The products of ConAgra Foods, Omaha, Neb., are found in 97 percent of American homes, and 25 of them are ranked first or second in their category. It sells nearly 13 million packages of food products each day, including 3 million frozen food packages.
Despite having two large business segments — Consumer Foods, accounting for 65 percent of sales, and Commercial Foods, representing 35 percent – one R&D team develops products for all brands and businesses across the company. Answering that big mandate is a big team: the Research Quality and Innovation team. RQI, as it's called, brings together the best and brightest from diverse areas of specialization within ConAgra.
Heading that team is Al Bolles, executive vice president of research, quality and innovation. Core members include Corey Berends, vice president of product innovation; Rob Weick, vice president of packaging; Jane Anders, vice president of core innovation; Mark Andon, vice president of health and nutrition; Jeff Korengel, vice president of processing; Rich McArdle, vice president of private label product development; Chris Rhynalds, vice president of the Lamb Weston division; and Joan Menke-Schaenzer, chief global quality officer.
"They are all responsible for creating space for innovation, giving [their teams] more time to think; that's our culture," says Bolles. "We encourage the entire organization, to think of ideas that make great and more efficient products."
There is a basic formula for the success of the R&D team. "The big thing is the culture around innovation we've been building at ConAgra," reveals Bolles. "We have really close partnerships with the business and operating groups that enable us to prioritize innovation and enable us to make products that fit our business and consumer needs and have the impact we are looking for," he says.
Proof that they are succeeding are the two 2011 Edison Innovation Awards, given each year to the most innovative new products. Healthy Choice Top Chef Café Steamers came in first and Marie Callender's Bakes came in fourth.
At ConAgra, "It starts with CEO Gary Rodkin," Bolles continues. "Gary emphasizes innovation. He is engaged in our process, eats a lot of our food, is in the lab a lot; and that's by design. He and his leadership team are highly engaged in our growth reviews, where we review products, get input and drive the cross-functional alignment. That takes a lot of the workaround out of the system.
All products start with great taste. "We engage our culinary team to create the prototypes. Then it's up to the scientists, process engineers and packaging teams to bring the prototypes to life in our facilities and to the consumer shelf."
It is sometimes challenging for a large company to come up with innovative new products because there are so many layers to go through. "We don't work around [that challenge]; we ignore it," he says. "Innovation is our lightning rod for growth. We make decisions at a very senior level, and that takes a lot of work out of the system. It's not perfect, but I think we do a good job of focusing on new and big ideas."
Asked about his management style, Bolles says, "I am engaged and really try to encourage people to have ideas, let them take risks, encourage them to own their products and be champions of them.
"But we exist to drive the business; the business isn't here to fund our science projects. We're here to use science and technology to find better ways of making better products."
Food safety also is a top priority. And speaking of awards, ConAgra won this year's Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI) award. "From the CEO down, food safety culture is embraced throughout the entire organization," SQFI wrote. Adds Bolles, "Frankly, with that reputation, it helps create opportunities to develop products for our customers."
From the very start, product development involves cross-functional teams, "because we can better focus our priorities," he says. "One of our secrets to success is the high degree of cooperation; it's one of our cultural values. Simplicity and collaboration are really important to us. We make our folks accountable, and that leads to empowerment."
As for a general timeline for coming up with a new product, from concept to production, "That really depends," he reflects. "The [Orville Redenbacher's] Pop Up Bowl took almost two years because it was such a difficult technology getting that bowl to pop up and open every time. That was technologically a tough one, getting it to run on our line with a supply chain that could minimize the amount of capital we needed. On the other hand, when it comes to new bar development, we partner with our sales organization to have better customer connections which allow us to go from A to B faster, in some cases in six months. We're probably slower than we have to be, but I'll never be satisfied. It's part of my job."
The Pop Up Bowl also is one of his team's proudest achievements. (You can see Food Processings post about the Pop-Up Bowl at ConAgra Foods Introduces Pop Up Bowl for Orville Redenbacher Popcorn.) "Ideas start with consumer insights. In the past popping microwave popcorn was invisible to the consumer — the bag got big, but you couldn't see why. The Pop Up Bowl allows consumers an inside look at how the corn really pops. Another barrier for usage was people having to clean the serving bowl. By creating this Pop Up Bowl, we had a package where you could see it pop with a [disposable] bowl ready to go and share with others," he explains.
"I'm also very proud of what we've done with Healthy Choice Top Chef Café Steamers. Our mantra was to create restaurant-quality food, and steaming enabled us to do that on the Healthy Choice line. When we coupled that with our marketing partnership with Bravo's 'Top Chef,' it helped us drive growth. Consumers understand that endorsements from 'Top Chef' means the food is going to taste good, and the technology enables us to actually deliver.
"We have a partnership with one of our suppliers for the Microrite technology that enables us to bring Marie Callender's Bakes to life. The packaging technology turns the microwave into an oven. It takes 40 minutes in the oven, but only 15 minutes to cook Bakes in the microwave, and we achieve better quality than you can get in the oven because the way the packaging interacts with the food to maintain even cooking," he explains.
The team collaborates with Joan Chow, executive vice president and chief marketing officer. "Marketing has done a great job. It's hard to sell technology to consumers, but I care that technology can benefit our products," he says.
"I'm also proud of the fact that we started the trend for healthier sweet potato fries [and] built a LEED-certified plant in Delhi, La., close to the source of potatoes for our Lamb Weston brand."
That last example also points to how sustainability permeates the company. "We want to make sure our manufacturing practices are good for people and the environment," says Bolles.
"From creating new products to reducing food waste to water usage, that's top of mind. In fact, this past year, ConAgra was included on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index."
Bolles says there are three important attributes for new products: taste, convenience and packaging innovation. But the company also is mindful of value. "We've launched a few products that were too premium for the marketplace or not right for a particular customer. Now, we build the price point [into the process]. In today's economy it's very important to do that. We have found that consumers are somewhat less willing to try new things because of higher price points," he says.
"It's important to provide value to the consumer," he continues. "I'm really proud of how good our less expensive products are. Our Banquet line retails for $1 to $1.25. Where can you get a good meal for that? We work in close partnership with our supply chain to make the entire process as efficient as we can and are able to pass those savings on to consumers."
Another goal is always striving to make food healthier. "We are the first company to launch a campaign to take 20 percent of the sodium out of our product portfolio by 2015," he says proudly. "We offer 190 meals under 450 calories that sell for under $3.50 to $3.99. They are a great value and portion controlled, which is one of the benefits of frozen convenient meals: You can control your weight and portions.
"All offer a good balance of macronutrients, [less] fat and saturated fat, and they taste better because of the packaging technology. Frozen entrees are no longer just TV dinners."
Bolles reveals that ConAgra instituted a Choose to Lose program with its employees. "Focusing on frozen entrees, our nutrition team, led by Dr. Mark Andon, found after several four-week trials that participants lost an average of 1.3 lbs. per week. Some kept the Healthy Choice plate, using it as a template to use at home for portion control."
New ideas come from all over. "We really encourage our organization to have an external bias," he says. "We've developed a partnership with Procter & Gamble, licensing some of their non-competitive technologies. That enables us to be far more efficient. We believe the core of great products start with consumer insights, and our job is to leverage our technologies to deliver against these insights. We're very proud of what we've achieved."