Joel Conner

Consumer Products & Retail
Joel Conner

The company Joel Conner leads, Bellisio Foods, is the third-largest manufacturer and marketer of frozen meals, appetizers and snacks in North America. Thai conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF) acquired Bellisio from private-equity firm Centre Partners in December, angling to gain a foothold in the United States’ food market. Conner, 65, is proud of the $1.075 billion deal that recently made Bellisio a wholly owned subsidiary of CPF. (In business since 1921, CPF is a vertically integrated company that operates swine, chicken, duck, shrimp and fish businesses, from manufacturing animal feed to selling at retail and operating restaurants.)

It’s a different business philosophy from that espoused by Bellisio’s founder, Jeno Paulucci. The Iron Range native started Chun King, a Chinese-American canned food company, in 1949. Paulucci sold to R.J. Reynolds in 1966 and started Jeno’s Pizza Rolls (sold to Pillsbury in 1985). He moved into the microwaveable Italian food with the Michelina’s line/company, both named for his mother. When the company started adding brands, the name was changed to Bellisio (“beautiful” in Italian).

Conner had been a consultant advising Paulucci during Bellisio’s founding in 1990. He joined the company as a senior executive vice president in 1992. He became president in 2001 and rose to chairman and CEO in 2005, taking the business to 12 countries and leading it to a 10 percent share of the U.S. market by 2011. That year, Conner engineered a sale to private equity concern Centre Partners for $340 million. Bellisio’s only brand was Michelina’s, and sales had reached $320 million.

Over the next five years, Bellisio more than doubled its net sales and EBITDA using a licensing strategy that brought the Atkins, Boston Market, Chili’s and EatingWell brands to the business and upped its market share to nearly 20 percent. Bellisio also manufactures products under the Zatarain’s, Newman’s Own, Nutrisystem and Evol brands.

Conner is excited about the possibilities for CPF’s U.S. growth and will remain with Bellisio as executive chairman.

“Since 1990 when we founded the company, we’ve been battling global giants Nestlé and ConAgra and Heinz, and now we’re very much a part of a global giant,” he says. “For the first time in our history, we have a very long-term perspective on building strategy and in our people and in our business.”