Local leaders say they will do whatever it takes to keep ConAgra Foods’ headquarters in Omaha as Illinois reportedly tries to lure the company.
They may have only days to plead their case.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said Tuesday he has spoken with ConAgra Foods Chief Executive Sean Connolly in recent days about a state aid package that would assist the Omaha-based company.
Ricketts told The World-Herald that such aid would not be limited to the standard tax and economic incentives already enshrined in Nebraska law.
“We are not restricting this to what is on the books,” Ricketts said. “We are willing to work with them in whatever way necessary to help them be competitive in their industry.”
The Chicago Tribune reported Tuesday that Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has offered ConAgra tax incentives to move its headquarters to Chicago from Omaha. Crain’s Chicago Business, a magazine, reported the move “appears to be a done deal.” Neither cited sources, and their reports couldn’t be independently verified. Rauner’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did the office of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.
The Chicago Tribune said Connolly negotiated the incentive package with Illinois months ago.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said she planned to meet with Connolly this afternoon. She said it will be her first meeting with him on the topic of ConAgra’s presence in Omaha. The meeting is at her request, she said.
ConAgra hasn’t asked Stothert’s office for assistance of any kind, she said.
“It indicates to me that city or state incentives are not what they are looking for,” Stothert said.
ConAgra wouldn’t comment.
The company said last week that Omaha job cuts and an increased presence in the Chicago area are likely as the maker of Wesson oil, Healthy Choice frozen dinners, Wolf chili and Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn remakes itself under shareholder pressure.
The Chicago area already is where the company has 400 employees and is scouting for new office space; it is considered a mecca for processed foods companies, home to substantial operations of Kraft Heinz and Mondelez International, maker of Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers.
As for Nebraska, the governor said ConAgra’s Connolly is committed to “a major presence in Omaha” and is “aware of the company’s deep roots” in the city. Ricketts said he isn’t aware of any details on ConAgra’s plans.
The governor said he met recently regarding an aid package for ConAgra with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.
“How can we help them be competitive?” Ricketts said. “We had meetings several weeks ago and more recently about putting together a package for ConAgra.”
Ricketts declined to elaborate, saying only that if new legislation is required, it will be pursued with vigor.
Randy Thelen, senior vice president of economic development for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, said the meetings with the governor and Omaha mayor have included discussion on how to retain Omaha as the company’s headquarters city.
“We have made it clear we will do whatever it takes to retain the headquarters,” Thelen said.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha said Tuesday that he also plans to meet with Connolly today. He said he has been talking with the Governor’s Office to devise incentives legislation that “we could push forward to convince ConAgra to keep its headquarters in Omaha.”
ConAgra employs about 3,000 people in the Omaha area.
In 1986, the company threatened to leave Omaha for Tennessee, which offered substantial incentives to relocating companies. The Nebraska Legislature passed a suite of bills that lowered corporate taxes for qualifying companies, exempted computers and corporate jets and cut personal taxes on the wealthy.
Those laws have since been superseded by new ones that offer tax credits for investment and job creation, worker training grants and money for land acquisition and improvements.
Ricketts said this case is different. This time, ConAgra is struggling to compete with food-industry rivals that have achieved lower costs and higher profit margins. The company had about $16 billion in revenue in its last fiscal year but struggled with $2 billion in asset writedowns in the past quarter after the disastrous $6.7-billion acquisition of a generic-label packaged foods company in 2013.
The governor said in the interview he didn’t know what, if anything, Illinois is offering. That state, too, offers companies tax credits for job creation and investment. DuPage County, already home to 400 ConAgra workers running the consumer-food division, would love to be home to more of the company, according to John Carpenter, head of the economic development authority in the area.
At the same time, ConAgra is negotiating for the lease of enough office space at the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago to house many more than the 400 workers it has in the area, according to press reports in Chicago.
ConAgra, which also makes Slim Jim meat snacks and Chef Boyardee pasta, is one of five companies based in Omaha that are part of the prestigious Fortune 500 list of the largest U.S. companies ranked by gross revenue.
CEO Connolly, who lives in Chicago and took over at ConAgra earlier this year, said in late June that nothing was off the table when it came to overhauling the company.
As part of a last-ditch effort to persuade the company to stay, Ricketts said he asked Fred Tomczyk, CEO of Omaha-based online stock broker TD Ameritrade, to speak with Connolly about the advantages of keeping the headquarters in Omaha. Ricketts’ father founded TD Ameritrade in the 1970s. The Ricketts family also is prominent in the Windy City: They own the Chicago Cubs.
Connolly and Tomczyk, a TD Ameritrade spokeswoman said, had not spoken as of Tuesday afternoon.
World-Herald staff writers Steve Jordon, Cole Epley and Barbara Soderlin contributed to this report.