Conagra Brands’ local research and development operations shouldn’t lose any steam with the planned opening of a new snack-focused “innovation center” in Chicago.
That’s according to a company spokesman who said Omaha will remain Conagra’s primary R&D hub, even as some snack-specific tasks will be relinquished to the new Chicago facility.
In the end, said Conagra’s Dan Hare, Omaha’s existing Center for Food Design and Technology will sharpen attention on the company’s expanded variety of frozen, refrigerated and shelf meals as well as condiments and enhancers.
The Chicago facility will be charged with creating trendier and healthier options for a fast-growing munchies industry.
“This is a new investment in our overall R&D capabilities,” Hare said. “In fact, we are creating new R&D jobs in Omaha because of the growth of the business.”
About 300 food scientists, chefs, safety experts and others currently are housed at the Omaha R&D structure — which is one of a trio of brick riverfront structures occupied by a downsized Conagra that moved its corporate flag to Chicago three years ago.
Hare said the Omaha R&D facility has added employees in recent months, largely as a result of the 2018 acquisition of Pinnacle Foods, and should be left with a net gain of about 25 professionals, even after the Chicago facility is fully staffed.
In all, he said, Conagra employs about 1,300 at the Omaha riverfront campus — that’s up about 100 from a year ago, yet down from the more than 2,000-person workforce based there about four years ago.
In addition to the Omaha jobs, Conagra employs about 700 at a Council Bluffs plant that produces Marie Callender’s, Banquet and other frozen meals.
After Conagra concentrated its Omaha business operations on the southern end of the riverfront campus, it launched a $500 million plan with an out-of-state developer to create a mix of housing, hotel, retail and office uses on the idle parts. That proposal remains active.
A World-Herald team took a recent tour of the Omaha R&D facility, also referred to as Building 6. It was a wonderland of sorts for foodies.
In almost every room was a meal, a condiment, a package of edibles waiting to be researched, tasted or examined in some way.
There were multiple kitchens, labs, taste stations, brainstorming and virtual-reality rooms, 3D printers, even an herb garden — all stuff that a $9.5 billion food giant uses to get a host of food brands from innovation stage to your dining room table.
Hare said the Omaha R&D center will interact closely with the Chicago R&D facility on some matters, including labeling work.
He said various jobs, such as a microbiologist, might be based in Omaha yet still provide support to the Chicago crew.
Because there currently are snack-related jobs at the Omaha center, Hare said, some Omahans probably would have an option to transfer. But he expects candidates to be interested in local job possibilities opening up with recent business acquisitions.
“I would expect there will be plenty of jobs there in Omaha for those people who work in R&D,” Hare said.
Set to open next year, the Chicago R&D center is to have up to 50 food designers and culinary staff members whose mission is to imagine and create popular snacks in cool packages to further push growth in Conagra Brands’ $2 billion snacks business.
“The expansive kitchen and tasting area will be an ideal place to collaborate with our customers and develop new food solutions,” Corey Berends, senior vice president of research and development, said in a press release.
The 40,000-square-foot building will rise across from the Merchandise Mart, where Conagra planted its corporate flag after being headquartered in Omaha since 1922. About 550 are employed at the Mart.
Snack foods are a $43 billion industry in the U.S., with healthier products and more flavors boosting growth, according to a June research report by IBISWorld. The segment is also a growing part of Conagra.
The food giant two years ago bought Angie’s Boomchickapop, Duke’s meat snacks and Bigs seeds, all considered to be on the healthier end of the snacking spectrum.
Conagra also has such brands as Slim Jim, Duncan Hines, Hunts, Birds Eye, Chef Boyardee, Healthy Choice, Fiddle Faddle and Swiss Miss.
Berends said that creating the snack-specific Chicago center will help ensure continued growth.
This report includes material from the Chicago Tribune.
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Fortune rank: No. 3 with revenue of $242.1 billion; down from No. 2 last year. First cracked Fortune list in 1989 at No. 205.
History: The holding company of large- and medium-sized firms and investments has grown largely from the singular wisdom of Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett. It started as an investment pool of family and friends in Omaha in the mid-1950s. In 1965, Buffett bought the textile company that gave Berkshire its name. (Ironically, he later called it his worst investment.) His philosophy of buying successful companies with firm niches and keeping leadership in place has achieved returns well in excess of the stock market. The move into insurance was key, as Buffett uses premium reserves available for investment to fund additional purchases. Forbes notes that Berkshire now generates nearly three-quarters of its revenue from its non-financial operating businesses. At 87, Buffett is the oldest CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The company has maintained its offices at Omaha’s Kiewit Plaza since 1962.
Fortune rank: No. 137 on revenue of $21.7 billion; down from No. 126 from last year.
History: Founded in 1955 as American Family Life Insurance by John Amos and his brothers Paul and Bill in Columbus, Georgia, Aflac pays benefits when people are sick or injured. It gained wider recognition starting in 2000 with a marketing campaign using a duck that announces its name. In 2002, Aflac moved its legal domicile to Nebraska for tax reasons and located a regional office in Omaha, although its main offices remain in Georgia.
Fortune rank: No. 141 on revenue of $21.2 billion; up from No. 143 last year. Listed each year since non-manufacturing companies were added to the list in 1995.
History: The company was created by the 1862 Pacific Railway Act, an act of Congress that called for construction of a transcontinental rail line from the Missouri River to the West Coast. The first track was laid out of Omaha in 1865, and U.P. grew into a national icon. Multiple mergers over 150 years helped U.P. amass the nation’s largest rail network, with operations in 23 western states and prime rail connections into Mexico. In 2004, the railroad opened a new 19-story headquarters downtown that serves about 2,900 of the company’s 42,000 employees.
Fortune rank: No. 313 on revenue of $9.5 billion; the same ranking as last year.
History: Founded in 1868 in Sacramento, California, as Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co., the company’s life insurance, annuity and other financial products pay $2.3 billion in benefits each year. Although its main office is in Newport Beach, California, in 2004 Pacific Life moved its legal domicile to Nebraska for tax reasons and now has a regional office in Omaha’s Aksarben Village.
Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc.
Fortune rank: No. 339 on revenue of $8.7 billion; down from No. 324 last year. Made its Fortune debut in 1991 and since 1998 has been listed every year but one. Is privately held but qualifies for the Fortune list because it publicly reports revenue.
History: Three sons of Peter Kiewit took over their father’s Omaha construction company, with the youngest, also named Peter, credited with turning it into one of the nation’s largest. The company took off while building military installations during World War II and the Cold War. It also built more miles of Interstate system than any other contractor, causing Fortune to dub Peter Kiewit “the Colossus of Roads.” Today, it is one of the largest employee-owned firms in the world and one of only a handful of construction companies big enough to take on billion-dollar projects.
Mutual of Omaha
Fortune rank: No. 337 on revenue of $8.7 billion; up from No. 342 last year. Made its debut in 1995, dropped off in 2006 and 2007, but solidly on the list since.
History: Got off to a humble start in 1909 as the Mutual Benefit Health and Accident Association, initially struggling to attract policyholders. Under the leadership of Creighton medical student C.C. Criss and later V.J. Skutt, it grew and by the 1950s had emerged as a leading health and accident insurer. The name was changed to Mutual of Omaha in 1962, and a year later it became a household name with sponsorship of the popular “Wild Kingdom” TV show. The company rebranded its familiar Native American head logo in 2001, expanded into banking in 2007, and renewed its commitment to its midtown Omaha headquarters by developing the mixed-use Midtown Crossing.
Fortune rank: No. 630 on revenue of $3.7 billion; up from No. 674 last year.
History: Founder Joe Ricketts saw an opportunity in 1975 when the Securities and Exchange Commission eliminated the practice of fixed brokerage commissions. Ricketts’ firm, First Omaha Securities Inc., began offering discounted commissions and helped usher in a new era of investing, coupled with technology that evolved from touch-tone phones to the Internet. Forty years later, TD Ameritrade has more than 11 million client accounts with more than $1.2 trillion in assets and custodial services for more than 6,000 independent registered investment advisers. Clients trade more than 940,000 times each day.
Fortune rank: No. 782 on revenue of $2.7 billion; up from No. 804 last year.
History: In 1946, Robert B. Daugherty spent nearly his life’s savings — $5,000 — to buy a small manufacturing company on a farm near Valley to build farm elevators. Years later, with the invention of center-pivot irrigation, Valmont found its niche. It then expanded into steel pipe and tubing manufacturing for irrigation systems and other industries. Through acquisitions and new construction, the company grew to be a global player in certain segments of the agriculture, communications and utilities markets. Today, Valmont’s worldwide operations are constantly looking for opportunities to expand its four business sectors: engineered support structures (steel and aluminum poles for traffic lights, street lighting, etc.); utility support structures (poles for electrical transmission lines, etc.); irrigation; and coatings (galvanization).
Fortune rank: No. 929 on revenue of $2.1 billion; up from No. 934 last year.
History: Clarence L. Werner founded Werner Enterprises Inc. in 1956 at age 19. It grew to become a premier transportation and logistics company with operations throughout North America, Asia, Europe, South America, Africa and Australia. The Omaha-based company is among the five largest truckload carriers in the United States, offering diverse services that include dedicated; medium-to-long-haul, regional and local van; expedited; temperature-controlled; and flatbed. Werner also provides freight management, truck brokerage, intermodal and international services. International services are provided through subsidiary companies and include ocean, air and ground transportation; freight forwarding; and customs brokerage.