate who had become a Castro supporter searched him before he was allowed to depart.

"The only consolation I had," Fanjul said, "was that there was a pin in my pocket that stuck him and he bled for a while."

Fanjul (pronounced fan-HOOL) joined his family in New York, and they immediately went to work rebuilding their sugar empire in the United States. Their West Palm Beach, Fla.-based company, Florida Crystals Corp., is now one of the country's dominant sugar-cane producers and, with 180,000 acres and 750,000 tons of raw sugar produced every year, has surpassed the business they were forced to abandon in Cuba.

The Fanjuls' pending acquisition of Domino Sugar company and its refinery in Baltimore will catapult Florida Crystals even higher, allowing it to vertically integrate its operations and control every aspect of the business of sugar, from its planting and harvesting to its refining, packaging and distribution.

Domino also gives them a well-known brand name that is sold coast to coast. "We view Domino as a permanent investment," Fanjul said, "that will be good for ourselves and good for the workers at Domino."

He said that no layoffs of the Baltimore refinery's 500 employees are planned and that the giant neon sign that has towered above the harbor for half a century will remain.

Florida Crystals is led by Alfonso Fanjul, the chairman and chief executive, and his brother, Jose "Pepe" Fanjul, who is vice chairman, president and chief operating officer. Their two younger brothers, Andres and Alexander, are division presidents.

Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul have become major players in local and national politics, giving generously to campaigns and pressing hard for their interests.

They have won praise from the Cuban-American community, their unionized employees and other growers, as well as criticism from environmentalists and some lawmakers who accuse them of polluting the Everglades and relying on government subsidies.

'Live and learn'

"Our family was not politically active in Cuba and that was one of the errors we made," said Pepe Fanjul, 57. "Live and learn."

Thanks in part to their political connections, the Fanjuls now account for about 40 percent of the cane grown in Florida and more than 9 percent of the nation's cane sugar.

Florida Crystals' headquarters occupies the entire second floor of a new corporate complex in West Palm Beach. The offices' employees enjoy a stunning view of the Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway that separates the more blue-collar West Palm Beach from the exclusive island of Palm Beach, where the family resides.

Palm Beach, which is three blocks wide, is home to Metromedia Co.'s Chairman John W. Kluge, financier Carl Icahn, and real estate magnate Donald Trump.

Though it is largely a bedroom and vacation community, investment firms and banks occupying pink and yellow buildings are everywhere. The retail district of Worth Avenue offers one- and two-story shops that include Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Escada and Hermes.

This street is also where Alfonso Fanjul, who goes by the name Alfy, likes to ride his bike and go on walks with his grandchildren. He calls home a 100-foot yacht, named the Crili after his daughters Crista and Lillian. (His other residence is on the ocean in Coral Gables.)

Pepe Fanjul lives less than a mile from the shopping district in a large Spanish-style, three-story white stucco house with red roof and a separate service entrance, which property records show he purchased for $1.85 million in 1986.

"We've always lived quite well and we like to live comfortably but we do not want to be ostentatious," he said. "Luckily, we don't have to hide our money in the sense that we haven't done anything wrong to get it."

The good life

The Fanjuls won't disclose how much they are worth but say the billionaire label that is frequently used to describe them is incorrect.

The Fanjuls are known to enjoy the pleasures that their wealth affords.

Alfonso Fanjul, who went through a battle with his wife over his assets during their divorce last year before agreeing to settle, is an avid golfer and fisherman.

Pepe Fanjul, who has been with his wife, Emilia, for more than 30 years, loves to go bird hunting, particularly in England. He also hosts lavish parties at his New York apartment, where guests have included Princess Arriana von Hohenlohe, investment banker Dixon Boardman, writer William F. Buckley Jr., Princess Maria Pia di Savoia (daughter of the last king of Italy) and designer Oscar de la Renta.

As members of one of the most moneyed families in Cuba, the Fanjuls' parents would often play host to visiting royalty and Hollywood celebrities in the days when the island nation was one of the world's luxury hot spots for the privileged.

A bit of those grand days was reconstructed in the Dominican Republic with Florida Crystals' purchase in 1985 of Gulf & Western's holdings there. The 240,000 acres of cane came with a luxury resort called Casa de Campo.

The resort has three championship golf courses along with polo grounds, tennis courts, boating and a shooting range. Recent guests have included Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Elizabeth Taylor.

In the world of Palm Beach, the Fanjuls are considered unpretentious. They are active in philanthropic endeavors and have started one of their own, New Hope Charities, which serves underprivileged families in a town not far from their cane fields.

"They don't like to go out like Donald Trump. They are the complete opposite of that. They are not stuck up at all," said Carlos M. Arruza, whose petroleum company does business with the Fanjuls and whose late father was a close friend of Alfonso Fanjul. "If their picture was never in the paper again, they'd be thrilled to death."

That's no surprise. Most of the publicity they get is negative.

The Fanjuls have been denounced for polluting the Everglades, mistreating workers, buying political favors and taking advantage of federal subsidies.

In February 1996, Vice President Al Gore went to the Everglades, which have been damaged by phosphorus runoff from agricultural fields, and announced that the Clinton administration would push for a $1.5 billion restoration project that would convert about 100,000 acres of cane fields into marsh. The project was to be financed by a penny-a-pound tax on sugar.

Within hours of the speech, Alfonso Fanjul was dialing his friend Bill Clinton.

That call gained him notoriety when it was revealed in special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr's report that Monica Lewinsky was in the Oval Office with the president at the time the phone rang.

Clinton was in the midst of breaking off his relationship with her and called Fanjul back within the hour. The two spoke for 22 minutes. Clinton included the Everglades plan in his budget but Congress killed it.

A state initiative did set aside 40,000 acres to act as a filter between agriculture and the Everglades, and farmers must decrease the amount of phosphorus in their runoff.

Still, many environmentalists feel the measures don't go far enough and that the Fanjuls and other sugar growers haven't paid their fair share of the cleanup costs.

'Potent economic force'

"The Fanjuls are a potent economic force, politically sophisticated and skilled in order to protect and advance their business opportunities," said Joe Browder, an Everglades activist and Washington consultant. "They have done a good job; unfortunately, it is at the expense of the taxpayers.

"The Fanjuls are no more responsible for what the sugar industry has done to harm South Florida than anybody else in the sugar business," he added.

Another practice that brought the Fanjuls unwanted publicity is the industry's hiring of temporary workers from Jamaica to cut the cane for harvest.

Several hundred workers at one of the Fanjuls' operations went on strike in 1986 for better working conditions. When management called police for help, the sheriff's department used dogs to round up the workers, who were put on buses, taken to the airport and deported.

A spokesman for the Fanjuls said the family, which had recently purchased that operation and has since replaced most of its managers, wishes the situation had been handled differently.

About 20,000 of the former temporary workers sued the Fanjuls and other growers in the early 1990s for allegedly paying lower wages than promised.

A jury sided with the Fanjuls in one of the cases, although it called the family's behavior toward the workers "shameless," and another case that the Fanjuls lost was overturned on appeal. A third suit is pending.

The harvesting operations have since become mechanized, and the temporary workers are no longer used.

The topic that has brought the Fanjuls the most notoriety, though, is their political power - a tool that has helped maintain the federal price supports that keep sugar prices high and have aided in the family's success.

Federal election records show that Florida Crystals gave more than $300,000 to the Democratic Party in the 2000 federal elections and more than $165,000 to Republicans. That doesn't include the many thousands donated by the Fanjuls personally, nor does it include donations to individual campaigns or local Florida races.

Bipartisanship

Pepe Fanjul became a Republican while attending Villanova University in Pennsylvania (he later received an MBA from New York University) and served as a finance chairman in Bob Dole's 1996 presidential bid.

Alfonso Fanjul, who has not become an American citizen and has dual citizenship of Spain and the Dominican Republic, is a Democrat and held the corresponding position in Bill Clinton's campaign.

Dan Miller, a Republican congressman from western Florida, calls the sugar price supports a "crazy, dumb program" but said it is hard to go up against sugar interests, who have numerous political action committees designed solely to fight for the price controls.

The Fanjuls "are very powerful here in the state of Florida," said Miller, whose own campaign coffers have been boosted by contributions from the National Confectioners Association and the National Restaurant Association.

Many people question whether the Fanjul brothers truly have ideological differences, and call their activities in the dueling parties a ploy to get lawmakers on both sides to support the sugar program.

But Pepe Fanjul, who became a citizen in 1999, resents those charges.

"It's a bit, to me, annoying," he said. "Everybody says there must be some ulterior motive. Luckily, we live in a free country where people are free to be whatever they want to be."

Still, the impact is the same: The sugar program they hold dear is intact.

Import limits

The federal program limits the amount of sugar that can be imported into the United States and uses those restrictions as a lever to control prices here, now two to three times higher than the price on the world market.

The General Accounting Office estimates that the Fanjuls earn at least $60 million more a year than they would if the program didn't exist. The agency says that, in general, the sugar program costs U.S. consumers between $800 million and $1.9 billion a year in higher prices for sugar and products made with sugar.

The Fanjuls argue that many other countries subsidize their sugar production - keeping world prices artificially low, and that for the United States to unilaterally discontinue price supports would harm U.S. producers.

"American sugar growers can compete on a worldwide basis with anybody in a free global economy," Alfonso Fanjul said. "What we have a difficult time doing is competing against subsidized sugar from foreign governments."

Refiners say the sugar program has caused them nothing but problems. The price controls mean sugar cane and sugar beets are attractive crops because growers know they are guaranteed a certain rate for their products.

The past several years have brought a glut of sugar beets on the market, and compared with making sugar from cane, sugar beets are simpler to make into a finished product.

The high sugar-beet supply means prices for the finished product - be it from cane or beets - have fallen.

Selling at a net loss

So companies such as Domino, which handle cane, are still forced to pay high, government-controlled prices for the raw material, but in order to compete with beet sugar, they still sell their finished, refined sugar at depressed prices - meaning a net loss on every pound of sugar sold.

The situation led to the country's largest refiner, Imperial Sugar Co. of Texas, to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January.

Domino's current owner, Tate & Lyle of London, said the program was the main reason it was selling the refiner.

Knowing the refiner was up for sale, workers at Domino breathed a sigh of relief when they learned the plant would be purchased by another sugar company.

"We heard the same rumors that everyone else heard," said Alex Hamilton, president of the union that represents about 400 of the 500 workers at Domino's Key Highway plant. "The Florida people grow their own sugar. ... I look at that as a plus."

Much of the raw sugar going to the Domino refinery here will come from the Fanjuls' cane fields - that's raw material Domino gets without paying an outside grower. It was also a defensive move: With independent refineries struggling, cane growers were fearful they would have no buyers.

"It will achieve efficiencies that weren't there before and also provide producers a foothold in the Northeast market, which is probably one of the best markets in the United States," said Dalton Yancey, executive vice president of the Florida Sugar Cane League.

61% stake in Domino

The Fanjuls will own 61 percent of Domino (including its refinery in Brooklyn) and 39 percent will be owned by the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, which is made up of 56 independent farms. The $180 million deal is expected to close in a few months.

"Among people who know [the Fanjuls], they're regarded very highly. Those who form their opinions by what they read in Forbes, U.S. News and a number of other cases ... have, I think, a misconstrued opinion of the Fanjuls," said George H. Wedgworth, chief executive of the growers' co-op.

"Within a matter of a week or so, from these 55 growers, we raised $20 million to go into business with them - that ought to tell you something."

Despite the controversy with its temporary workers, management and labor get along well.

Joe Kyles is the business representative for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers at the largest Fanjul division - the Okeelanta Corp., which has 1,100 workers. Organized labor hasn't initiated a strike at that operation in the 31 years Kyles has been there.

"There is an open-door policy with management and [human resources] where we can go in and try to resolve problems," he said.

Kyles said things have gotten better under the Fanjuls' ownership - they acquired the operation as part of the 1985 Gulf & Western deal - largely because new executives were hired.

The Fanjuls are also highly regarded in the Cuban-American community.

"They are savvy, political statesmen who understand their world and Washington and the international community they move in," said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation.

"I don't think you'll find them making speeches to crowds on Cuban politics, but they can tell the truth on Cuban issues. They are looked upon very favorably for their leadership."

The Fanjuls support the foundation financially, and they gave $10,000 to the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez to help pay legal bills in the battle to keep the young boy - whose mother died while attempting to immigrate to the United States - in this country.

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