Tyson wants to do better, its new chief tells execs, officials

Posted: April 19, 2017 at 2:19 a.m.

Tom Hayes has had plenty on his plate since becoming Tyson Foods' top executive less than four months ago but doesn't want to be a member of the clean-plate club anytime soon. That would imply a job is done.

In introducing Hayes Tuesday to a luncheon crowd of about 650 business executives, state economic development officials and legislators in Little Rock, Tyson's board chairman, John Tyson, said Hayes' job is to continue the company's "next evolution from just raising baby chicks to being a fully integrated food company."

That evolution got a boost in 2014 with Tyson's $7.7-billion purchase of Hillshire Foods, whose brands include Sara Lee, Hillshire Farms and Jimmy Dean.

A vice president of Hillshire at the time, Hayes moved quickly up the Tyson ranks. He was named the company's president last June and, on Dec. 30, he took over as chief executive officer. Other Hillshire executives have been on a similar fast track at Tyson, often replacing longtime veterans.

In 30 minutes of remarks to the nonprofit Arkansas Economic Development Foundation, Hayes said the founder of Tyson Foods wasn't trying 80 years ago to become the conglomerate it is today. "He was just trying to feed his family," Hayes said of John W. Tyson.

With 114,000 employees, including some 24,000 in Arkansas, annual revenue last fiscal year of some $37 billion and a profit of $4.7 billion, Tyson is 'Big Food,' Hayes said. "We won't apologize for being 'Big Food,'" he said. "'Big Food' can feed the world."

While Tyson Foods is committed to continued growth, the company can be a leader in protecting the environment and in producing food in a more sustainable way, Hayes said. He said he was committed to "healthier animals, healthier employees, a healthier environment, and healthier food."

Tyson announced in 2015 that it would phase out the use of all human antibiotics in its chickens by the end of this year.

"Consumers are voting with their wallets," Hayes said. "Consumers want companies that do the right thing."

Hayes said the company will continue its investment in plant-based protein, calling it a "nice space for us to continue our growth."

Hayes alluded to "mistakes" the company has made over the years but didn't cite specifics. In a telephone interview later, he said he was referring to mistakes and errors made in the course of doing everyday business, not in the corporation's mission or overall business plan.

"Because we are such a big company, there are things we do day-in and day-out that affect service and quality," he said. "This business moves very fast, so there are a lot of quality issues to deal with, a lot of things to build on and make the company better."

A native of New Hampshire, Hayes has a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in business administration. That psychology degree is put to use every day, Hayes said by telephone. "Everybody at Tyson has something to contribute," he said. "But there may be some who are less than willing to step out and contribute because they won't want to get run over, so they stay silent," he said.

To skeptics of Tyson's talk about the environment and sustainability, Hayes said in the telephone interview, "I understand. We are a large company, and we have a large footprint. I'd ask, just give us a chance. It's not just for a couple of years. We're anxious to listen. We're anxious to do better."

Business on 04/19/2017