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Growing together, then apart

Growing together, then apart

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The founders of four Nebraska flour mills that joined forces in the early part of the last century probably couldn't imagine that Nebraska Consolidated Mills would grow into a Fortune 500 company selling some of the country's biggest food brands from the banks of the Missouri River in Omaha. The homegrown company and the city have grown together — and now apart.

1905 and before: Several brands that will one day be owned by ConAgra Foods make their debut, including Hunt's tomatoes (1890), Wesson cooking oil (1899) and Hebrew National hot dogs (1905).

1919: Four Nebraska flour mills — Henry Glade Milling, Ravenna Mills, Hastings Mills and Blackburn-Furry Mill — consolidate and incorporate as Nebraska Consolidated Mills, headquartered in Grand Island.

1920s: A number of brands that later become part of ConAgra are founded, including Peter Pan peanut butter and Chef Boyardee canned pasta.

1922: Nebraska Consolidated Mills reports its first profit — $175,000 — and makes its first acquisition, the Updike Mill in Omaha. NCM headquarters moves to Omaha for better access to Omaha's grain market and extensive rail network.

1941: In the first company expansion outside Nebraska, NCM builds a new flour mill in Decatur, Alabama.

1950s: TV dinners take off; Banquet Foods is founded and would later become a unit of ConAgra. In 1957, NCM completes its first foreign expansion with the construction of a mill in Puerto Rico.

1960s: The company expands to Europe with a mill in Spain. And with the purchase of Montana Flour Mills, NCM comes to own flour-milling operations that span the United States.

1969: In NCM's 50th year, flour provides 40% of its total sales.

1971: Nebraska Consolidated Mills changes its name to ConAgra Inc. The company employs 4,105 people in 13 states, Puerto Rico and Spain.

1973: ConAgra common stock is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

1976: Mike Harper is named chief executive and transforms the company from a flour processor into a consumer packaged foods giant by acquiring firms such as Banquet and Armour Foods. Harper was named chairman in 1981.

1981: Sales reach $1 billion.

1982: Grain is still a big part of ConAgra. The acquisition of Peavey Co. makes it the largest publicly traded grain merchandiser.

1985: Fiscal 1985 sales pass the $5 billion mark.

1986: CEO Harper threatens to move ConAgra to another state if substantial business and tax incentives aren't offered from state and local authorities.

1987: The Nebraska Legislature passes a suite of incentives that offer tax credits and other aid to companies meeting certain employment and capital expenditure requirements. Corporate jets are among the equipment qualifying for tax credits. Other parts of the legislation are seen as executive-friendly, such as lowering the state income tax for the wealthy and exempting profits from the sale of stock issued by a taxpayer's employer from state income tax.

1988: ConAgra joins with a partner to acquire Lamb Weston, a leading potato processor and now the centerpiece of its commercial foods division, serving restaurants and institutions. ConAgra later comes to own the entire Lamb Weston operation. The first Healthy Choice frozen dinners are introduced.

1990: The new company headquarters in downtown Omaha opens, built on the site of the historic Jobbers Canyon warehouse district, where more than 20 buildings were demolished to make way for the new campus.

1990: ConAgra makes its largest acquisition to date, buying Beatrice Foods. The deal adds well-known brands such as Hunt's tomatoes, La Choy Asian dinners and sauces, Orville Redenbacher's popcorn, Wesson oil and Swiss Miss cocoa.

1992: Phil Fletcher is named chairman and chief executive officer, replacing Harper.

1997: Bruce Rohde is named chief executive officer and becomes chairman in 1998.

1998: ConAgra acquires more brands — Fleischmann's, Parkay, Blue Bonnet, Egg Beaters, Slim Jim and Pemmican.

2000: ConAgra Inc. becomes ConAgra Foods Inc.

2002: ConAgra sells meat, seafood and cheese businesses such as Butterball, Armour, Eckrich, Swissrose and Louis Kemp.

2004: ConAgra's sales mix, 51% of which came from fresh meat and other commodities in 1998, continues to change, with more than 80% coming from branded packaged foods.

2005: Gary Rodkin is named CEO.

2012: The company acquires Bertolli, which makes Italian sauces and frozen dinners. Also joining the brand roster that year was P.F. Chang's, a maker of frozen Chinese dinners.

2013: The $6.7 billion purchase of St. Louis-based Ralcorp makes ConAgra North America's biggest manufacturer of storebrand packaged foods.

2015: Sean Connolly, 49, is named president and CEO.

2015: The company puts its private-label unit — the former Ralcorp — up for sale. Connolly says he'll undergo a top-tobottom review of the company.

2015: ConAgra announces that its headquarters will move to Chicago and that 1,000 salaried jobs will be cut in Omaha.

Sources: World-Herald archives, the company

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