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With sales eroding, Conagra Brands needs to make an aggressive move to improve its portfolio, so the possibility Conagra will buy rival Pinnacle Foods makes sense, a Credit Suisse analyst said in a note to clients Wednesday. The note followed a report Conagra might make such a move.

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Packaged food companies now are in a double bind: Launching big-time brands in a market crowded with niche products is a steeper climb, while many established brands — including Healthy Choice — are watching sales erode. Partly to blame are millennial shoppers, many of whom reject their parents’ old name-brand staples as they spread their food dollars around at specialty stores and online.

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ConAgra Foods’ spinoff of its frozen potato business into a stand-alone company could shape up to be one of the year’s most lucrative spinoff deals, one analyst told The World-Herald. But others are skeptical about whether the two companies will fare much better on their own than they have together, and about how quickly shareholders could see a gain.

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Stock analysts expect ConAgra Foods to post another big plunge in grocery food sales when the company reports its first-quarter earnings Thursday. Still, the company’s share price should climb over time, stock watchers said, given ConAgra’s focus on expanding profit margins and its plan to spin off its commercial foods unit. A move to buy new brands also could help breathe new life into a sometimes-stale portfolio.

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ConAgra Foods wanted to move its headquarters to Chicago so badly that the company took a pass on an estimated $28.5 million in incentives Nebraska would have offered to keep it in Omaha. Instead the company accepted Illinois tax credits that are expected to amount to less than half of what Nebraska would have offered.

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The New York hedge fund started buying shares in the firm, formerly headquartered in Omaha, in the spring of 2015, amassing a 7.2 percent stake in the company through a combination of shares and options to buy shares, at prices ranging from about $36 a share to nearly $39.

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As Omaha’s downtown is smarting from the loss or shrinkage of a few bigger and more traditional corporate tenants, real estate and business leaders say it is the more edgy entrepreneurial, branding and technology-focused players that lately are filling smaller spaces and driving office activity in the city’s urban core.

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The New York hedge fund disclosed a stake in ConAgra in June 2015 and has pushed the company to make changes that boost the value of shares. ConAgra has since sold its money-losing private label foods business and has announced that it will spin off its frozen potato unit and sell a smaller spice business. Those changes leave the company with essentially its core consumer foods business, and analysts believe that further divestitures of food brands could be on the horizon.

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ConAgra said operating profit grew by double digits in both its business segments, even as sales dropped in its consumer business — grocery-store food — for the third straight quarter. That division is ConAgra’s main focus as it reorganizes and moves its headquarters to Chicago later this year.

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In what the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce said is an unusual arrangement, dozens of companies will have access to about 170 information technology employees who have been notified their jobs are being eliminated as ConAgra moves its headquarters to Chicago.

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One analyst suggests ConAgra may have announced the spinoff with no plans to go through with it but instead to garner a buyer’s interest in the potato business.

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In the memo, addressed to the finance, information technology and enterprise business systems team, the company said managers would inform the employees of their fates Wednesday and Thursday. The memo said the company wasn’t finished with its review of positions, especially those to be outsourced, and more cuts could come in the next 30 to 90 days.

Omaha is a growing community that demonstrates its forward-looking attitude and dynamism in many ways. The latest demonstration of that positive spirit is the way so many companies and organizations have stepped forward to help ConAgra employees find work here in the face of an impending loss of some 1,300 jobs.

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ConAgra Foods on Friday began a wave of layoffs that eventually will affect 1,000 people, the first victims in the job cuts announced recently by the packaged-foods giant.

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“We’re making difficult decisions, but we’re making decisions we believe are right for the long-term health and success of the ConAgra food company,” Sean Connolly said in an interview with The World-Herald.

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The World-Herald's Steve Jordon answered reader questions about ConAgra on Friday morning . The company has announced it will cut 1,000 jobs in Omaha and move its corporate headquarters to Chicago. 

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ConAgra agreed in 2012 to be the university's anchor private partner in the public-private research facility. Its research space would be positioned near the relocated food sciences program, which began offering classes on Innovation Campus this fall.

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Why would a company that has called Omaha home since 1922 uproot itself for the Windy City? Chicago has been an aggressive recruiter of big businesses over the years, and 31 companies have moved there since 2011.

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About 60 ConAgra Foods employees in Omaha work in the firm’s private-brand division that has been put up for sale. The division most likely will attract an out-of-town buyer with an already up-and-running back-office staff.

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The carving out of the so-called private-label business raises the specter of other sell-offs and breakups. And if investors get antsy, they could push for changes that would affect the company’s employment rolls in Omaha, or even endanger the continued presence of its headquarters.

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Sean Connolly's announcement comes after a hedge fund earlier this month disclosed a large stake in ConAgra, signaling its disappointment in the Omaha company’s performance and a desire to see changes. Connolly said certain consumer brands also could be on the chopping block if their growth potential is weak or if they’re deemed to not generate enough profits. 

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ConAgra shares rose about 21 percent from June 2014 through June of this year, while the S&P 500 index of U.S. stocks rose only 8.2 percent. But to activist investors such as Jana Partners, what matters is how a stock does stacked against shares of companies in similar industries.

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