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May 22, 2018

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

Chinese Ambassador Li Zhaoxing and his wife sample a grapefruit at the Box Ranch Groves near Indiantown with Skip Clements in 2000.
Clements, in an interview, leafs through binders of his memories: The photos of him with Chinese officials, a close-up of the dinner — the actual meal on the plate — that was served at one function. It all culminated in 1998, when he received permission to bring Florida citrus into China under an exemption to its overall ban. “To be the only person in the largest market in the world. It was just amazing,” he says.

The industry, to put it mildly, was skeptical. For one, many growers and packers suspected the Chinese were only making a show of opening their market to get favorable trade treatment. Second, there was Clements himself and his reputation in some quarters for self-promotion. Among those who knew Clements, most said “this isn’t adding up,” says Richey, the former citrus commissioner. “There was never any substance to his deal that we could see.”

“To be the only person in the largest market in the world. It was just amazing,” says Clements.

Says a friend of Clements, Gordon Hunt, the state’s former international citrus marketing director: “Some people think the world of him, and others say, ‘What a pain in the ass.’ ” Still, says Hunt, who later served briefly on Clements’ corporate board, Clements was responsible “hands down, more than anybody in the state” for opening China to Florida citrus.

Clements business partner Joseph Rizzuti and Yuan Cai, director general of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the Shanghai Municipal Government.

In any case, Clements’ monopoly was short-lived. China broadened the deal beyond Clements, officially opening its markets to Florida citrus in 2000. Meanwhile, Clements and Rizzuti had been forecasting huge growth for their company, with Rizzuti suggesting in a local newspaper that $1 billion a year in sales is possible by the end of the decade. But by then, even with a nearly two-year head start, Clements had yet to ship anything. He had no groves, no packinghouse and minimal funding.

A search for financing brought Clements and his cohorts to attorney Donald F. Mintmire. A Kentucky native then in his early 50s, Mintmire had his law practice in Palm Beach, a few blocks from where he lived in a 5,425-sq.-ft. home held in the name of his wife, Patricia, who was prominent as an officer (and eventually board chair) of Planned Parenthood of Palm Beach and Treasure Coast Area.

Mintmire had a measure of prominence, too. He had represented Henry Rolfs, the quixotic Palm Beach millionaire who blew his fortune in the 1980s buying run-down properties across the waterway in West Palm Beach with a vision of redeveloping the area. Rolfs failed, but under different ownership his holdings became the CityPlace residential and commercial development that now dominates downtown West Palm Beach.

To help Clements get the money he needed to begin exporting, Mintmire provided a shell corporation. Despite the connotation of “shell game,” a shell is a legitimate, inexpensive and fast way for a private company such as Clements Citrus to go public, by merging with an existing publicly held company that has no operating business. The idea is that since the shell has — or quickly can get — approval for public trading of its stock, the merged entity can sell new shares to raise money without the delay and expense of an initial public offering. Mintmire made the marriage between Clements Citrus and a shell.

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

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