In the blink of an eye, Alfonso Fanjul, GSB ’59, and his family lost the business they’d spent generations in Cuba working to create.
But hard work and a great education helped Fanjul, the CEO of Florida Crystals, restart in the United States. On Feb. 5, he told an audience of Gabelli School of Business students they, too, could create a successful business.
Fanjul’s appearance at the Rose Hill campus was the highlight of the college’s International Business Week, which brought together experts in global business for lectures and lunches.
In his talk, Fanjul traced the path of his ancestors’ immigration from Spain to Cuba, where his family eventually came to own the largest sugar plantation on the island.
His family fled to Florida in 1960 after Fidel Castro’s government took power.
“I had just finished school and had gone back to Cuba, and was sitting in the family office when Fidel Castro’s people came in to discuss what was going to happen. We sat down with lawyers, and I had a yellow pad and pencil, and they put machine guns on the table,” he said.
“We chatted for a while, and then the leader grabbed the machine gun, pointed to the map on the wall where we had the different properties our company owned, looked at me, and said, ‘We’re going to take it all away.’”
Fanjul’s family was able to rebuild their life in Florida, starting with the purchase of the 4,000-acre Osceola Sugar Mill. Over the years, the company slowly added more sugar plantations and refineries to its portfolio, including Florida Crystals, which enabled their company to sell directly to consumers for the first time in 1991. In 2001, the company added Domino Sugar to its portfolio.
Today, Fanjul Corp.’s holdings make it the largest sugar producer in the world, with five sugar mills, 10 sugar refineries, five power plants, one rice mill, one alcohol plant and two furfural plants, 375,000 acres of farmland, and 50,000 head of cattle. The company has also expanded into real estate, including a resort, an airport, and a deepwater port in the Dominican Republic.
Recalling his time at Fordham in the 1950s, he said the first English words he mastered were “push” and “pull,” which he needed to know in order to get in and out of classrooms.
“I don’t think [Fordham] really has changed as much. I’m sure that you have the same caring, loving priests that I had in my time,” Fanjul said.
He advised students to be polite, play by the rules, return every phone call and e-mail, and, when in meetings, to find reasons to justify their attendance.
And, he said, they should also not take their education for granted.
“I thought I was going to go home to run the family business,” he said.
“[Suddenly] I was back in America trying to start all over again, and if it hadn’t been for the education that I got at Fordham, I guarantee that I wouldn’t be where I am today.”