Chairman and chief executive officer, ConAgra
Born: December 17, 1948, in Sidney, Nebraska.
Education: Creighton University, BS, 1971; BA, 1971; JD, 1973.
Family: Married (wife's name unknown; divorced); married Sandra (maiden name unknown); children: five (from second marriage).
Career: McGrath, North, Mullin & Kratz, 1973–1996, attorney; ConAgra, 1996–1997, vice chairman and president; 1997–, chief executive officer; 1998–, chairman.
Awards: Business Information Professional of the Year Award, 2000; named Frost & Sullivan's Food & Beverage CEO of the Year, 2004.
Address: ConAgra Inc., 1 ConAgra Drive, Suite 302, Omaha, Nebraska 68102-5001; http://www.conagra.com.
■ Bruce C. Rohde was chairman and CEO of ConAgra, the leading North American food-service supplier and the number two supplier to grocery stores. First serving the company as its general legal counsel, Rohde worked in transforming the company from a largely agricultural supplier to a diversified name-brand foods company. To that end Rohde worked on a number of important acquisitions that eventually led the company in a more focused direction while restructuring ConAgra better to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Rohde's strong leadership and vision enabled him to take ConAgra to a healthier financial future as one of the leading and most competitive food companies in the country. Rohde was also part of a new class of emerging CEOs consisting of attorneys appointed to leadership positions within many major companies.
Rohde was born in Sidney, Nebraska, on December 17, 1948. His family later moved to Omaha, where Rohde father's
was president of Electric Fixture & Supply Company, the largest electric supply wholesaler in the state. After finishing high school, where Rohde lettered in track and field, he entered Creighton University in Omaha, graduating in 1971 with a degree in business administration and a major in accounting. He then entered Creighton's law school, graduating cum laude in 1973. He was admitted to the state bar the following year.
Rohde went to work for the law firm of McGrath, North, Mullin and Kratz—the second-largest law firm in Nebraska, noted for its expertise in business and corporate law. Rohde's introduction to ConAgra came in 1974, when he was made the company's principal attorney. By 1984 Rohde had become general legal counsel to the company.
Founded in 1919 by Alva Kinney, ConAgra began business as Nebraska Consolidated Mills (NCM), which consisted of four grain mills. It was NCM that created Duncan Hines cake mix in the 1950s in an attempt to drum up sales for its flour. But the product did not do as well as the company had hoped, and NCM later sold the brand in order to expand its flour and feed production. However, in the process the company ignored the trend toward prepared foods. By the 1960s NCM had expanded into animal feed and poultry production. The primary focus was on the idea of "dirt to dinner," or on the ingredients that made prepared foods such as meat and grains.
When Rohde joined the company as legal counsel in 1974, its name had changed from NCM to ConAgra, derived from the Latin for "with the land." ConAgra also wanted to change its image as an agricultural-based company and for the next several decades concentrated on acquiring brand-name foods, particularly nationally recognized, processed and prepared food items. Among the companies and brands that eventually came under the ConAgra umbrella were Banquet Frozen Foods, Armour, Del Monte (including Morton, Patio, and Chun King), and the Swift Independent Packing Company. By 1991 ConAgra had gone from being a $500 million company to being a $20 billion company. During this period of expansion and acquisition, which lasted from 1975 until 1991, Rohde was responsible for putting together the deals for 241 of the company's new acquisitions.
By 1984 Rohde was participating in management meetings for the company and consulting with other company executives to devise strategies for ConAgra's expansion. His abilities caught the eye of senior company officials, and in 1996 Rohde was promoted to president and vice chairman of the company. A year later Rohde was promoted again, this time to CEO; in 1998 he was named chairman of the board of directors.
Rohde's appointment as CEO and chairman caught company outsiders off guard. Even though the company had undergone a lengthy and extensive search, which included interviewing more than one hundred candidates to fill the position, many believed that the person they were looking for was right under their noses. Although Rohde's background as an attorney hardly seemed to make him CEO material, those in the company believed that ConAgra could not have done better. One ConAgra executive noted that Rohde, in his time with ConAgra, came to understand the company better than many with a background in business. In addition, Rohde valued the entrepreneurial spirit of ConAgra.
In taking over the reins of ConAgra, Rohde had his work cut out for him. During the early 1990s ConAgra continued to swallow up smaller competitors while at the same time paring down its own operations. In 1995 the company began its first major reorganization by closing 29 mills and meat-processing plants and selling its chain of Country General convenience stores. Rohde continued the reorganization, and in June 1998 ConAgra grouped its grain and commodity operations under ConAgra Trade. A year later Rohde instituted "Operation Overdrive," closing several production plants and storage facilities and cutting the workforce by seven thousand employees. The estimated savings from "Operation Overdrive" was calculated at close to $600 million a year.
Rohde also faced other problems in the first few months of his tenure as CEO. In 1998 a glut of meat products, grains, and poultry had overburdened commodities markets when Asia closed its doors to exports. As a result, prices and profits for the company declined precipitously. The 80 companies now falling under the ConAgra banner were used to running themselves, often not even bothering to check in with other divisions—a situation that was also hurting the parent company. Rohde soon found out that the company's food-processing divisions and meatpacking plants were buying their goods from competitors instead of from other ConAgra companies. Representatives from several ConAgra divisions, all selling similar products, visited the same restaurants and groceries. Clients quickly became frustrated with this lack of coordination and communication and let Rohde know that something needed to be done. Rohde listened and began utilizing a teamwork approach that avoided overlapping of resources.
Rohde continued retooling the company and by 2000 had collected 10 product groups under three divisions: food service, which focused on restaurants; retail and grocery stores; and agricultural products. By 2003, though, rumors were circulating that the company would eventually be dropping those products. Rohde stepped up marketing as well, working with grocery stores to create displays of ConAgra products.
In the meantime, expansion continued as ConAgra bought such products and companies as Nabisco's Egg Beaters and table spread, Choice One Foods, a California supplier of meat to restaurant chains, and Home International Foods in a $2.9 billion deal that gave the company the Chef Boyardee, Bumblebee Seafoods, and Gulden's mustard brands. By 2004 ConAgra owned more than 70 name brands, including Healthy Choice, Orville Redenbacher products, and Peter Pan. Although getting out of the meatpacking business in 2002, ConAgra became one of the nation's top meat and poultry sellers, counting such brands as Butterball and Armour among the company's holdings. Under Rohde's leadership, ConAgra began generating 75 percent of its food profits from sales of name-brand products. Rohde's changes also helped the company financially, as ConAgra earned approximately $12 billion in retail sales annually, with another $10 billion per year coming from the purchase of food products by restaurants and institutions.
In the beginning Rohde's management style caught many off guard. As CEO, Rohde looked for ways in which ConAgra could solve its problems creatively and still keep an eye on the bottom line. He encouraged the independence of ConAgra's operating companies. His philosophy was if people have the power to make decisions rather than having to wait for all decisions to come from a centralized source, they will get more done. Still, he sought to facilitate better communication within ConAgra. This strategy worked especially well in the area of acquisitions in that after acquiring a company, ConAngra already had a supplier somewhere within its ranks. This setup allowed for almost all of the functions, from materials to processing and preparation, to stay within the company. Rohde also believed in keeping in touch with his employees—over 80,000 of them as of 2004—by regularly providing employees with news and listening to their concerns. Rohde encouraged replies, and while the response was not overwhelming, he ordinarily received between one hundred and two hundred responses to one of his e-mails.
Rohde continued to forge ahead despite discouraging economic news. As grocery store chains pushed their own brand names, which tend to be cheaper than other national brands, ConAgra needed to come up with ways to stay competitive. A growing headache was dealing with changing tastes. Increasingly Americans ate out, which meant that ConAgra products were not selling as briskly as Rohde would have liked. Rohde hoped to counteract this trend by stepping up sales of food ingredients needed by restaurants, such as processed potatoes used for french fries by fast-food chains like McDonald's or chicken for chains like Wendy's and Arby's. Some analysts suggested that Rohde was too cautious and that if the company were to remain profitable, he would need to take bigger chances in the acquisitions game.
See also entry on ConAgra, Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories .
"Bruce Rohde of ConAgra Foods Named Frost & Sullivan's Food & Beverage CEO of the Year Award," Frost & Sullivan Press Release, May 20, 2004, http://biz.yahoo.com/bw/040520/205114_1.html .
Copple, Brandon, "Synergy in Ketchup?" Forbes , February 7, 2000, p.68.
Kawar, Mark, "CEO: ConAgra Had to Centralize: Bringing It All Together," Omaha World Herald , September 25, 2003.
Neff, Jack, "The Biggest Nobody Really Knows," Food Processing , February 2001, p.19+.
Pollock, Ellen Joan, "Order in the Boardroom: Lawyers Rise to CEO," Wall Street Journal , September 11, 1996.
Ruff, Joe, "ConAgra Getting Out of Meatpacking," Omaha World Herald , September 24, 2002.
——, "New CEO Puts ConAgra into 'Overdrive,'" Dayton Daily News , May 5, 2000.
Taylor, John, "ConAgra Attorney Rohde to Fill Long-Vacant President's Office," Omaha World Herald , August 27, 1996, p. 16.
——, "Lawyer Joins Ranks of ConAgra 'Hunters,'" Omaha World Herald , November 17, 1996.