A native of Lansing, Michigan, U.S., Harper grew up in South Bend, Indiana, U.S. He graduated in 1949 from Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S., with a degree in mechanical engineering and in 1950 from the University of Chicago with a master’s in business administration.
While most of his professional career was spent in the food industry, Harper’s first job out of graduate school was with General Motors, with the Oldsmobile division in his birthplace of Lansing. Five years later he joined The Pillsbury Co. as the head of a newly established industrial engineering department.
During his nearly 20 years at Pillsbury, Harper broadened his range of responsibilities beyond engineering. He became director of all industrial, mechanical, plant, chemical and electrical engineering and then was promoted to vice-president of research and development. He later headed the company’s food service supply division and in the late 1960s was named group vice-president of Pillsbury’s fresh poultry and food service supply operations.
Harper joined ConAgra in 1974 as chief operating officer during a period of turmoil at the company (the company had sustained a loss of $11.8 million in fiscal 1974, the company’s first loss since fiscal 1921). Established in 1919 as Nebraska Consolidated Flour Mills with roots dating back to the 1860s, the business had been renamed ConAgra in 1971.
Early in his career at ConAgra, Harper was focused on trimming assets to help strengthen the company’s balance sheet, including the Dixie Lily packaged baking mix business, sold to Martha White Foods, Inc.; a J.F. Imbs Milling Co. plant in Martel, Ohio, U.S., to Pillsbury; and the company’s Guanica, P.R.., flour mill. ConAgra returned to profitability in fiscal year 1975, but the company continued shedding assets for a period, including a closed Grand Island, Nebraska, U.S., mill, sold to Peavey Co., in 1975; and several properties of the company’s Nixon Feed business.
According to a company history, Harper during this period drafted a white paper detailing what would become known as the “ConAgra Philosophy,” premised on the overriding importance management would place on maximizing shareholder returns. He was elected a director in 1975, was promoted to president and chief executive officer in 1976 and chairman and CEO in 1981.
With an eye toward strong return on investment, ConAgra set out plans to broaden its business — at the time limited to flour milling and poultry — into other segments of the food industry, including packaged foods, while still remaining committed to agribusiness, including milling. In the late 1970s, the company’s acquisitions included an egg processor, a dog food manufacturer, a local Mexican quick-service restaurant chain and agribusinesses — United Agri Products, Inc. and Atwood-Larsson Co.
In the 1980s, as the company grew steadily and dramatically more profitable, the acquisitions grew bolder and more numerous — Banquet Foods Corp. in 1980, Peavey Co. in 1982, Lamb Weston and Armour Food Co. in 1983, Del Monte frozen foods in 1986, Monfort in 1987, the milling business of International Multifoods in 1988 and, the company’s largest acquisition, the Hunt-Wesson business of Beatrice Foods in 1990. Dozens of other companies were acquired during this period.
Harper suffered a mild heart attack in 1988 and was convinced by his wife to alter his diet toward lower-sodium, lower-fat foods. The experience prompted Harper to spearhead at ConAgra work that would lead to the introduction in 1989 of the company’s Healthy Choice brand.
Also under Harper’s leadership, ConAgra opened in 1990 a new $80 million headquarters development along the city's riverfront, a project credited with helping revitalize downtown Omaha.
By the time he retired as CEO in 1992, ConAgra grew to become the nation’s second largest food company, with sales ballooning to more than $20 billion per year, from about $500 million in 1974. While ConAgra’s business thrived for several years following his retirement, growth has been more elusive since the late 1990s.
After his retirement from ConAgra, Harper joined RJR Nabisco as CEO. Prominent among initiatives during his time there was the split of the food and tobacco businesses. He retired in 1996 to spend more time with his wife Joan (Josie) Harper, who had been diagnosed with cancer and died in 1999.
In addition to his wife, Harper was preceded in death by his parents and two sisters. Survivors include his children, Kathleen (Hal) Wenngatz, Carolyn Joan Harper, Mike (Mary) Harper Jr., and Elizabeth Ann (Chris) Murphy; 11 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. Memorial services will be held at 10 a.m. June 2 at St. John Catholic Church at Creighton University in Omaha. The family will receive friends at a reception following the Mass in the Harper Center Ballroom.