In a bid to attract investors, ConAgra Foods executives on Tuesday distanced the company from its roots as a Nebraska agribusiness and from its more recent years as Omaha’s unwieldy food industry conglomerate.
Executives told analysts in a presentation at the company’s new Chicago headquarters that ConAgra is emerging as a lean, agile competitor, launching modern products in niches with growth potential, while expecting continued growth in profit margins and share value.
“We’ve been around for a long time, almost 100 years, but this next chapter we’re embarking on is nothing like what’s come before it,” Chief Executive Sean Connolly said.
The execs used a new corporate logo and new name, Conagra Brands, which will become official next month when ConAgra spins off its Lamb Weston potato business. The remaining Conagra Brands will get more than 90 percent of its sales from branded, packaged food, and 85 percent of its sales through retail stores. Branded food made up less than half of the company’s portfolio in recent years.
Chief Financial Officer David Marberger said earnings per share can increase at 10 percent a year from fiscal year 2017 to 2020, thanks to share repurchasing and sales growth.
Analysts have been skeptical about sales growth because of low inflation and because consumers are buying more from grocery store perimeter categories like fresh produce and meat — not packaged food. ConAgra’s sales of shelf-stable grocery food fell 5 percent, and sales of frozen and refrigerated food fell 8 percent, in the first quarter of its 2017 fiscal year. The company said the fall-off was planned as it culls and re-stages certain products.
As executives looked to the future, they also recast the past, describing brand founders Marie Callender (the pie maker) and Orville Redenbacher (the popcorn promoter) as entrepreneurs. Using tech start-up lingo, Tom McGough, president of the consumer foods division, said, “We are infusing into our culture and our brands with the same passion as our founders.”
Using that founder’s mentality will push Conagra to faster growth, Connolly said. “We’re not going to grow like a tech company, but we will grow like a respectable food company,” he said.
They acknowledged that food companies are seeing slow growth — 0.9 percent for the top 25 packaged food sellers, ConAgra said, while small manufacturers grow at more than 6 percent.
To get some of that startup juice, ConAgra is launching organic Hunt’s tomatoes that haven’t been genetically modified; dairy-free Reddi-wip made with coconut and almond milk; and Pam cooking oil in a millennial-friendly see-through squirt bottle instead of an aerosol can.
Slim Jim will launch a grown-up “black label” meat snack product, looking to hang onto its young, male customer base as those guys age.
And its newly acquired Frontera Foods brand will let the company launch a line of frozen gourmet Mexican meals. Frontera’s founder, the Chicago celebrity chef Rick Bayless, was part of the investor presentation, cooking for analysts and other guests.
Healthy Choice, conceived in the 1980s as a heart-healthy diet meal, will sell nutrition-focused “power bowls” with flavors like Korean BBQ Beef, meant to replicate the experience of eating at a fast-casual restaurant. Even the bowls themselves are new: compostable and made from plant fiber, not plastic.
With more to offer, ConAgra will no longer have to sell products at deep discounts just to get people to buy them, McGough said. It has begun to use promotions sparingly, and said its data show customers are becoming more loyal.
“When you add modern attributes, consumers value that and they pay a higher price — not just nickels, but quarters,” he said.
To tease out customers in specific niches, the company is steering its ad budget away from mass market print and television ads, and toward digital and social media, where it can target narrow groups of shoppers, such as people who buy non-dairy products.
Change has come rapid-fire for employees in the past 18 months under Connolly and under the influence of activist investor Jana Partners. ConAgra cut 1,500 jobs, sold its private-label unit, moved its headquarters, replaced several board members and is spinning off its potato business.
Its share price is up around 30 percent since Connolly joined the firm in April 2015. The broader stock market gained just 3.5 percent over the same time.
Still, Connolly cautioned investors to take a longer view.
“This is not going to be a flip of the switch,” he said. With patience, “Conagra Brands does represent a compelling investment opportunity.”
Investors seemed to agree: Shares on Tuesday gained 1.85 percent to close at $48.38 a share, outstripping the gains on the broader market, which moved ahead only 0.4 percent.