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Former Chiquita leader on being a CEO: ‘It takes a toll’

ChiquitaQandA_02
Davie Hinshaw - dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
Fernando Aguirre, President and Chief Executive Officer Chiquita Brands, talks with Observer editors Monday, May 14, 2012__Davie Hinshaw - dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Retirement is proving busy for former Chiquita Brands International CEO Fernando Aguirre, who spoke Wednesday at a Charlotte Chamber event morning about subjects ranging from his departure at Chiquita to efforts to erase his accent.

Last August, Aguirre announced he was leaving as Chiquita’s CEO, and was replaced by turnaround specialist Ed Lonergan. Aguirre’s final major act as chief executive was to move Chiquita’s headquarters to uptown Charlotte in 2011, lured in part with $22 million worth of state and local incentive money.

“I would have left the company earlier had we not struck the deal to move the company,” said Aguirre.

Aguirre said he had been discussing his future with the board of directors for several years. He decided it was time to leave when they moved toward a new strategy that rolled back many of his initiatives, such as investing in new product lines and more marketing.

“I’m a marketeer by trade,” Aguirre said. “If that’s what we’re going to follow, frankly I’m not the right person to lead the company.”

“It’s grueling, it’s tough, it’s very difficult,” Aguirre told the audience of several dozen about his nine-year tenure as CEO. “You’re under attack. You’re under fire from everyone out there. You accept that as a CEO, but it takes a toll.”

Aguirre still lives in Charlotte with his wife. He is a member of the boards of directors at Levi-Strauss, Aetna and chocolate maker Barry Callebaut. He is also working on a book and involved with the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

“I’m still looking for that one week when I have nothing to do,” said Aguirre.

Aguirre came from Mexico to live in the U.S. when he was 17, and went to college on a baseball scholarship at Southern Illinois University.

Rising in the ranks of corporate America at Procter & Gamble, Aguirre, who is now a U.S. citizen, said he worked hard to tone down his accent.

“I worked on my accent a lot early on,” he said. “I would work on it at night. I still do it. To this day, there’s words I can’t say very well.”

He recalled instances where he was the target of ethnic slurs, and said those moments propelled him to work harder.

“I would rather internalize that,” Aguirre said. “I said, ‘I’m going to do better than all these turkeys here.”

In response to a question by Charlotte City Council member LaWana Mayfield about whether minorities are underrepresented in corporate leadership, Aguirre said he thinks people should be promoted based solely on performance.

“I always hated it,” Aguirre said of being introduced at Procter & Gamble as the company’s highest-ranking Latino. “We do a disservice to ourselves...we all should be placed in those positions because of our performance.”

He also reminisced about his switch from studying computers to marketing in the 1970s.

“I kind of regret that a bit,” said Aguirre, wearing a black turtleneck. “Maybe I could have been the next Steve Jobs.”

Aguirre said he thinks former aviation director Jerry Orr should still be running Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Orr was one of the first people Aguirre met with in Charlotte, and Charlotte’s busy US Airways hub was a key reason Chiquita moved.

Orr was removed last month as part of the ongoing dispute over whether or not the city should run Charlotte Douglas.

“(Orr) knows it like the back of his hand,” said Aguirre. “I think he’s the right leader, and I think he’ll be back.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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