With no more than two days to go before the fate of ConAgra Foods is learned, it is not looking good.
Mayor Jean Stothert and Nebraska Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha met with ConAgra Foods Chief Executive Sean Connolly on Wednesday in last-ditch efforts to save the corporate headquarters employing 1,800 people that appears headed for Chicago.
Neither elected official emerged from the separate meetings with optimism or details about the plans of Omaha-based ConAgra, which said last week that it plans to alert employees this week to job cuts and a decision on moving the headquarters or other departments to Chicago.
“I didn’t hear what I wanted to hear,” Stothert said. “What I really wanted to hear is nothing is going to change in Omaha. I think in reality that’s not what we’re going to hear, but I don’t know the extent of it.”
Mello told The World-Herald that ConAgra officials told him they wouldn’t say if they plan to move the company’s headquarters. ConAgra wouldn’t comment on its plans.
As for slashing the payroll, it seems certain after Connolly’s message to shareholders at the company’s annual meeting last week in Omaha. He said “meaningful change ... might not be welcome.”
These are bitter words for Omahans. The maker of Slim Jim meat snacks and Pam cooking spray employs about 3,000 people in Omaha, Council Bluffs and Lincoln. It took in almost $16 billion in revenue last year. It has made its home here since 1922.
But this summer, shareholders dissatisfied with the profitable company’s overall margins and corporate spending got their way and ushered in a round of cost cuts and austerity budgets — a hard look at every last penny.
All is far from lost, however.
Stothert said ConAgra officials told her Omaha will be where the employer of about 31,500 people worldwide will have the largest employee headcount. The company has said from the get-go that it plans to continue to employ a sizable contingent in Omaha. Aside from employees at the riverfront headquarters, the company employs about 800 in a frozen-food factory in Council Bluffs and about 90 in a popcorn factory in Lincoln.
But as far as the changes the company has in mind, they seem to be set in stone. Stothert said Connolly told her no economic, tax or other incentives would make a difference.
“If there was something, or we had incentives that would change things, I’m sure that those conversations would be happening,” she said. “But right now they’re telling me that is not the driver of their decision.”
On Tuesday, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said he is willing to extend whatever state-level incentives that would be required to assist ConAgra. Ricketts had no comment on Wednesday’s developments, his office said.
Stothert said she didn’t approach ConAgra in June after activist investor Jana Partners disclosed a 7.2 percent stake in the company and ushered in the corporate makeover.
“We had no idea what the results were going to be,” she said. “Lots of companies get new investors. Lots of companies get new boards or members of boards. We did not have any reason to believe anything would change.”
Meanwhile, Chicago has been rising in the company’s estimation. CEO Connolly has long been connected with the Windy City.
Before joining ConAgra this year, he was the CEO of Hillshire Brands, the Ball Park Franks maker he moved from suburban Chicago to downtown Chicago. Connolly owns a home in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, and ConAgra already operates a substantial division of workers in suburban Naperville in its consumer foods unit.
Even as ConAgra’s CEO, Connolly commutes from the Chicago area, where he lives.
The company, according to Chicago-area media reports, is negotiating to lease space to accommodate around 1,000 office workers at the vast downtown Chicago Merchandise Mart; the Illinois governor, the Chicago Tribune reported Tuesday, has authorized business incentives to lure ConAgra’s headquarters.
Incentives are big business in Illinois. The state offers tax credits against corporate income tax for relocating or expanding firms, and credit against state income tax amounts that companies withhold from employee paychecks.
From 1999 through 2013, Illinois passed out almost $1 billion in tax credits under the incentive program, to 254 companies, according to the Illinois Policy Institute, which describes itself as advocating free-market principles.
Under the withholding tax program, the institute said, nine companies collected $494 million in credits.
“The state of Illinois is desperate for economic growth,” said Michael Lucci, vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute. “We aren’t huge fans of incentives, but all states do it.”
Thirty-one companies have relocated to Chicago alone since 2011, according to the office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
World-Herald Staff Writers Roseann Moring, Cole Epley and Barbara Soderlin contributed to this report.
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