After 60 years in the Florida orange-growing business, you'd think Bert Roper would be ready for some time off. Yet, packing it in and heading for a condo in Boca Raton is the last thing on his mind.
"I always said I never wanted to retire," Roper says. "I just want to redirect my energies."
At 83, Roper still serves as president of Roper Growers Cooperative, a Winter Gardens, Fla.-based family business started by his grandfather in the 1860s. These days, however, he has expanded his job description with a series of entrepreneurial and environmental projects in which he is investing both time and money.
The first is MXISystems, a company founded and run by one of Roper's Navy pals that seeks to perfect a superior X-ray machine. In addition to his own investments, Roper has taken on the task of raising $5 million for further testing. "It's tough when a small company needs money and it doesn't want to give the store away to VCs," Roper says. He believes that by 2011, MXISystems' X-ray machine will change the way cancer is diagnosed and treated. The company claims the machine is 98 percent accurate for tests like mammograms (compared to 70 percent on the current machines) and will make radiation treatment easier by only targeting the exact site of the cancer.
AquaFiber Technologies, another of Roper's investments, removes phosphorus from lakes in order to make them suitable for recreation. Roper donated the land for the prototype facility so the company could clean local bodies of water to "get them back to the lakes of nature." The scope of the technology is not only local, though. "We have tremendous potential worldwide," Roper says.
As part of the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation, Roper is working on the town's first green building. He's most excited about the rooftop greenhouse, what he calls the "greenhouse of tomorrow." The system combines aquaculture and hydroponics to cultivate both fish and produce. "Our plan is to grow both meat and plants with 5 percent of the water used for traditional agriculture," Roper says.
In an effort to aid the next generation of entrepreneurs, Roper recently launched a website called Cosmic Management outlining his life story and what he considers the secrets to a successful management strategy. "If somebody's interested, I would like to share to make their journey a lot less bumpy than it's been for me for the last 83 years," he says.
No matter what new projects Roper sinks his teeth into, he will always be known in the agricultural world as the inventor of the Tree-See Control System, a device for spraying chemicals on trees that revolutionized the industry when it first came out in 1982. Roper's machine uses sensors based on Polaroid's auto-focus technology to ensure that energy isn't wasted spraying chemicals into the air.
"It's been one of the most gratifying things," Roper says of his invention. "Tree-See has been a Godsend in many ways." Profits from selling and licensing Tree-See kept Roper Growers alive during a series of bad frosts in the 1980s. It also helped Roper gain entry into the Agricultural Hall of Fame and the Citrus Hall of Fame in 2004.
As for the typical retirement activities, Roper isn't impressed. "I tried playing golf a couple weeks ago and it was the hardest work I've ever done," he says. "I define work as anything that you do where you'd rather be doing something else."
By that definition, Roper says, he's been lucky. "I worked very little in the course of my career."