ConAgra sees ‘customer-centric’ as right way to go

by Eric Schroeder
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BOCA RATON, FLA. — The traditional model of innovation in which a manufacturer decides to push out many products to customers and retailers who are then left to figure out how to make them work in their stores is no longer status quo at ConAgra Foods, Inc. Instead, the Omaha-based company is shifting toward a “customer focus.”

In a Feb. 18 presentation at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference in Boca Raton, Gary Rodkin, chief executive officer of ConAgra, described the change in philosophy at the company, brought on in large part due to the acquisition of Ralcorp Holdings in January 2013.

“What we’re saying is certainly we’ll still have some of those national launches; but our focus is really on much more having the customer work with us to tell us what they want, what they need, what fits into their programs,” Mr. Rodkin said. “And we will customize for them, in many cases being almost brand-agnostic.

“So there are cases that are already in play where we have offered to do it either as a brand or as a private brand for a particular large customer. We have the capabilities to do it either way. Whatever we do for that customer, we will have as a platform that we will scale up for other customers, and might turn it 10 degrees to the right for another customer — change the packaging a little bit, change the flavor a little bit — but basically use those same assets. But it’s really a customer pull from us. And we believe that is absolutely the right way to go, and we are already going down that path. So that is a large part of when we say customer-centric.”

In a follow-up question in which he was asked whether ConAgra is set up for the possibility that a retailer might ask the company to create a private label version of a product already in the ConAgra branded portfolio, Mr. Rodkin responded “yes.”

“We are working on establishing internally our own guidelines on how far we will go on that,” he explained. “So there will be some protectable technologies that will not do that. There will be other places where we believe sweating our assets is the right thing to do. So we’re working through that. So it’s a fairly gray area. I would be very candid in telling you, going into this, it was more black and white for us; but as we get into it, and we see the power there is, it’s more of a gray area. So we’re going to have to have guardrails. But the answer is, it’s something that we would at least consider in some cases.”
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