Sean Connolly has cut jobs, moved the corporate headquarters and set in motion the spinoff of NW potato and vegetable giant Lamb Weston. The food industry, he says, “is not for the faint of heart.”
CHICAGO — ConAgra CEO Sean Connolly doesn’t bemoan the challenge of turning around a food company known for brands like Slim Jim, Reddi-wip and Chef Boyardee.
Since Connolly, 50, took the reins of ConAgra last April, the changes have been bold and the cuts deep.
“This is a highly competitive industry,” he said. “This is not for the faint of heart.”
Raised: Upstate New York
Resides: In suburban Chicago with his wife, Diana, and four children
Compensation: Base salary of $1.1 million; annual bonus target of $1.65 million; three-year long-term incentive minimum of $6.25 million; signing bonus of 600,000 stock options and $1.6 million in restricted stock units
Chicago Tribune, company reports
A quick recap of ConAgra changes under Connolly’s watch: First, ConAgra announced it would cut about 1,500 jobs and move its headquarters from Omaha to Chicago. That move is expected to happen this summer.
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Next, the company found a buyer, TreeHouse Foods, for its struggling private-label business. And in November, ConAgra announced it was spinning off its Lamb Weston frozen-potato business and splitting into two independent publicly traded companies. Lamb Weston now has offices in Kennewick, Wash., and Idaho.
Before joining ConAgra, Connolly was CEO of Hillshire Brands, the meat business that remained after Sara Lee spun off its tea and coffee business. There, too, Connolly cut costs and introduced new products before Hillshire was bought by Tyson Foods in 2014.
Connolly also held various executive positions at Campbell Soup after cutting his teeth at Procter & Gamble. He recently sat down with the Chicago Tribune. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How have your experiences at Campbell and Hillshire informed what you’re doing at ConAgra?
A: One of the things I learned early in my career is that iconic brand equities are resilient. And they can not only survive, but they can thrive decade after decade after decade. If, and that’s the key word, if, you are clear-eyed that the consumer’s ever changing and you keep the brands fresh and contemporary so that they’re relevant to today’s consumer priorities, which are different from yesterday’s consumer priorities.
Q:Some people look at your leadership at Hillshire as an example of what’s to come at ConAgra and that the company might be positioning for a sale. Are you moving toward that?
A: That certainly was not our game plan at Hillshire and certainly not what we’re focused on right now. I spent the first 20-plus years of my career in two companies being a builder and building great brands and portfolios and, importantly, building great teams and great cultures.
Our focus at ConAgra Foods right now is on splitting into two independent pure-play companies — each of which we expect to have an enhanced performance through a much greater degree of focus and a much greater degree of discipline and a ramped up innovation agenda.
Q: There’s been a lot of dramatic change for ConAgra in a short period of time under your leadership. Why?
A: We haven’t performed. We’re clear-eyed about our stumbles in the past. And we are absolutely determined that we’re going to perform better and perform more consistently.
Q: You answer to shareholders in terms of increasing stock price and profit margins, but you also answer to your employees in building the company for the long term and building these brands. How do you navigate what appear to be contradictory forces there?
A: When you get under the hood of a lot of these large consumer packaged goods companies, what you see are organizations that over 30 or 40 years have become tremendously complicated. There are lots and lots of cooks in the kitchen. You end up with what I call giraffelope ideas. It’s collaboration gone amok. You’ve got a speed to market that resembles that of a snail. And you’ve got a lot of office politics that are getting in the way of what really matters, which is, “Are we doing a great job of pleasing the consumer?”
Q: What’s an example of adding products to the ConAgra mix that add value?
A: One of the places that’s really in our focus when it comes to innovation is more premium, more gourmet, more organic and more natural foods. Those are expensive foods to design. But you can also charge more for them because the consumer puts that value on them.
One is Simply Ground, which is a new peanut butter that’s more akin to what you might find at a Whole Foods than at a mainstream grocery. Another one that’s really interesting that’s in test markets right now in Nashville, Tenn., is called Wicked Kitchen. It’s a premium-quality frozen meal that mimics what you would get in a food truck in San Francisco or Chicago — street tacos, things like that. It’s very contemporary in terms of recipes and flavors.