ConAgra to Spin Off Lamb Weston Unit in CEO's Latest Shake-Up

Updated on
  • Remaining consumer company will change name to Conagra Brands
  • Spinoff follows $2.7 billion sale of private-label division

ConAgra is spinning off its Lamb Weston food-service business, helping it focus on products like Chef Boyardee.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

ConAgra Foods Inc. will spin off its Lamb Weston food-service business, marking another major move in Chief Executive Officer Sean Connolly’s plan to transform the maker of Chef Boyardee canned meals and Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn.

The transaction is expected to close in the fall of 2016 and be tax-free to shareholders, the Omaha, Nebraska-based company said Wednesday in a statement. The remaining company will change its name to Conagra Brands Inc. and be based in Chicago.

Connolly has completely overhauled ConAgra since taking the helm in April. Earlier this month, he agreed to sell the company’s struggling private-label unit to TreeHouse Foods Inc. for about $2.7 billion, undoing an acquisition his predecessor had made less than three years earlier. Now Connolly, who’s also dealt with pressure from activist investor Jana Partners, is splitting off a business that sells frozen french fries to restaurant chains like McDonald’s Corp. and Yum! Brands Inc. so he can concentrate on ConAgra’s well-known consumer names.

“This frees them up to focus on improving their brands,” said Michael Halen, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “Their hands have really been tied.”

ConAgra rose 4 percent to close at $40.93 in New York, the biggest one-day gain in almost five months. The shares have now advanced 13 percent this year.

Lamb Weston

Lamb Weston generated about $2.9 billion in revenue in the company’s fiscal 2015, accounting for the majority of sales from ConAgra’s Commercial Foods unit. The company’s capital structure hasn’t been determined, and its management team will be announced at a later date.

After the separation, Conagra Brands will work to improve operational efficiency and expand margins while returning cash to shareholders. The company said it’s committed to maintaining an investment-grade profile and paying a “strong and attractive” dividend.

ConAgra is reviewing its stable of brands and will examine acquisitions and divestitures as it seeks to reignite growth, Connolly said in an interview. The company can use tax benefits from its writedowns on the value of the Ralcorp business to shield against gains on future deals, he said.

‘Chronic Headache’

“We’ll look at the businesses that have been laggards in our portfolio and come to a conclusion as to whether or not we can take action to stabilize and begin to return them to growth,” he said. “And if we ultimately conclude it will be a chronic headache, we’ll look at other options.”

Connolly could look to divest slower-selling product lines like Chef Boyardee and Healthy Choice, or it might plow proceeds from the private-label sale into picking up new brands, Bloomberg Intelligence’s Halen said.

“They’re going to have the capital to do it,” Halen said. “It depends on how aggressive they want to get.”