2014 FILE - Chiquita Brands International headquarters. mhames@charlotteobserver.com
2014 FILE - Chiquita Brands International headquarters. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

Business

Chiquita closing Charlotte headquarters

By Ely Portillo and David Perlmutt - elyportillo@charlotteobserver.com

January 14, 2015 10:58 AM

Chiquita Brands International is closing its Charlotte headquarters barely more than three years after deciding to move here, the company said Wednesday.

Chiquita employs about 320 office workers uptown. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but shared an email sent to employees. Chiquita was acquired earlier this month for about $681 million by two Brazilian companies, who took the banana-and-salads firm private after a bruising takeover fight.

The move out of Charlotte will help streamline Chiquita’s business and move its employees closer to suppliers and customers, Chiquita said in its message to employees.

“We have made the decision to transition over the next twelve to eighteen months all operational departments and remaining corporate services to be closer to our customers and operations, and out of Charlotte,” wrote interim CEO Brian Kocher.

One employee, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said many workers had anticipated such a move in the wake of the acquisition by the Brazilian companies. But others were surprised, the employee said.

Kocher said employees will learn more about the fate of their jobs over the next 90 days.

“We admire and appreciate all that you have contributed to Chiquita and thank you for your support as we shape a bright future for this great company,” wrote Kocher.

The company was lured to Charlotte from Cincinnati in 2011 with the promise of $22 million worth of state and local incentives. Chiquita moved into the NASCAR Plaza office tower, putting its iconic blue and yellow logo atop the building.

Local officials greeted Chiquita with much fanfare, as the company put its name on the Chiquita Classic golf tournament and its high-profile then-CEO Fernando Aguirre attended numerous events and kept up a prolific Twitter presence. But Chiquita was having financial difficulties – the Observer reported that the company had actually begun talks about being acquired before moving to Charlotte – and Aguirre was soon replaced with a turnaround specialist.

On Wednesday, Aguirre said in a tweet that he was “disappointed” in Chiquita’s decision to shutter its Charlotte headquarters.

“Most families who moved were very happy,” said Aguirre.

The company has agreed to refund the city and county $1 million worth of the incentives money, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said in an email to the County Commission.

‘Nobody falls in love with a prostitute’

Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter thanked Chiquita in a statement for its “contributions to the community during their time in Charlotte.” Charlotte Chamber president Bob Morgan said Chiquita’s brief relocation to Charlotte was a positive to the city, despite the company’s abrupt departure.

“The story of Chiquita’s relocation to Charlotte is a good one,” he said in a statement, indicating Charlotte is a strong city whose busy airport attracts companies. “We wish the very best to the company in its next chapter and to all the employees and their families.”

Not everyone agreed with Morgan’s assessment. County commissioner Bill James – a longtime critic of incentives grants – said the county and city should never have paid for Chiquita’s moving expenses by using an incentives grant designed to lure companies.

“You can’t expect loyalty from any company if you’re paying them to move,” James said. “Government was basically prostituting themselves to get them here. ... Nobody falls in love with a prostitute.”

County commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said Chiquita’s pull-out provides a “case study” for why the board needs to review its incentive grant program.

“I think it shows the reality of these grants,” he said. “We can be excited when businesses choose to locate in Charlotte, but just as easily as they come, they can also go somewhere else.”

The grants, he said, are “a game” many cities play to lure businesses with incentives. “We get them in and just hope that they don’t leave,” he said. “But the reality is that someone else can come along and court them, or the business may be bought out. But at the end of the day, we’re stuck with, ‘gosh there goes that business.’ ”

Ridenhour said the board’s economic development committee, which he chairs, had already begun to review the incentive grants program. “Now we’ll need to discuss how the Chiquita case will change our program, if at all.”

Commissioner Jim Puckett agreed.

“It’s like my dad always told me, if the girl dates you for your money, etc., remember there is always someone with more of whatever she is looking for.”

This is a breaking news story. Check back for updates.