Juggling citrus, politics, family
CHRISTY SWIFTHe projects such a calm, serious demeanor; you'd never guess the number of hats Mark Wheeler wears.
Published: October 24, 2012
Published: October 24, 2012
In addition to being the CFO of Wheeler Farms and dad to three kids (one of whom has special needs), Wheeler recently became the president of Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade organization that represents the interests of Florida citrus growers at all levels of government.
While Wheeler grew up in Winter Haven in a citrus-owning family, he didn't have the experience of working day after day in groves right outside his back door. His father, Irving Wheeler, who founded the company along with his wife, Carolyn, was an attorney and real estate developer. In the early 1970s, Irving acquired a grove near LaBelle, but couldn't get permission from authorities to turn it into housing.
Luckily, Carolyn's father, Bob Paul, was a successful citrus grower. He taught Irving how to run a grove, and the elder Wheeler caught the proverbial citrus bug and started his own company.
Mark and his two brothers, Wes and David, spent summers working in the grove. A trip to LaBelle from Winter Haven is no hop, skip and jump, but one of the older boys drove while teenager Mark rode along.
Mark, who described himself as "a carefree spirit," went off to Troy University to earn a degree in finance while David ran the business with their dad. But Mark said he always sort of knew he'd end up in the family business. Sure enough, three months before Mark graduated, David's business partner left to pursue another opportunity. Mark came back home to join David.
Though their office resides in Lake Placid and Wheeler Farms owns 2,300 acres of citrus across six Florida counties, Wheeler currently lives in Bradenton. The decision to move there was a personal one: his oldest daughter, 15-year-old Hannah, is autistic.
"We found a school and after-school program (in Bradenton) that worked well for her," explained Wheeler. While he and wife Christi were happy with the school day programs available for their daughter in Highlands County, they found there wasn't much availability as far as after-care.
"Keeping them engaged is key with autistic folks. A lot of them will withdraw into their own little world," he said.
With two other children, Sarah Beth, 14, and Leland, 12, Wheeler said he tries hard to promote a family-friendly atmosphere at work.
"We take a lot of pride in that the people who work with us, we don't consider them employees as much as family. We try to keep up with what's going on in their lives and what their kids are doing," he said.
In June, Wheeler added the title of president of Florida Citrus Mutual to his resume. The organization lobbies for the citrus industry's interests in Tallahassee and Washington D.C. Right now they are working on setting up a Citrus Research Trust Fund so that tariff monies from foreign citrus importers can go toward efforts to combat greening, a devastating bacterial disease that has rapidly spread across the state, causing tree decline and seriously impacting one of Florida's most important industries.
"That not a done deal, but I'm encouraged and optimistic," said Wheeler, who added that he is thankful to the delegation and Sen. Bill Nelson for helping to move the initiative forward.
What's the best part of being point person for Florida's citrus industry in the political arena?
Wheeler said it's interacting with and educating policymakers on what he and other Florida Citrus Mutual members do every day. "Things that don't excite us in our job, other people think are really exciting," Wheeler stated.
He doesn't mind addressing a crowd either. He added, "It's fun to get out and talk to folks about (the citrus industry). It's fun to teach them, and indirectly it positively impacts our economy and environment."