This season is full of firsts for CBS's 'Undercover Boss.' In October there was the first female CEO, Kimberly Schaefer from Great Wolf Resorts. Now there's Fernando Aguirre, chairman and CEO of Chiquita Brands International, one of the world's largest fruit and vegetable corporations, which is headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Chiquita has gone way beyond bananas, although they're still a mainstay of the company's product line. The international produce company also deals in apples, avocados, cherries, plums, nectarines and various other fruits and vegetables, various healthy snack products, juices and smoothies. Five years ago they made their largest acquisition yet -- Fresh Express, a market leader in pre-packaged salads. The company has more than 23,000 employees around the globe to take care of it all.
Aguirre, who was born and raised in Mexico, scraped together enough money selling Datsun cars to come to the United States, learn perfect English, play baseball and get an education. He earned a baseball scholarship at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, and eventually went to work for Proctor & Gamble. Seven years ago he joined Chiquita. He is now a proud U.S. citizen and partial owner of the Cincinnati Reds.
On producing produce
Never having worked hands on in produce, Aguirre was eager to go undercover as an immigrant trying to see if he has what it takes to get a job at Chiquita. "I'd never done anything like this before, with jobs or with cameras," he laughed. His wife went to the trouble of dying his white hair dark, a change that ended up being more permanent than anticipated; he had to cut it out as it grew. But he says the growth he gained from his experience was well worth it.
"Of course I wanted to see what was going on in the trenches," he said, "but I also wanted to see if we're communicating our core values to our employees." What are their core values? "Respect, integrity, responsibility and accountability," he told AOL Jobs. "I brought them over with me from P&G, and I was eager to see if we were all speaking the same language."
The language spoken in the warehouse was frustration, according to Aguirre, when he went to work with a forklift operator who was also named Fernando. He had a very busy day scheduled, and did not appreciate Aguirre dropping in, especially when he started messing up. That seemed to be about the only thing Aguirre was good at. He actually broke a palette and took more than three hours to unload one truck, while Fernando could have unloaded four in the same time. He thought Aguirre had no place in the warehouse.
Aguirre was stressed about his own performance, but impressed with Fernando's efficiency. Once he revealed that he was CEO, he tried to make it all up to Fernando by getting him a new forklift, as Aguirre was certain he'd damaged the one he'd worked with. He also offered to pay for a week long dream vacation for Fernando and his family.
The actual shipping of the bananas is also complicated, as Aguirre found out when he worked with a port dispatcher named Anna. While attempting to get the correct products to the correct drivers, he fell behind and delayed shipments. He was surprised to find out that Anna was working with had to use inefficient computer programs and had to walk up and down stairs repeatedly to deliver paperwork, despite her bad knees. On top of that, she said she doesn't even like bananas!
She said she might start eating them once she found out that Aguirre was the company CEO. Aguirre vowed to her that they would improve the computer systems company, and that he would put in an elevator, so she wouldn't have to damage her knees any further. Since she'd mentioned she had dogs and loved animals, Aguirre also offered to donate $5,000 to Anna's local animal shelter in her name.
Lettuce entertain you
Aguirre actually did a little better working with lettuce, although he was somewhat incompetent at that as well. He worked in the fields with an employee named Leo, inspecting and picking lettuce, and he also tried his hand at processing it. The workers are supposed to cut, core and clean each head in two seconds. If one person falls behind, it holds everyone up. Of course Aguirre fell behind, but Leo, who came to the states from Mexico with his family when he was 2 years old, was very helpful. Aguirre was intrigued to find out that he and his wife adopted a 6-year-old daughter, and that they live in Arizona. He spends six months in Arizona and six months in California each year, working every day of the week, and is not a citizen of the US yet.
Aguirre offered to remedy that situation when he revealed he was the undercover boss by paying all the legal fees that Leo would incur to become a US citizen. Leo would also receive a dream vacation, paid for by Chiquita, for his entire family.
But there was still more to be done with the lettuce. Aguirre also worked with a produce dryer operator nicknamed "Magic," drying barrels of lettuce in chilly, 37 degree quarters. This is also a fast-paced system, and Aguirre let the barrels overflow and dropped packaged lettuce on the floor while attempting to box it. He found out he was much better at relating to Magic -- like Aguirre, he is a married father of two, and grateful for the opportunities he's been given in this country.
-- Read an exclusive interview with Magic
Aguirre wanted him to have more, so in the end he arranged for Magic to be part of Chiquita's supervisory training program so he can eventually become a plant manager. Aguirre also told Magic that he would be his personal mentor, to help assure that he explores his full potential. And to top things off, he gave Magic $10,000 for a scholarship fund for his children.
Aguirre ran himself ragged during his stint as Undercover Boss, getting up at 3:30AM to start a 7AM shift, and not being able to access his beloved Blackberry while he was shooting. How would it look for an entry-level worker from Mexico to be pulling out his PDA and typing away on it? The pressure for him was intense, knowing that the e-mails and IMs were piling up while he was attempting to toss salads.
But in the end he says it was well worth it. "I learned that the employees are not only understand our core values, they are exuding them," he said. "Of course some do it better than others, but t was very exciting to see." Because of his 'Undercover Boss' experience, Aguirre has decided to continue showing up unannounced, to get a better idea of what's really going on at Chiquita. "The passion I found in the fields and factories has inspired me to become a better boss," he concluded.
Want More? Check out our series of Undercover Boss interviews
- Exclusive interview with employee Magic [AOL Jobs]
- 'Undercover Boss': Chiquita's 'Top Banana Doesn't Peel Back Enough Layers [DailyFinance]
- Undercover Boss [TV Squad]