SPRINGDALE — Northwest Arkansas mourns the loss of its jovial poultry tycoon, Donald J. Tyson, who died at home Thursday morning from complications of cancer. He was 80.
Tyson was the son of Tyson Foods' founder John Tyson and is largely credited with turning the small family chicken business into the nation's largest meat company.
In April 2007, Tyson underwent surgery for liver cancer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He was given a good long-term prognosis at the time, but the illness returned in recent months, according to a statement from Tyson Foods.
Tyson was known by all to work hard and play hard and he was famous for saying "I don't have time to have a bad time," said Donnie Smith, CEO for Tyson Foods. "His passing will be mourned by everyone who knew him."
The close-knit poultry industry rushed to send condolences on the passing of one of its most influential pillars.
Mark Simmons, CEO of Simmons Foods, remembers Tyson as a good friend first and tough competitor second.
"He never failed to lend a hand to anyone in need. He was decisive and provided strong leadership for Tyson Foods and the entire poultry industry," Simmons said.
Lionel Barton, poultry historian at the University of Arkansas, said some years ago when a local competitor's feed mill burned, Tyson stepped up and provided them the necessary feed while the mill was rebuilt.
That act of kindness didn't surprise Simmons who said the industry has lost a giant.
"He had an uncanny knack for buying other companies and was a true visionary who hired talented people and let them further his ideas," Barton said.
Barton said Tyson Foods was the first local poultry company to actively recruit University of Arkansas students at the urging of Tyson, who left college early in 1952 to help his father run the business, which was known as Tyson Feed and Hatchery.
The University of Arkansas awarded Tyson an honorary doctorate degree when he spoke at the 2010 graduation ceremony.
Those who knew Tyson well say it was his unbridled determination that saved the company from failure more than once in the past 58 years.
When Swanson Foods came calling in 1952 the Tyson family considered selling their chicken operation, but Tyson had another vision.
It took him until 1958 to persuade his father to let him build the company's first chicken processing plant that is still operating on Randall Wobbe Lane in Springdale.
"I lied to my daddy because I told him it would only cost $75,000 to build, but when the cost jumped to $90,000, I overdrew my account and had to ask for more money. He got really mad at me," a teary-eyed Tyson said during the plant's 50-year anniversary celebration Sept. 5, 2008.
Barton said the processing facility allowed Tyson to vertically integrate its operations and control every phase of chicken production from hatchery to slaughter and processing for retail customers.
"When the company bought Wilson Foods in 1972, people thought the deal might sink Tyson but he proceeded anyway. The market turned up and Don was able to pay off the acquisition debt within one year," Barton said. Wilson Foods was slightly smaller than Tyson at the time.
Tyson was instrumental in the acquisition of dozens of local and regional processing companies including Franz Foods of Green Forest, Rogers-based Hudson Foods, Krispy Kitchen in Bentonville, Mexican Original of Fayetteville and Honeybear Foods in Neosho, Mo.
During his tenure in active corporate management Tyson Foods grew its annual sales from $1 million to $5 billion. Tyson retired in 1995, but stayed on as a paid consultant and cheerleader for the business he loved.
He helped oversee the $32 million purchase of Iowa Beef Packers in 2001, which fueled Tyson's annual sales growth from $7.51 billion in 2000 to more than $28.43 billion in 2010.
Tyson Foods provides 8,300 jobs in Benton and Washington counties and 115,000 worldwide and ranks in the Fortune 500.
In September 2008, the poultry industry grappled with soaring grain prices and hefty losses. Tyson Foods was forced to renegotiate its loans and raise additional operating capital as a recession gripped the nation and wreaked havoc on the world's financial system.
Tyson gambled $3.82 million of his own money and bought 3 million shares of Tyson Foods stock. As of Thursday, that investment had earned a profit of $11.43 million.
Those who knew Don Tyson say his money never changed who he was. His fortune was valued at roughly $1 billion by Forbes in 2005, when he made the magazine's Wealthiest Americans list.
Don Tyson will be remembered as a colorful character dressed in plain khaki apparel bearing the Tyson logo stitched over the left pocket and "Don" stitched on the right side.
"He was one of the most interesting people I've ever known. His brilliant mind, unfailing energy and fearless determination to prevail in every endeavor on his own terms enabled him to build a great company," said former President Bill Clinton. "He had a real impact on the politics of Arkansas and America, and led a fascinating life. From the first time I met him in 1974 until our last talk a few months ago, I was captivated by his keen insight, straight talk and raw energy. I'll miss him. He did it his way."
Tyson was a charitable giver and risk-taker and ultimately faced allegations of arranging illegal gifts to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy, who served in President Clinton's first-term.
Epsy resigned in 1994, but was later acquitted of the charges. Tyson Foods pleaded guilty to giving $12,000 in gifts to Espy and paid a $6 million fine.
In a 2001 Securities and Exchange Commission review Tyson Foods was fined for not fully disclosing benefits paid to Don Tyson and some of his friends.
Tyson admitted no wrongdoing, but paid the fine.
Analysts and historians agree while these legal entanglements may taint Tyson's record somewhat, his stunning business accomplishments will be his legacy.
Clinton said Tyson sailed the world to fish and to feed his insatiable hunger to learn, but he held onto his roots in Northwest Arkansas, remaining fiercely loyal to his family, friends, employees and the causes he cared about.
Though the billionaire could have lived anywhere in the world, he called Springdale home.
"Don has been a friend for a long time. He was the most gracious, kind person I ever met. I don't know anyone who has been around him for any period of time that didn't catch his infectious love of life. He loved life every minute of every day," said W.H. Taylor, his friend and personal attorney.
Taylor described Tyson as a generous person who took care of a lot of people and enjoyed doing it.
"Don Tyson tackled life. He wanted to know everything, especially about business," said longtime friend Joe Fred Starr.
Starr said Tyson loved to have fun and share it with others.
"I visited his house in Cabo San Lucas, then bought one next door. He loved for people to visit him there. We all miss him," Starr said.
University of Arkansas Chancellor Dave Gearhart characterized Tyson as a larger-than-life figure, business pioneer, great philanthropist and a dear friend.
"A self-made man, he wasn't just a great Arkansas success story, he was a great American success story. His vast and big-hearted presence will be sorely missed." Gearhart said.
Giving was Tyson's nature, but Barton and close friends say he wanted little, if any recognition for his philanthropical efforts.
During the 1980s when the University of Arkansas was raising money to build the Center for Poultry Excellence, Barton said Tyson anted up $2 million when the project went over budget.
"Whenever there has been a need, Don Tyson has filled the gap," Barton said. "But he would rather buildings and monuments be named for his family and friends."
The Tyson name adorns everything from schools in Springdale to the John W. Tyson building at the University of Arkansas. He, his family and company foundations contributed millions of dollars to various Northwest Arkansas causes over the years.
A $12 million gift announced in 2005 put the university's Campaign for the 21st Century over its $1 billion fundraising goal. Combined corporate, foundation and personal giving from Tyson entities to the campaign, which began in 1998, totaled more than $27 million. Of that amount, nearly half was earmarked for programs in agriculture. Family and corporate money also supported scholarships, a history center and the university press.
The Randal Tyson Track Center at the university honors Don's brother, while the Springdale schools are named for his parents.
A $2.5 million lead gift is helping establish a child development center at the university, which will be named for Jean Tyson.
Don was preceded in death by his father John W. Tyson and his step-mother Helen Knoll Tyson, as well as his mother Mildred Tyson and by his wife, Twilla Jean Womochil Tyson and his brother Randal Tyson.
He is survived by his son, John Tyson and three daughters, Carla Tyson, Cheryl Tyson and Joslyn J. Caldwell-Tyson; his sister-in-law Barbara Tyson; two grandchildren, John Randal Tyson and Olivia Laine Tyson; and long-time friends Gloria Gray, Ramona Caldwell, Shelby Rogers and Melissa Ramsey.
Steve Caraway and Dan Craft contributed to this report.
At A Glance
Visitation is today from 4 to 6 p.m. at Sisco Funeral Home in Springdale. A small private family service is planned for Saturday. Plans are not yet complete for a public memorial service. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to The Billfish Foundation, The Mayo Clinic and the Dale Bumpers College of Agriculture, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas.
Tyson’s 80 Years
• 1930: Born in Olathe, Kan., to John W. and Mildred Tyson.
• 1931: His father moves to Springdale and starts a business hauling Arkansas chickens to out-of-state markets.
• 1944: He works as a teenage chicken catcher and truck driver at his father’s company, Tyson’s Feed and Hatchery.
• 1952: Tyson leaves the University of Arkansas to become general manager of the family company.
• 1957:: He leads construction of Tyson’s first processing plant on Randall Road in Springdale.
• 1963: The company becomes Tyson’s Foods; goes public; and buys Garrett Poultry in Rogers.
• 1966: Tyson named president of the company.
• 1967: Tyson named chairman of the board and CEO after his father and stepmother, Helen, are killed in a car-train wreck in Springdale.
• 1967: Company buys Franz Food Products of Green Forest.
• 1968: Chicken Hut, a franchise of fried-chicken restaurants, debuts. It fares poorly and is discontinued.
• 1971: Tyson’s Foods changes name to Tyson Foods.
• 1972: The company buys Krispy Kitchens, a Bentonville processing plant.
• 1983: Tyson Foods enters the tortilla market by purchasing Mexican Original in Fayetteville.
• 1984: The company tops $1 billion in sales.
• 1989: Tyson Foods buys Holly Farms, doubling the company’s share of the chicken business.
• 1991: Leland Tollett named CEO. Tyson remains chairman.
• 1994: Tyson Foods buys Cobb-Vantress of Siloam Springs.
• 1995: Tyson becomes senior chairman. Tollett named chairman.
• 1998: Company buys Hudson Foods of Rogers.
• 1998: Don’s son, John, named chairman of the board
• 1998: Don Tyson donates $1 million to the University of Arkansas Press.
• 2001: Tyson retires as senior chairman, remains on the board of directors.
• 2001: Tyson Foods buys Iowa Beef Producers, turning Tyson into the world’s largest producer of chicken, beef and pork.
• 2005: Tyson Foundation donates $12.5 million to the University of Arkansas to complete the school’s $1 billion fundraising campaign. The family and company contributed a combined $27 million to the effort.
• 2011: Don Tyson dies.
“Don has been a friend for a long time. I don’t know anyone who has been around him for any period of time that didn’t catch his infectious love of life. He loved life every minute of every day.” — W.H. Taylor, friend and personal attorney for 15 years.
“He was an extremely intelligent businessman who became very successful. He gave tremendously to the community. I’m going to miss him.” — Walter Turnbow, Springdale businessman.
“Don tackled life. He wanted to know everything, especially about business. He loved business. He loved people. He liked to make friends and would do anything he could for anybody.” — Joe Fred Starr, a personal friend since college.
“Northwest Arkansas is blessed to have had Don Tyson. He really made a difference. He was incredibly generous to his friends, his community and the state. He was a legend who’s going to be missed.” — Woody Bassett, a Fayetteville lawyer who first met Tyson in the late 1960s.
“It’s impossible to measure the value Don Tyson had to his community. People all over the world would recognize the Tyson name. It was more than money. He raised the spirit of the community.” Perry Webb, Springdale Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer
“His death is truly the end of an era. He built this company and laid the foundation for a greater future. The company will feel we let him down if we don’t make the next 40 years as successful as the last 40.” — Archie Schaffer, Tyson Foods vice president and personal friend.
“Don Tyson was known by all to work hard and play hard and he was famous for saying ‘I don’t have time to have a bad time.’ His passing will be mourned by everyone who knew him,” said Donnie Smith, CEO for Tyson Foods.
“This is truly a sad day for Springdale. I’m asking our citizens to join me in praying for God’s grace and comfort for the Tyson family and friends in their time of grief,” — Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse
“Don Tyson has been a cherished friend of the Springdale School District. He has been an advocate of the Springdale schools from his time as a student through his entire career as a business leader in Springdale. His contributions will be forever appreciated.” — Jim Rollins, superintendent of Springdale School District
“I was saddened to hear about the passing of Don this morning. Even before Johnnie and I moved to Northwest Arkansas, Don was very encouraging to us and we soon became good friends. I always admired the dedication and giving heart he showed towards his employees, his friends and his community. All of us will miss his leadership and his friendship dearly.” — Johnelle Hunt of J.B. Hunt transportation.
“I received the news of Don’s passing with great sorrow. This is an immense loss. To all who knew him, he was a larger-than-life figure —a business pioneer, a great philanthropist, and a dear friend. A self-made man, he wasn’t just a great Arkansas success story, he was a great American success story. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family. His vast and big-hearted presence will be sorely missed.” G. David Gearhart, University of Arkansas Chancellor
“The passing of Don Tyson leaves an enormous hole not only in the 3rd District but across the country. Don’s life was one that encompassed the true American dream. Because of his vision, what was once just a small family business known as Tyson Feed and Hatchery is now a key part of the state’s economic engine. But for those who knew Don personally, he was more than a businessman. He was a good man. For that, he will be greatly missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.” — 3rd District Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers
“Don Tyson was a savvy businessman who not only helped grow the family business but changed how the food industry operates. Known for his optimistic outlook, his revolutionary approach to business made Tyson’s a household name. He was a true visionary who undoubtedly left a lasting mark on Arkansas.” — Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.
“I have many fond memories of Don Tyson, and I will miss his friendship, spirit, and passion for the outdoors. Don never forgot where he came from, including the hard work and principles that made him a business legend. His success and leadership was a springboard for our state’s economy, and his philanthropy will continue to lift up Arkansas in countless ways. My prayers and thoughts go out to his family and friends during this difficult time.” — Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.
“Don Tyson was a business giant who helped put Arkansas on the world map for poultry and food production. As he reached higher and higher levels of success, he never forgot where he came from, remaining a life-long Arkansan and generously giving back to his community and our state. Don will be greatly missed.” — Gov. Mike Beebe
“Don Tyson was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. His brilliant mind, unfailing energy, and fearless determination to prevail in every endeavor on his own terms enabled him to build a great company, have a real impact on the politics of Arkansas and America, and lead a fascinating life.
“Though he sailed the world to fish and to feed his insatiable hunger to learn and experience new things, he held onto his roots in Northwest Arkansas and remained fiercely loyal to family, friends, the people of Tyson’s, and the causes he cared about.
“From the first time I met him in 1974 until our last talk a few months ago, I was captivated by his keen insight, straight talk and raw energy. I’ll miss him. He did it his way.” — Former President Bill Clinton
“He had an uncanny knack for buying other companies and was a true visionary who hired talented people and let them further his ideas,” said Lionel Barton, poultry historian at the University of Arkansas.
“He was a good friend to my dad, Bill Simmons, and myself. We knew him to be a tough competitor but he never failed to lend a hand to anyone in need. He was decisive and provided strong leadership for Tyson Foods and entire poultry industry,” said Mark Simmons, chief executive officer for Simmons Foods.
“Cargill mourns the loss of Don Tyson, a meat industry and business visionary whose tireless efforts to bring consumers better products and grow the company significantly contributed to the success of today’s Tyson Foods. The meat business benefited from Don’s leadership, and we salute his many personal and professional accomplishments. He will be missed by those of us who had the good fortune to know him.” — Bill Buckner, Cargill corporate senior vice president.
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