Charles M. Harper, the chief executive who transformed ConAgra from a struggling flour-mill company into an agricultural powerhouse, in part by acquiring hundreds of companies and developing a wildly successful line of low-priced frozen foods called Healthy Choice, died May 28 at his home in Omaha. He was 88.
A daughter, Kathleen Wenngatz, confirmed the death but said she did not know the cause.
Mr. Harper, often called Mike, was widely credited with bringing ConAgra back from the brink of bankruptcy when he joined the company as chief operating officer and executive vice president in 1974.
Founded as the Nebraska Consolidated Mills Co., the commodities firm had slowly branched out of the flour-mill business and expanded into feed grain, poultry and catfish, taking on a large amount of debt in the process and making risky gambles in the commodities market. The company changed its name to ConAgra Inc., Latin for “with the land,” shortly before Mr. Harper’s arrival from Pillsbury foods.
He was named chief executive within a year, and chairman within five years, for spearheading a remarkably fast turnaround, reversing a $12 million deficit in 1974 to a $4 million profit one year later.
To pay off the company’s debts, he quickly sold what he deemed unnecessary buildings and land, as well as corporate divisions that did not mesh with his vision of ConAgra as a food giant that processed, packaged and marketed basic foodstuffs.
The company acquired about 200 businesses in 20 years. With the purchase of Monfort in 1987, it became the world’s largest meatpacker; buying Beatrice in 1990, it became the country’s second-largest food processor. By the early 1990s, ConAgra was a dominant force — if not the national leader — in sheep, turkey, chicken and pork processing; french-fry production; and seed and feed sales.
A litany of the company’s brands under Mr. Harper would serve as a virtual tour of the American home kitchen: Armour and Swift meats, Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn, Peter Pan peanut butter, Reddi-Wip whipped cream, Hunt’s canned tomatoes, Country Pride poultry.
For many investors, the acquisitions made ConAgra, as Mr. Harper put it, “the best damn food company in the U.S.,” with annual sales in the billions of dollars and more than $200 million in profits.
Growth also made ConAgra a ripe target for consumer advocates who questioned the effect of the company’s pesticides and crop-protection chemicals on human health, the labor and sanitary conditions of its meatpacking and poultry plants, and potential price-gouging on bread and other goods.
ConAgra was found guilty of cheating Alabama chicken growers in 1989, tampering with trucks and scales to make the birds seem lighter. In 1995 — three years after Mr. Harper had left the company — ConAgra settled a class-action lawsuit that accused the conglomerate of conspiring with other corporations to fix catfish prices.
In 1987, when ConAgra was looking to expand its offices, Mr. Harper successfully pressured the Nebraska legislature to establish lucrative tax breaks for large corporations and wealthy executives.
His tactics included threatening to move ConAgra’s headquarters out of the state unless lawmakers approved a tax exemption for corporate aircraft. (An aviation enthusiast, Mr. Harper earned his pilot’s license at 53. For his 60th birthday, he flew a single-engine Cessna propeller plane from San Francisco to New York City, a 16-hour trip.)
Remaining in Omaha, ConAgra opened an $80 million development along the city’s riverfront in 1990. The project has been credited with sparking a revitalization of downtown Omaha, as well as criticized for taking the place of Jobbers Canyon, a historic warehouse district. (The company moved its headquarters to Chicago last year.)
Standing a towering 6-foot-6, Mr. Harper was known for a warm, if occasionally gruff, style of management that gave executives and general managers a high degree of autonomy. A 1989 company history produced by ConAgra noted that Mr. Harper “told each general manager that he’d been given a bag of money, and that at the end of the year he’d be expected to return it — plus a little extra.”
A heart attack in 1985 inspired perhaps his greatest innovation: “healthy” frozen foods that were comparably low in sodium, fat, cholesterol and calories. The line of stripped-down hot dogs, hamburgers and other fast-food staples was inspired by his wife’s low-sodium turkey chili, Mr. Harper said, explaining, “Hospital food tastes like hell, and this tasted good.”
Released in 1989, the Healthy Choice line of green-boxed frozen meals and entrees quickly overtook niche health brands such as Weight Watchers and Lean Cuisine, scoring $1 billion in sales in its first three years. In one sign of its success, it also became a crucial part of Mr. Harper’s dining routine, taking the place of roast beef sandwiches and ice cream sundaes.
“Generally speaking, I have a Healthy Choice soup every day — except Sunday — either for lunch or dinner,” he told The Washington Post in 1992. “I have a Healthy Choice frozen entree or frozen dinner three to four times a week. I have Healthy Choice hot dogs at least once a week and Healthy Choice ice cream at least a couple of times a week. And every darn day at work, I have a Healthy Choice breakfast sandwich.”
The trade publication Advertising Age described Healthy Choice in 1993 as “the most successful new food brand introduction in two decades,” although by the 2000s it was trailing Lean Cuisine and Weight Watchers.
After retiring from ConAgra in 1992, Mr. Harper joined RJR Nabisco as chief executive. He restructured the company’s debt and split its food and tobacco businesses before retiring again, in 1996, to spend more time with his wife, who had been diagnosed with cancer.
Charles Michael Harper was born in Lansing, Mich., on Sept. 26, 1927, and grew up in South Bend, Ind. He received a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Purdue University in 1949 and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Chicago in 1950.
He then was an engineer at General Motors’ Oldsmobile division in Lansing. He joined Pillsbury five years later, where he rose to the position of vice president in charge of the poultry and food service division.
His wife of 49 years, the former Joan “Josie” Bruggema, died in 1999. Survivors include four children; 11 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Harper had little affection for the term “junk food,” despite whatever accuracy it may have in describing the salutary benefits of ConAgra’s frozen foods or RJR Nabisco snack foods. The problem, it seemed to him, was that nothing that sold millions could ever be considered truly “junk” — not R.J. Reynolds cigarettes, and certainly not Oreo cookies.
“It’s not junk food, it’s great food,” he told USA Today in 1993. “If businesses are going to succeed, they have to produce products that people want to buy.”
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