Anyone who thinks Conagra skipped town four years ago might be surprised to know it still employs 1,300 people on its former headquarters campus — workers its CEO says are contributing greatly to the revamped food company’s recent success.

“We’re still there and still proud, and our team is working hard,” CEO Sean Connolly said in a recent interview with The World-Herald. “We remain a thriving part of the community.”

One thing that has changed: Connolly said the company now known as Conagra Brands is better positioned to compete in the world of Big Food, a status the CEO said also bodes well for the company’s future workforce in Omaha.

It’s now been four years since Conagra shocked the city with its October 2015 announcement that it would move its corporate headquarters to Chicago, part of a company shake-up that cost Omaha about 1,000 jobs.

As the company wrapped up its latest business quarter this month with results that exceeded Wall Street’s expectations, CEO Connolly spoke to The World-Herald about the company’s standing, both in the competitive foods business and in Omaha’s business landscape.

Getting its start as a small flour milling operation a century ago, ConAgra Foods grew up in Omaha to become a Fortune 500 company, with products ranging from packaged food to grains, fertilizers and even pet food.

It eventually narrowed its focus to consumer and commercial foods. Still, Connolly said the Conagra he first took over in February 2015 remained a diverse — and unwieldy — food conglomerate.

Conagra had some widely known brands such as Hunt’s ketchup, Peter Pan peanut butter, Chef Boyardee canned meals and Banquet frozen dinners. But it also had a number of poor performing products and business units.

“It wasn’t working, and we were struggling,” he said.

Connolly sought to reinvent the company by jettisoning sputtering business lines, selling its private label food unit and spinning off its frozen potato business. The company would focus on its branded foods, which at the time made up only about half of sales.

The company also sought to revamp those branded product lines with improved ingredients, updated packaging and new offerings that appealed to more contemporary tastes — and could be sold at higher prices. Salisbury steak, that longtime TV dinner staple, was out. Buffalo chicken was in.

Most notably for Omaha, the plan also included moving the company’s corporate headquarters and the 300 jobs associated with it to Chicago, while hundreds of other Omaha jobs were cut in a drive for efficiency.

At the time, the company’s branded foods staff had been split between the two cities. The leadership of its frozen foods division was in Omaha, while other product lines were based in the Chicago suburb of Naperville.

The company decided to consolidate the operations and move them with the company’s headquarters to a new office in downtown Chicago, a change Connolly said would help the company attract young “brand-building” talent.

Now more than four years later, Conagra’s latest quarterly earnings provided a snapshot on the company’s transformation. Both analysts and the stock market found the results encouraging.

Sales of the company’s refrigerated and frozen foods such as the Healthy Choice and Marie Callender were up 2.4% over the previous year. The gain was 28% counting increased sales from the recent acquisition of former competitor Pinnacle Foods and its Birds Eye brand.

Connolly said the company’s product changes and innovations helped lead the way to those results. He offered as an example new Healthy Choice frozen food bowls, packaged in compostable bowls made of recycled material that consumers have embraced.

Conagra’s Slim Jim meat snacks brand also has taken advantage of consumers’ move away from carbohydrates toward more proteins.

“We have seen tremendous traction in the marketplace,” Connolly said. “We are definitely a stronger competitor today.”

Profits were up, too. The results, when reported Dec. 19, helped the company’s stock make a healthy jump of nearly 10% in a single day.

20190922_biz_conagraBJS19

Katie Moy, a food scientist, works on creating a new lasagna at Conagra Brands in Omaha. The company’s headquarters moved to Chicago in 2016, but the research and development operations are still based here. “That is the centerpiece of what we do for a living,” CEO Sean Connolly said.

While Connolly said the headquarters move has provided the hoped-for benefits, he said the company’s Omaha operations also have remained an integral part of company success.

He noted the firm’s critical research and development operations are still based in Omaha. A branded food company can’t compete today without a “world-class R&D” operation, he said.

“That is the centerpiece of what we do for a living around here,” he said.

The Omaha area also remains the largest employment center for Conagra. The 1,300 employees on its downtown campus work in research and development, supply chain management, procurement, finance and information technology. The company also employs 800 additional workers at a Council Bluffs frozen food plant.

As the company celebrates its centennial in 2019, Connolly said Conagra is excited to be part of the ongoing transformation of Omaha’s riverfront. A developer is working on a $500 million makeover for the now vacant portions of Conagra’s campus.

Connolly said the company’s charitable Conagra Brands Foundation also remains active in the city. That’s particularly noteworthy at this time of year, when the foundation runs its annual Shine the Light on Hunger campaign.

With community support, the foundation is committed to providing 1.75 million meals to support the food assistance work of the Food Bank of the Heartland. The foundation is matching all funds raised in the campaign up to $100,000.

Conagra’s employment in Omaha is up about 100 workers from what it was after the 2015 cuts and headquarters move. That’s a number Connolly doesn’t think will remain static, either.

He expects that Conagra will continue to grow. And as it does, Connolly said, its Omaha employment should grow with it.

“That bodes well for the future presence of the company in Omaha,” he said.

Reporter - Metro News

Henry is a general assignment reporter, but his specialty is deep dives into state issues and public policy. He's also into the numbers behind a story, yet to meet a spreadsheet he didn't like. Follow him on Twitter @HenryCordes. Phone: 402-444-1130.

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