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Chiquita aims to be more than bananas

Fernando Aguirre says the United States needs to adopt an immigration policy that allows more opportunities for legal guest workers and a path to citizenship.

Associated Press (2011)

Fernando Aguirre says the United States needs to adopt an immigration policy that allows more opportunities for legal guest workers and a path to citizenship.

As his company moves to Charlotte, CEO Fernando Aguirre is trying to reshape Chiquita Brands into something more than a purveyor of bananas, an iconic but low-margin fruit. • During a recent interview with McClatchy Newspapers, Aguirre said Chiquita is expanding its brand into new products. The company last week reported an $11 million quarterly loss, as the price of bananas — which make up the lion's share of Chiquita's revenue — slumped.

Chiquita is moving forward with its relocation to Charlotte, and has hired more than 100 people locally. The company is planning to transfer about 160 employees, mostly from Cincinnati, and hire about 150 more in Charlotte to bring the total workforce to more than 400.

In the wide-ranging interview, Aguirre also said:

• The U.S. needs to adopt an immigration policy that allows increased opportunities for legal guest workers and a path to citizenship.

• A scandal involving $1.7 million paid to left-wing guerrillas in Colombia, for which Chiquita paid the Department of Justice $25 million in fines in 2007, is mostly behind the company, despite a pending civil lawsuit. The payments to guerrillas ended before Aguirre joined Chiquita.

• Chiquita will unveil branding on top of the NASCAR Plaza building as soon as next month.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:

What do you think of the business climate here in Charlotte so far?

It has become very, very positive. That probably has been the biggest surprise. Most communities are more insular, are broken down into sections and factions. That wasn't the case here. It was very different than essentially every other opportunity, especially the opportunity to stay in Ohio.

Have you been drawn into North Carolina politics yet?

Not yet. I have more than enough on my hands to worry about, the move and worry about the business to get into politics. Several people have asked me to start supporting candidates and so on, and I want to take my time. The way I'm going to handle this is going to be about the person. There are several items that are important to us as a company. Immigration is very important.

What do you want to see for immigration policy?

I'd like to see a plan that allows people to have workers legally in the country in a way that helps businesses. There are a handful of businesses that are very, very reliant on immigrant workers. Roughly half of our workforce is minorities, most of them are Hispanic. It's got to be done legally, but — this is not a realistic scenario — if all of a sudden we were to shut down the doors and no immigrants come in, or we were to send every immigrant worker back to their country, we would have significant issues in agriculture.

How much of a burden is it to ensure your workers are legal?

We spend a good amount of time and money to make sure the workers in our factories are legal. We do random checks in our factories to make sure. The great majority of the time, everything checks well, but there's always times when people don't come back to work the next day.

Among all the solutions to immigration reform, have you seen one that makes the most sense?

In the ideal world, I would allow people to come into the country for limited amounts of time, let's say six months, and work here for a company, earn, pay their taxes. They should go back to their countries for a period of time, call it three months, and then (return), if they're in good standing. Many of the people who come to the U.S. to work, they want to go home. The majority of them aren't here to take advantage of the country for free. But they do better here, they earn more.

What about the existing population that's here illegally?

That's a very tough question. Anything that's illegal in my vocabulary is bad, and unfortunately they're illegally here. You have to understand every single case, in my opinion. There's people whose families have been split. But anything that's illegal, I would view with a very, very tough set of criteria. I would not just say everyone's a citizen now.

Anytime you relocate a company you can decide to push a reset button on some things. Do you see moving here as an opportunity to do that?

This company was founded more than 100 years ago by people who discovered bananas in Central America and started shipping them to New York. It's evolved some, but it really hasn't evolved that much. This is a very commoditized business, very low-margin business.

I came into the company with a very important objective: How do we leverage the brand? Because the brand is probably the most well-known in our industry. I would like to have different people come to figure that out. I would also like to find a way to make us more entrepreneurial. After so many years, you kind of get stuck in your ways. There is nothing harder in a company to change than the culture. Nothing harder.

Do you need to get away from your reliance on bananas?

When we bought (salad company) Fresh Express in 2005, that's exactly what we were doing. The Chiquita brand is by far the most important asset that we own, much better known than Fresh Express. We're trying to diversify from bananas, but at the same time we're trying to take advantage of the Chiquita brand. Having said all that, we also need to figure our how to make more money in bananas. We are in the single-digit margin business.

Many times, people say, "Boy, we wish we could have your brand." I say, "I wish I could have more of your products." But at the end of the day, we're a banana company. Chiquita is our mainstay.

Is Chiquita still grappling with the events that took place in Colombia, where the company admitted paying $1.7 million to left-wing guerrillas? There's still a federal lawsuit pending in Florida brought by family members of those who allegedly were victims of the guerrillas.

Because there are the legal suits still going on, you can never consider something done. The good thing is not many people worry about it. The chief legal counsel obviously does, I do, and we keep the board very informed, but that is not a distraction for essentially the rest of the company. We've said it many times: The company was the victim of an extortion. They killed company employees.

What have you done to prevent a recurrence of the events in Colombia?

We established the office of the chief compliance officer. If the alternative is to do something illegal in a country, we'll exit. That's why we exited the farms in Colombia. When I came in, I said we're sorry, but we're not going to do business in this place.

Chiquita aims to be more than bananas 05/27/12 [Last modified: Sunday, May 27, 2012 8:30pm]
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