KANSAS CITY — In the mid-1990s, Ian R. Wilson established Aurora Foods, Inc. with the objective of reinvigorating mature brands owned by major consumer packaged goods companies but that were no longer viewed as core by the parent company.
While the company he established ultimately foundered, the businesses Mr. Wilson aggregated accounts for the largest number of brands within the Pinnacle Foods business Conagra Brands, Inc. has agreed to acquire in a $10.9 billion transaction.
Over a two-year period, Aurora made a number of acquisitions, including Mrs. Butterworth’s from Unilever, Log Cabin from Kraft (then a unit of Philip Morris) and Duncan Hines from Procter & Gamble Co. Aurora Foods went public in 1998.
In a late 1998 interview with Milling & Baking News, Mr. Wilson, a longtime grain-based foods executive, said his approach toward building Aurora was focused and simple. The company was looking for brands that had considerable brand equity but were “under-managed and under-marketed,” he said. He referred to his acquisitions as “orphan brands.”
“We never think that we’re smarter than anybody else,” he continued. “We don’t do start-ups. We don’t do turnarounds. We only take brands that have become non-core and work with them. We’re very disciplined at what we do. It’s as simple as that.”
Aurora’s success proved short-lived, and in 2002, Aurora filed for bankruptcy. Mr. Wilson was sentenced to two years and nine months in prison following a fraud conviction related to the underreporting of millions of dollars in marketing expenses to inflate reported profits.
The following year, Pinnacle Foods acquired Aurora for $935 million. Pinnacle had been established a year earlier by Metropoulos & Co. together with other partners after acquiring Vlasic Foods International for $370 million.
In 2007, Pinnacle was acquired by Blackstone Group for $2.2 billion. Two years later, Pinnacle acquired Birds Eye Foods, Inc. for $1.3 billion. In 2013, Pinnacle raised $480 million in an initial public offering. The company acquired Boulder Brands, Inc. in 2015 for just under $1 billion.
The 2013 i.p.o. was priced at $20 per share, and Pinnacle’s share price rose steadily in the five years that followed, closing at $65.23 on June 28, up from $58.49 at the start of 2018.
Whether Conagra will retain all of the Aurora brands remains to be seen.