Charles M. Harper, the chief executive who transformed ConAgra from a struggling flour-mill company into an agricultural powerhouse, in part by acquiring hundreds of companies and developing a wildly successful line of low-priced frozen foods called Healthy Choice, died May 28 at his home in Omaha. He was 88.

Harper, often called Mike, was widely credited with bringing ConAgra back from the brink of bankruptcy when he joined the company as chief operating officer and executive vice president in 1974.

Founded as the Nebraska Consolidated Mills Co., the commodities firm had slowly branched out of the flour-mill business and expanded into feed grain, poultry and catfish, taking on a large amount of debt in the process and making risky gambles in the commodities market. The company changed its name to ConAgra Inc., Latin for “with the land,” shortly before Harper’s arrival from Pillsbury foods.

He was named chief executive within a year, and chairman within five years, for spearheading a remarkably fast turnaround, reversing a $12 million deficit in 1974 to a $4 million profit one year later.

To pay off the company’s debts, he quickly sold what he deemed unnecessary buildings and land, as well as corporate divisions that did not mesh with his vision of ConAgra as a food giant that processed, packaged and marketed basic foodstuffs.

The company acquired about 200 businesses in 20 years. A litany of the company’s brands under Harper would serve as a virtual tour of the American home kitchen: Armour and Swift meats, Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn, Peter Pan peanut butter, Reddi-Wip whipped cream, Hunt’s canned tomatoes, Country Pride poultry.

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