U.S. food giant ConAgra shifts focus to organic, natural products

The maker of Chef Boyardee is dumping its store-brand unit to focus on national name brands -- but also organic and natural products. Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

NEW YORK – ConAgra Foods Inc. plans to sell its faltering business that makes store-brand packaged food just two years after spending $5 billion to beef it up by buying the private-label foodmaker Ralcorp.

The company said Tuesday that it wants to concentrate on improving business for its name brand products, which include Chef Boyardee and Slim Jim meat sticks.

CEO Sean Connolly also said ConAgra was open to acquisitions to modernize the company’s stable of products, such as with organic and natural food products, while selling off others.

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ConAgra, based in Omaha, Nebraska, has been under scrutiny by activist investor Jana Partners, which disclosed a 7.2 per cent stake in the company earlier this month. Jana said the company’s results have been disappointing since it bought Ralcorp and threatened a proxy battle for seats on the ConAgra’s board of directors.

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At the time of the purchase, ConAgra had said that the Ralcorp acquisition would give it a larger presence in the growing private label food segment. Then-CEO Gary Rodkin called it a “logical and exciting step” for the company.

On Tuesday, ConAgra reversed that position. Connolly, who became CEO in April, said the company was devoting too much time and energy to the private brands business, and that the unit would be better managed by someone else. Connolly was previously CEO of Hillshire Brands and oversaw the company’s sale to Tyson last year.

During a conference call, Connolly pointed to the potential for improving results for ConAgra’s name-brand products, such as its Banquet and Healthy Choice frozen meals.

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Connolly also challenged the notion that ConAgra is in categories that don’t have great prospects, such as frozen foods. With frozen pot pies, for instance, he noted the company’s acquisition this year of Blake’s, which positions itself as a natural alternative and appeals to different customers.

“How exciting is the pot pie category? I’d argue it’s a very exciting category,” Connolly said.

At the same time, Connolly said he was “absolutely realistic” about the challenges ConAgra faces and was open to divestitures of some brands.

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ConAgra also reported Tuesday fourth-quarter earnings that met Wall Street expectations.

During the period, the company reported profit of $209.2 million, or 48 cents per share, marking a swing to a profit compared with a year ago. Earnings adjusted for one-time gains and costs, were 59 cents per share, in line with analyst forecasts.

Revenue rose 3.7 per cent to $4.1 billion in the period, falling short of forecasts. Four analysts surveyed by Zacks expected $4.14 billion.

ConAgra shares have increased 20 per cent since the beginning of the year, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 index has stayed nearly flat. The stock has increased 43 per cent in the last 12 months.

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