"A celebration of new beginnings" is what Chiquita CEO Ed Lonergan called the company's annual meeting in Charlotte on Thursday. Only about 100 shareholders attended – and most were Chiquita employees.
As "new beginnings" go, it was the first Chiquita shareholders meeting in Charlotte, since the company moved from Cincinnati. It was the first for CEO Ed Lonergan who was hired last year along with about half of the company's workforce in Charlotte.
Also – and most importantly for shareholders – it was the first annual meeting since Chiquita deployed a turnaround strategy to get back on track.
"We got distracted from what we do best," said Lonergan.
"We had an incredible banana brand that virtually everyone in our markets knows and is preferred two to one versus the next banana brand in any consumer survey that's done," said Lonergan. "We had a fantastic salad brand that's the market leader in branded salads."
So Chiquita bananas and Fresh Express salads are now the company's main focus – no more smoothies or fruit cups or grapes or avocados, says Lonergan.
Chiquita didn't have the marketing money or know-how to compete in those areas and, "instead of growing the businesses as we'd hoped to do by having focus on that strategy, we actually increased our costs to a level that were uncompetitive with our industry and we spent money on products that unfortunately didn't deliver to the bottom line."
The strategy seems to be working. Two weeks ago, Chiquita reported a small quarterly profit after several years of flagging results.
The company's stock price has doubled in the last year – which may explain the absence of angry shareholders at the annual meeting.
The only criticism came from about a dozen protesters calling on Chiquita to formally apologize for payments to guerilla groups in Colombia. The U.S. Department of Justice fined Chiquita in 2007 for making the payments, which the company claims were extorted to guarantee the safety of its banana farm workers. Chiquita is now suing the Security and Exchange Commission to prevent the public release of details related to those payments.
CEO Lonergan declined to comment on the lawsuit.