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New Top Banana Meets Chiquita Employees - And Charlotte

Julie Rose

The new CEO charged with restoring Chiquita's profits is on the job now and busy introducing himself to the company's 20,000 employees.

Just before speaking with WFAE, he met with an auditorium full of Chiquita employees clad in blue and yellow shirts. Lonergan was impressed.

"That's a really interesting thing for me, because I came here because I have passion for the legacy of this brand and the future potential that it has," says Lonergan. "I also came here because every person I met wears that passion on their sleeve, literally."

And now he wears it too, never leaving the Uptown Hilton - where he's staying at the moment - without a Chiquita pin on his lapel.

ROSE: "And how long are you here with Chiquita? Just long enough to right the ship?"

LONERGAN: "Uh, no. I'm here to deliver the turnaround, but I serve at the pleasure of the board and the shareholders. My job is to do that as long as they'll have me and as long as it takes to build the team to step in behind."

ROSE: "You've had a couple of days to look at the books of Chiquita. Is it your sense that the restructuring plan that's been announced will be enough - $60 million in cuts annually?

LONERGAN: "Clearly the Wall Street community liked the plan, they believe in the plan, the stock has seen a benefit as a result of that. And I have confidence in the plan."

ROSE: "You may be aware when Chiquita moved to Charlotte it was a pretty intense competition. There was an incentives package that went into bringing Chiquita here and the city and county went beyond what they would normally do, which was to actually add a cash incentive to the package. Was that wise?

LONERGAN: "You know I think it's a decision every state, every city, every county has to make. In this case - in an economy that is struggling to create jobs - this brought many jobs to the region. And it allowed us to consolidate our employees in a single location - which for me is brilliant because communication is the game. And at the end it landed the company. So decide whatever you want. At the end of the day it worked and Chiquita is here."

ROSE: "Charlotte has a way of - maybe it's a Southern thing, maybe it's part of being a city that's grown pretty quickly, we're still kind of a middle-size - but we have a way of wanting our big corporate CEOs to be part of the community, to be seen, to be at the Rotary meetings, that kind of thing.  Fernando Aguirre, your predecessor, did it very actively. What's your way? Are you going to be active like that?"

LONERGAN: "Yeah, Fernando did a great job of that. I'm a social guy. I want to be part of the community in every role that I've been in in the 3 companies I've worked for, we moved to the city, we became part of the city- including in Racine, Wisconsin where we spent the last six years of our lives and became a key part of making the city better. So I think you can expect the same thing here. This is a wonderful community. People have been incredibly welcoming."

ROSE: "How about Twitter? Fernando Aguirre says "Hello" every morning when he wakes up on Twitter. Do you tweet?"

LONERGAN: "I'm not a Twitter user and I'm not a Facebook user. There are certainly some companies over the last week that have experienced difficulties by errant Tweets that were released on behalf of the CEOs or the company. My job isn't to put the company at risk. I think (Twitter and Facebook) are great technologies. I think with a strong focus on Millennials, you've got to understand them and use them. But at the same time you've got to balance risk. So today? No Twitter. I don't really have time. I've just got to figure out what's going on and make sure I'm keeping up with all the things I've got to do internally."

Lonergan will visit Chiquita's European operations next week, followed by a tradeshow with customers in California and then off to visit banana plantations in the tropics.

He's never worked in fresh produce before. Coffee and cleaning supplies, yes. But not bananas. So he's got a learning curve - and a new language to pick up.

On Wednesday, Chiquita's executives presented Lonergan with a pocket guide to banana industry terms and expressions.

"I've never been given a dictionary on a new job," he chuckles.  "Apparently I'm going to be tested every week."