Editor's Plate: Two 1980s Rebels Pass On

Charles "Mike" Harper and Roger Enrico were revolutionary leaders of a bygone era.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

We don't normally write obituaries, but in recent weeks two men died who were key 1980s architects of what would become Big Food.

Charles "Mike" Harper, who transformed ConAgra from a nearly bankrupt grain miller to a branded goods powerhouse, died May 28 in Omaha, Neb., at age 88. Roger Enrico, during whose tenure Pepsi Cola briefly outsold Coca-Cola, passed away June 1 – interestingly, while snorkeling off Grand Cayman. He was 71.

Like the five leaders in our cover story this month, these guys were revolutionaries, too. Had we done this cover story circa 1990, they likely would have been two of our subjects.

I never met Enrico but did briefly shake hands with Harper while visiting ConAgra in the early 1990s. Harper had just turned over the reins to his longtime second in command, Phil Fletcher, and ConAgra was my then-magazine's company of the year.

Both of these guys also were of that generation when serving in the military was expected, as well as an honor. Harper was in the Army. Enrico was in the Navy, serving in Vietnam, "where, as a lowly ensign, he convinced an admiral to build a fuel pipeline instead of flying in supplies – only for the pipeline to be repeatedly blown up," as the Wall Street Journal reported. Obviously, he had a knack for persuasion.

Harper earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering before his MBA. After working at General Motors, he moved to the Twin Cities to take a job at Pillsbury. While there he also was a city councilman in Excelsior, Minn., even serving one year as mayor.

After 20 years at Pillsbury, Harper moved to Omaha in 1974 to take the helm of ConAgra, which had just changed its name from Consolidated Mills. In those go-go 1980s, when mergers and acquisitions were all the rage, he transformed the $600 million (sales) grain company into a $20 billion-a-year food conglomerate by buying every recognizable brand he could get his hands on. ConAgra today is just $7 billion. (Harper later did much the same as CEO of RJR Nabisco – another interesting story.)

In the midst of all that high pressure, Harper suffered a heart attack and was told to change his eating habits. Although he disliked the "diet" foods of the time, his wife was able to concoct recipes that were delicious and healthy – and so began the landmark Healthy Choice line.

Enrico's forte was marketing. At PepsiCo, he signed groundbreaking sponsorship deals with Michael Jackson, Madonna and Michael J. Fox. The 1985 "Pepsi Challenge" taste test so worried rival Coca-Cola that it changed its formula to New Coke to taste more like Pepsi – triggering what's considered one of the biggest blunders in marketing history.

“After 87 years of going at it eyeball to eyeball, the other guy just blinked,” Enrico said in a full-page advertisement, according to the New York Times.

A longtime PepsiCo executive, Enrico spun off the restaurant division -- Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut chains – one year after being named chairman and CEO in 1996. Instead, he oversaw the acquisitions of Tropicana and Quaker Oats, which included Gatorade.
Enrico retired from PepsiCo in 2001 and in 2004 was named chairman of DreamWorks Animation.

Those were interesting and certainly different times, when conglomerates, even diversified ones, were in, and strong leaders could single-handedly assemble huge companies. (Remember Borden? RJR Nabisco? Philip Morris-Kraft?) There was no need to watch the daily stock price, and the only “activist investor” was busy taking over and destroying TWA (if you remember that airline).

25 years from now, I wonder what will be the legacy of today’s food leaders.

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