Photograph by Daniel Acker — Bloomberg via Getty Images

The food maker, under pressure from activist shareholder Jana Partners, will sell off its private label business, undoing a $5 billion deal it had hailed as "transformational" but had turned out to be a big drain on its coffers.

By Phil Wahba
June 30, 2015

Well that didn’t take long.

Less than two weeks after activist hedge fund Jana Partners announced it had taken a 7.2% stake in ConAgra Foods and started agitating for change, the food maker said on Tuesday that it would sell off its money-losing private label business to better focus on its core brands.

The decision will undo the hard-fought $5 billion acquisition of Ralcorp after only two and a half years, jettisoning a deal ConAgra had repeatedly called “transformational.”

But undoing the private label business will free ConAgra of a segment that has been a huge drain on results of ConAgra, best known as the maker of Chef Boyardee and Orville Redenbacher, to the tune of $2 billion in write downs since the deal closed in early 2013. Even at the time of the deal many analysts were skeptical, saying that the private label segment in foods had peaked.

In the three months ended March 31, ConAgra’s private label sales were $1 billion. That was down only slightly from a year earlier, but with the added benefit of an extra week in the quarter. The segment posted an operating loss of $25 million.

“As I have intensely studied the situation in our private brands operations over the last few months, it has become clear that the time and energy the company is devoting to the private brands turnaround represent a suboptimal use of our resources,” said CEO Sean Connolly in a statement. “To prevent further distraction, we are pursuing the divestiture of our private brands operations.”

Earlier this month, Jana pressured ConAgra to change its board, pointing to the chronic, enormous difficulties the company has had integrating Ralcorp, and lack of top executives with experience in private labels. The hedge fund seems to be getting ready for a fight with the company.

Activist investors typically push for companies to either break up, sell themselves off to someone else, or issue debt or use cash to buyback shares. Fortune‘s Stephen Gandel reported earlier this month that sources familiar with Jana’s thinking on ConAgra said the hedge fund had not decided whether the company should split up or sold off and that Jana had recruited food industry veterans to help it operate better.

In its most recent quarter, ConAgra did better with its traditional businesses. Sales in its commercial foods segment rose 7%, helped by the Lamb Weston potato operations. Sales in its consumer foods unit increased 4%, helped by higher prices in some categories to cover commodity costs and rising sales of its Hunt’s and Slim Jim brands, among others.

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