Conagra Brands’ downtown Omaha workforce has operated the past three decades in a bubble of sorts.
A sprawling green lawn separates the food titan’s tailor-made riverfront campus from the rest of the city. Underground tunnels connect multiple office buildings that hug a peaceful lagoon to the east.
Peel back those brick facades, and you’ll see professionals like Ashlee Schlange, a food scientist who helped “sneak” healthy whole grain pasta into kids’ cans of Chef Boyardee.
You’ll meet creative guys like Darik Ledesma. He works in a space called The Mine, where he designed, among other things, the red and black Banquet Mega meals cartons seen at grocery stores.
You might even spy the multilingual Ryan Ono biking from his downtown condo to his job running the transportation and procurement team.
Now hitting its 100th year in business, the Fortune 500 company that started in Grand Island as Nebraska Consolidated Mills has gone through a host of changes that include pulling its corporate flag from Omaha.
The 2016 changes, which also included selling off businesses, shrank the overall Omaha workforce by about 1,300 and consolidated those left to the southern end of the riverfront campus. Once occupying five office structures on those grounds, the remaining workforce now is in three buildings Conagra recently revamped and updated.
Overall, Conagra arguably has sparked more landscape shifts and stirred more emotions than any other area business. In an attempt to keep the food conglomerate in the city where it had been since 1922, local officials in the late 1980s gave a green light to tear down two dozen brick warehouses known as the historic Jobbers Canyon district.
The six-block demolition prompted lawsuits and national outrage, while clearing the way for the new multimillion-dollar campus of low-rise buildings, green space and Heartland of America lagoon.
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Conagra workers still can enjoy a sack lunch while feeding geese at the lagoon just outside their office windows. But reconfiguring the campus’ northern end is expected to usher in more density and public activity and create better connections with the rest of downtown.
Even without the corporate flag and with its smaller workforce, Omaha’s Conagra campus has retained certain headquarter-esque traditions, such as holding orientations for interns and milestone celebrations for 45-year employees, says spokeswoman Terah Fox.
And even though top executives no longer live locally, Fox said Conagra continues to invest in Omaha.
She said, for example, employees recently raised 2.1 million meals for hunger-relief efforts led by the Food Bank for the Heartland. Last year, more than 700 employees volunteered over 1,800 hours of service during work hours to help various nonprofits pack over 200,000 pounds of food.
David Brown, president of the Greater Omaha Chamber, pointed out Conagra’s investment in downtown infrastructure in the 1980s era when urban revitalization was not as popular.
He said that a loss of a corporate headquarters typically means reduced bragging rights and less high-paid salaries and philanthropic activity for a city. But, he said, Conagra still has a sizable workforce and (though he said he has no way to compare) he sees Conagra as “still engaged in a major way in this market.”
Within Omaha’s remaining Conagra buildings, people such as 29-year-old Maurisa Mansaray continue to do their part to churn the wheels of a company reaping $11 billion in annual revenue.
Mansaray, a native of Waterloo, Iowa, is a microbiologist. Focused on food safety and quality, she looks at how bacteria such as salmonella behaves in food — with the goal, of course, of keeping it out of your TV dinner.
On any given day, Mansaray is in her laboratory, one of many within the Research and Development building.
Co-worker Dana Leise, on the other hand, surrounds herself with data dashboards, numbers and analyses.
As manager of economic research, the 30-year-old University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate sifts through international market and news reports to track changes related to, say, broccoli or peanuts that could affect any Conagra food brand.
Tom Culross, 53, is going on his 25th year at Conagra. The first 12 he spent in Chicago.
As vice president of environment health, safety and sustainability, Culross is charged with keeping the workforce safe and making sure the company’s practices are planet-friendly.
Fox says that just under half of Conagra’s Omaha workforce has been with the company a decade or longer. Most positions, she said, require at least a two-year degree.
The Omaha jobs range from finance to sales to chefs and package designers. A common denominator is a fascination for the food business.
“I actually get to play in food all day,” says Mansaray. “I get paid to do that, and to understand how the food I like is made.”
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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.