Before a packed audience of largely Hispanic business executives, Chiquita Brands International CEO Fernando Aguirre recounted being subjected to ethnic slurs when he moved to a small town in Illinois, as a 17-year-old Mexican exchange student.
"I could not even speak a full sentence in English," said Aguirre. "I had two choices: No. 1, give up. No. 2, use my uniqueness to succeed."
Aguirre said those experiences helped make him stronger and propelled him to work harder.
Now the company he heads is preparing to move its headquarters to Charlotte from Cincinnati. Chiquita will take over office space later this year at the NASCAR Plaza tower uptown, next to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The company expects to hire more than 200 workers in Charlotte; job openings are posted at Chiquita.com.
Aguirre spoke to more than 250 business and community leaders at the Latin American Chamber of Charlotte, at the Mint Museum uptown. He received warm applause and interspersed his prepared remarks with Spanish phrases.
"Globalization is increasing at an even faster pace," Aguirre said. "Our workforce is far more international than ever before." More than half of Chiquita's U.S. workforce is of Hispanic descent, Aguirre said.
He said that in a globalized world, language skills matter more than ever. "We are seeking exceptional talent, especially bilingual talent," Aguirre said.
In Charlotte, Chiquita is looking to hire people for finance, information technology, human resources and sales and marketing positions. About half of Chiquita's 400 or so corporate workers are expected to relocate from Cincinnati as well. Aguirre said he and his wife are searching for a place in Charlotte.
Chiquita has filed a notice with Ohio that it intends to start the relocation in April. The company was lured to Charlotte with more than $22 million worth of state and local incentives, the promise of more convenient air travel, and access to a greater number of bilingual workers.
Recounting his background, Aguirre spoke of playing baseball at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, where he got a degree in business administration. He held various jobs at Procter & Gamble before being named the head of Chiquita in 2004.
"I didn't dream of being a CEO in the beginning," said Aguirre, who was paid $5.6 million in fiscal 2010. He said when he speaks to students, his message is, "Life is not easy. You've got to work hard."
About two years ago, Aguirre became a U.S. citizen.
He also discussed other topics briefly, such as his stint on the NBC television series "Undercover Boss." The job of coring lettuce at a salad production facility was so hard, "I was sweating bullets within five minutes," Aguirre said.
Aguirre also said he wouldn't disclose who he's voting for in his first presidential election as a U.S. citizen but said he would vote for "leaders, not politicians."
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