Chiquita CEO Shares Lessons On The Way Out
6:05 pm
Fri August 24, 2012

Chiquita CEO Shares Lessons On The Way Out

Fernando Aguirre. Photo: Tanner Latham

Layoffs and cost-cutting are underway at one of the most recent marquee companies to relocate to Charlotte. Chiquita Brands International announced a restructuring plan last week that will cut 300 jobs in the coming months, including 15 here in Charlotte. . . and that CEO Fernando Aguirre is on his way out.

It was a disappointing surprise for the Charlotte business community, but not for Aguirre.

He was pleased to see banana pudding on the menu for business leaders at a Rotary club lunch yesterday

"I certainly expect that it is made out of the right brand," Aguirre quipped. "And if it isn't, I think we'll have to talk to the hotel administration."

Fernando Aguirre's speech to Rotarians was set long before last week's announcement that he'd be leaving Chiquita. He wasn't sure they'd still want to hear from him, but of course they did.

Always available on Twitter and affable on stage, Aguirre has quickly endeared himself to Charlotte - and the affection is mutual.

"My wife and I have decided to be here - we sold our house in Cincinnati, we're building a house here," said Aguirre. "This is our home for the future!"

In settings like this, Aguirre often shares a list of leadership lessons he's learned as CEO. But this was his first speech since Chiquita announced his departure and he's had to tweak the list. It's now "Lessons of a CEO in Transition."

Several times Aguirre mentioned how lonely it is at the top - especially when you're on the way out.

"It is amazing to see how people behave once you're not part of their career decision making," said Aguirre. "Little do they know that I'm still there!"

At least until the board finds his replacement. After that, he'll stay on as a consultant for a year, earning $40,000 a month. Aguirre says this is not a situation of him being shown the door against his will.

"Sometimes you need to know when sacrifice yourself for the good of the enterprise," said Aguirre. "In other words, you need to know when to be courageous and let go."

Aguirre spoke briefly with WFAE after his speech and admitted that he's known for a few years he was nearing the end of his CEO tenure. Chiquita's board was planning to give the company enough time to settle into Charlotte and then - sometime in 2013 - announce Aguirre's retirement along with a strategy to improve profits and a stock price that's off 75 percent from its five-year high.

AGUIRRE: "What happened was we moved a lot faster. We have essentially all our people here - we got a few more coming this month and the restructure needed to happen. So we felt it probably was right to announce this too."

ROSE: "You have been the face of Chiquita in Charlotte, you are the man local officials were thinking of - or shaking the hand of - when they agreed to millions of dollars in incentives. At any point has the public been misled, either by you or by Chiquita, in the change of this leadership?"

AGUIRRE: "I don't think so. As I said earlier, whether it's me saying it or my HR director or anyone else in the company - we said, 'X number of jobs and X payroll,' and the government said 'We'll give you these incentives.' This happens all the time. Not very many CEOs last nine years. I'm sure the governor and the mayor knew - looking at our history that I wasn't gonna be here forever. At the end of the day we make commitments and whether it's me or somebody else sitting in that chair, they need to deliver on their commitments to get paid. And if we don't deliver on the commitments we don't get paid."

ROSE: "And why are you not the guy to lead Chiquita through this restructure? What do you lack? What skills don't you have?"

AGUIRRE: "Well, I think it goes beyond that. I think it's a lot about - we've tried many things already, we've executed many ideas. I think it's a real opportunity to bring fresh thinking into the company. You know, I frankly wasn't thinking I would be 9 or 10 years in the CEO chair. I was hoping that I'd be more like 3 or 4. Once you go through that you realize there's a lot of sacrifices you need to make, as I mentioned in my talk. And sometimes you've got to make the decision that you're not willing to continue making those same sacrifices. And you know, it was the right time for us to make the decision."

Aguirre says the transition's happening a few months ahead of his original plan, but that overall his career is going pretty much according to script. He's always wanted to teach at a university - so that may be his post-Chiquita chapter. Writing a book about leadership is also definitely in the plan.

Listen to Chiquita CEO Fernando Aguirre talk about his "10 Lessons from a CEO in Transition."

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