In May, a consultant called Kati Hynes with a slightly unusual proposal.
The consultant told Hynes, the Charlotte Chamber's vice president of economic development, that a big client was considering a move. Would she sign a confidentiality agreement?
"It's usually a sign that it's a bigger company," Hynes told the Observer this week. She signed. Chiquita Brands International of Cincinnati was searching for a new headquarters city.
What followed were five months of meetings with state and local officials from Gov. Bev Perdue on down, an all-out lobbying push that included dinner with Hugh McColl, a scramble to come up with financial incentives, custom-made bowties and a letter from a fourth-grader.
Hynes said the effort to land Chiquita involved more than 180 elected officials, business leaders and others. It also included a grassroots social-media campaign, virtually unheard of in the tight-lipped world of economic development.
Chiquita CEO Fernando Aguirre said Tuesday that more than $22 million worth of incentives from the state, Mecklenburg County and Charlotte - combined with the draw of international flights at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport - made Charlotte the best choice.
It wasn't always clear that Charlotte would be chosen.
Hynes knew Charlotte was one of four or five possible cities. Atlanta, Boca Raton, Fla., and Cincinnati were all in the running.
Attempts to lure companies are usually code-named. "We thought Project Bananas was a bit obvious," Hynes said. Chiquita changed the project's codename from "Project Opus" to "Project Wilbur." When Hynes asked why, executives explained that Wilbur is a main character in the children's book "Charlotte's Web."
First: Surreptitious scouting
A pair of Chiquita executives scouted Charlotte for two days in late May, Hynes said, and she arranged meetings with government representatives. In June, Aguirre called his friend Tom Nelson, CEO of Charlotte-based National Gypsum. The two have known each other for years through a CEO group and traveled as far as India together, Nelson said.
"It was just something I hadn't contemplated," Nelson said of Chiquita's possible move. He started helping line up meetings for Aguirre.
In July, Aguirre and three other Chiquita executives came for three days. Hynes said such visits are more typically one day; she called the three-day schedule "intense."
"We used every moment, from 8 a.m. until 10 at night, because dinner doesn't usually end until 9 or 10," she said. "Every meal is a meeting. There are always people invited to dinner on a deal like this, an elected official or a business leader."
The Chiquita executives dined uptown at Mimosa Grill and Bentley's on 27, and they ate boxed lunches at the chamber while recruiters discussed the region's talent pool.
Aguirre ate with McColl, the retired Bank of America chairman and CEO, and Goodrich CEO Marshall Larsen. Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers "provided great personal experience of his own move from Cincinnati," Aguirre said during a speech Tuesday.
The Chiquita group met with a US Airways executive and city Aviation Director Jerry Orr to discuss what flights are available. The declining number of flights from Cincinnati's airport was a main reason Chiquita wanted out.
They met with state leaders, such as Perdue and Speaker of the House Thom Tillis. Aguirre recalled what Perdue told him after their first meeting: "Fernando, I'm going to make this happen."
Hynes said the executives met members of the Spanish-speaking Latino community, to assess whether they would fit in. Many of Chiquita's leaders speak Spanish, and the bulk of the company's 21,000 workers are in Central America, where bananas are grown.
Sometimes the chamber will show a business around Charlotte and not hear back for months, Hynes said. But Chiquita stayed in regular contact, asking for more information and pushing for more financial incentives.
On Sept. 12, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx called the secret negotiations "one of the wildest roller coasters I can imagine" during a closed Charlotte City Council session, according to the minutes of the meeting. That night, the council voted in favor of local incentives for Chiquita.
Next: Tweets join in
In mid-September, after word of Chiquita's possible move got out, local leaders added social media to the mix. .
Mecklenburg County legislative liaison Brian Francis discovered Aguirre is an ardent Twitter user who frequently sends messages about the Cincinnati Reds, his love of bowties and his travels.
On Sept. 23, Francis recommended that his followers also take a look at Aguirre. Within hours, Francis received a private message from the CEO saying he'd love to hear more from the Charlotte community.
The next day, Francis wrote a post on CLT Blog asking Charlotteans to tweet about why they love their city. They decided on the hashtag, or Twitter label, "bananas4CLT."
The idea caught on. More than 1,400 tweets have used the hashtag "bananasforCLT" and another 1,300 have used "bananas4CLT," according to Francis' data. That effort spurred others to contribute offline as well.
Judy Hill of High Cotton Ties hand-sewed some yellow-and-blue bowties to send to the self-professed neckwear enthusiast. Soon, Aguirre was tweeting pictures of himself wearing the ties at events.
Nine-year-old Lauren Andujar also became an unusual ambassador for the city when she composed a letter to the CEO, spurred by her mother, Mary, and a temporary banishment from the television and computer.
"You should move here because we have a lot of people that need jobs. Also Charlotte has lots of people to sell your bannanas (sic) to. And you should see all the sights in this town!" the letter reads.
"You will have a good time in Charlotte, i'm sure you will."
Within hours of receiving the letter, Aguirre sent Lauren a reply: "This has been a creative campaign, but of all the things I've seen, this is priceless."
On Oct. 23, Aguirre returned and watched the Carolina Panthers beat the Washington Redskins, 33-20, from owner Jerry Richardson's suite. Aguirre later called Richardson "a teddy bear who exudes Southern hospitality."
Final visit, final touches
Although it was a "perfect, perfect football day," Hynes recalled, the Chiquita executives were also evaluating the whole experience: Would they like coming to the games with these fans? What are the stadium branding possibilities?
Aguirre flew out after the game, Hynes said, and a small team of executives stayed in Charlotte. They toured area private and parochial schools, and met with officials from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and with residential real-estate brokers.
About a month later, on Monday, Hynes got another phone call: Chiquita's board had picked Charlotte. She scrambled to arrange Tuesday's announcement, which included lighting the Duke Energy tower yellow and blue - Chiquita's colors.
"It was a very intense project," said Hynes, who previously led efforts to bring large companies such as Celgard, Citco and SPX to Charlotte.
On Wednesday, she enjoyed the first fruits of her labor: a bright yellow Chiquita banana taped to her office door when she arrived at work.