- Charles M. Harper, a former ConAgra CEO who oversaw the company's transformation into an industry giant, has died at 88, reports The New York Times.
- Harper joined the company in 1974 following a 20-year stint at Pillsbury, when ConAgra was on the verge of bankruptcy. He was named CEO in 1976, a position he held until 1992, during which time company sales soared from $600 million to more than $20 billion.
- During ConAgra's expansion, in 1985, Harper suffered a heart attack and changed his eating habits in response. This change inspired the development of the lower-calorie Healthy Choice line, which quickly took off and is still a part of ConAgra's portfolio today. It was an infrequent example of a CEO-inspired product that contributed to a company's turnaround.
Harper transformed ConAgra into a contender alongside grocery giants like Kraft Heinz and General Mills. His other key contribution was his role in the development of Healthy Choice. The line fueled ConAgra's growth and transformation at a time when consumers were increasingly aware of fat and calorie content. The development of Healthy Choice demonstrated a key, albeit nontraditional, role CEOs and other executives could play in product ideation and innovation.
Under Harper's leadership, ConAgra expanded rapidly, due mainly to significant acquisitive growth. While ConAgra became a recognized force in the food industry because of that expansion, eventually ConAgra's size became unsustainable. Last year, profits sank, particularly due to ConAgra's acquisition of Ralcorp private-label brands in 2013.
Since, ConAgra has made a series of changes to the company's portfolio and operations, including selling its private-label brands business, spinning off its foodservice business into a separate entity, and enacting layoffs, reported the Omaha World-Herald.