• Berkshire-Backed Kraft Heinz is `new benchmark,' ConAgra Says
  • Omaha mayor says `very concerned' for displaced employees

The cost-cutting zeal that Warren Buffett helped bring to the food industry is starting to hit home.

ConAgra Foods Inc. said Thursday that it’s planning to move its headquarters to Chicago from Buffett’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. In the process, the maker of Chef Boyardee pasta and Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn will eliminate more than half its 2,500 corporate jobs in the area.

Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. has spent more than $17 billion over the past few years helping investment firm 3G Capital make acquisitions in the food industry. Earlier this year, the partners orchestrated the merger of Kraft Foods Group Inc. with H.J. Heinz. 3G’s playbook has been to cut costs and jobs to improve margins in the industry, which is struggling to grow amid shifting tastes of some health-conscious consumers.

“Kraft Heinz definitely sets the standard for cost cutting and trying to build efficiency into the system,” David Brown, president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, said in a phone interview. “ConAgra’s going to have to make these kind of changes anyway if they were going to survive.”

‘New Benchmark’

Food companies including Mondelez International Inc., Campbell Soup Co. and Kellogg Co. have all implemented some form of 3G’s budgeting approach, which requires managers to justify every expense from scratch each year. ConAgra announced Thursday that it was joining that club after Chief Executive Officer Sean Connolly said last month that Kraft Heinz was “everybody’s new benchmark.”

Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charles Munger have publicly defended 3G, saying that efficiency is required over time in capitalism. In an interview in August, Buffett went a step further, praising the investment firm and its long-term approach to investing. Buffett added that 3G is fair with severance when it cuts jobs. He didn’t return a message Thursday seeking comment.

Still, the ConAgra cuts could carry extra weight for Buffett. The 85-year-old investor grew up in Omaha and made his fortune there building Berkshire into an investment powerhouse. From an office in the city with about two dozen employees, he controls a conglomerate with more than 80 subsidiaries, including auto insurer Geico and railroad Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The company’s annual meeting draws tens of thousands of shareholders to the area.

‘Unapologetic Capitalist’

“He’s an unapologetic capitalist,” said David Rolfe, chief investment officer at Wedgewood Partners Inc., which manages $9.5 billion, including shares of Berkshire and Kraft Heinz Co. “I’m sure it’s going to sting a little bit because it’s jobs in his hometown. But he and Munger have fully embraced the 3G way.”

Berkshire’s National Indemnity insurance unit is based in the city, as are subsidiaries like the Omaha World-Herald newspaper and party-supply retailer Oriental Trading. Another major business in the city is the Union Pacific Corp. railroad, which competes against Berkshire’s BNSF.

Major companies are “here for a reason, and they’re thriving for a reason,” Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said in a televised news conference Thursday.

She said ConAgra told her that the shift to Chicago was not due to of a lack of incentives in her community, but rather because the company is consolidating operations in northern Illinois. The mayor also said that Omaha will remain a major employee base for the company.

“So that’s good,” she said. “But still I’m very concerned about the 1,000 or so people that will lose their jobs because they have families here, they have roots here and they mean a lot to the whole community.”

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