VIDEO: Regional icon Tyson dies

Cancer takes ‘best-known poultry person’ at 80

Maintenance workers Wayne Watson (left) and Denny Birdsong lower the Tyson Foods Inc. flag Thursday outside company headquarters in Springdale to honor Don Tyson, the former chairman and chief executive officer and son of founder John W. Tyson.
Maintenance workers Wayne Watson (left) and Denny Birdsong lower the Tyson Foods Inc. flag Thursday outside company headquarters in Springdale to honor Don Tyson, the former chairman and chief executive officer and son of founder John W. Tyson.

Remembering Don Tyson

Share your thoughts and memories of Don Tyson, the legendary Arkansas businessman who guided his father's company into a giant in the food industry. Tyson, the former president and chief executive officer of Tyson Foods, died Thursday morning after a battle with cancer. He was 80.

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Donald John Tyson, son of the founder of Tyson Foods Inc. and the man credited with the tremendous ascent of world’s largest meat producer over three decades of his leadership, died Thursday morning in Springdale.

Tyson, 80, died of complications from cancer at home with his family, Tyson Foods Inc. spokesman Gary Mickelson said. He had a cancerous tumor removed from his liver in 2007 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Former President Bill Clinton called Tyson one of the most interesting people he had ever known, blessed with keen insight, straight talk and raw energy.

“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,” Clinton, a former Arkansas governor, said in an e-mailed statement issued through the William J. Clinton Foundation.

Clinton, who first met Tyson in 1974, said he last spoke to Tyson a few months ago. “I’ll miss him. He did it his way,” Clinton said at the end of his statement.

Don Tyson officially retired in 1995 from the company his father, John Tyson, started in 1935 as a poultry transporter. Don Tyson had served as president, chief executive officer and chairman of the board, and when he left, Tyson Foods Inc. was the 110th-largest manufacturing company on the 1994 Fortune500, with revenue exceeding $5 billion.

In fiscal 2010, Tyson Foods reported revenue of $28.43 billion. The company employs 115,000 worldwide and 24,448 in Arkansas. It was ranked 87th in the most recent Fortune 500 listing.

He continued to serve on the company’s board of directors after his retirement and kept an office in the executive wing of the headquarters in Springdale.

Born on April 21, 1930, in Olathe, Kan., to John W. and Mildred Tyson, Don Tyson grew up in Springdale, where the family moved in 1931.

He began working for his father at age 14, catching chickens and driving a truck for the company that transported poultry and produce from Northwest Arkansas to the urban centers of St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., and Chicago.

He joined the company full time in 1952, abandoning his studies at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to be the company’s general manager. In 1958, Don opened the company’s first poultry processing plant and became the first plant manager.

Recalling how his father held him to a budget was enough to bring tears to Don Tyson’s eyes in September 2008 at the 50th anniversary of Tyson Foods’ start in the poultry-processing industry.

John Tyson, founder of Tyson Feed and Hatchery Inc., refused to give his son more than the $75,000 investment needed to build the company’s first processing plant in Springdale.

“He said, ‘You told me you could build it for that,’” Tyson recalled at the 2008 lunch attended by 250 to celebrate the milestone. “So I had to go find two other guys to help me finish it.”

Those two other guys, Jerry Henshaw and Keith Elliott, invested the $15,000 that Don Tyson needed just to finish the building.

“There wasn’t enough money for extras,” Don Tyson said then. “There wasn’t any money for gravel on the parking lot or paint for the walls.”


Tyson was honored by the National Chicken Council as a “Pioneer of the Industry” in 2004 in recognition of his achievements, said Richard Lobb, the council’s director of communications.

“Don Tyson was a titan of the modern chicken industry,” the council stated Thursday in an e-mailed statement. “He was a pioneer in moving beyond commodity chicken to value-added products and in the development of new products and international markets.”

The USA Poultry & Egg Export Council called Tyson an industry icon. “Tyson is one of the brand names that says American chicken’ the world over,” the council’s e-mailed comment stated.

Paul Aho, principal of Connecticut-based consulting company Poultry Perspective, called Tyson a giant in the poultry industry who was a marketing genius.

“He’s the best-known poultry person on the planet,” Aho said Thursday. “He really knew how to add value to product innovation. He took boring old chicken and turned it into the thousands of chicken products we have now.”

Gene Simpson, agriculture economics professor at Auburn University in Alabama, said Tyson was on the leading edge of the vertically integrated poultry system. Vertically integrated companies own or exert great control over the entire process of producing animals for meat: the egg-laying breeder flocks, the hatcheries, the feed mills that supply the contract farmers who raise the company-owned broilers, and the processing and distribution of the finished products.

“He was one of the grandfathers of the industry, one of the men of vision. We just don’t have them anymore,” Simpson said. “He helped turn rural areas into productive economies for a lot of people.”

Industry competitors such as Cargill Inc. of Wichita, Kan., and Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. of Greeley, Colo., issued statements honoring Don Tyson as a visionary leader and calling his death a great loss.

Gov. Mike Beebe said Tyson helped put Arkansas on the world map for poultry and food production, and that Tyson constantly gave back to his community and to the state. He was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2000.

Richard Bell, Arkansas’ secretary of agriculture, said Tyson was also responsible, in a roundabout way, for bolstering the state’s soybean and rice industries. Soybeans are used in the feed manufactured for Tyson birds, and rice is a frequent ingredient in many of the chicken-based meals prepared in Tyson plants.

“Tyson changed the entire face of Arkansas agriculture in the world,” Bell said.

He also had a knack for building a good team, Bell said.

“He had a real talent for picking good people and then letting them do what they needed to do for the business,” Bell said. “It really is an amazing story.”


By the time the company, then called Tyson’s Foods Inc., went public in 1963, it had the skills to control the poultry process from hatchery to the packing plant. The company launched an “expand or expire” strategy to acquire 20 other poultry companies by 1989.

Don Tyson was named president of the company in 1966 and became the chief executive officer after John Tyson and his wife, Helen - Don Tyson’s stepmother - were killed in a car-train accident in Springdale.

Don Tyson pursued the acquisition strategy through the 1970s and ’80s. In 1989, Tyson Foods bought Holly Farms, which more than doubled the size of the company and made it the largest poultry producer in the country, according to a Tyson Foods statement Thursday.

Tyson stepped down as president in 1983, a role taken over by longtime Tyson executive Leland Tollett. Tyson continued as CEO until 1991, and as chairman of the board until 1995 when he retired. He was named senior chairman and became a consultant to the company.

In 1998, Tyson Foods bought Hudson Foods, its longtime Rogers-based rival. Tyson acquired an even bigger piece of the meat industry in 2001 with the purchase of meat giant IBP, making Tyson Foods not only the largest poultry producer but also the world’s largest beef processor and second largest pork processor with annual revenue of more than $24 billion.

Before he retired, Tyson worked with his attorneys to re-create the class system on outstanding Tyson shares, giving his exclusive Class B shares a 10-to-1 voting advantage over Class A common shares sold to the public. Tyson owns 70 million Class B shares, or 99.97 percent of all Class B stock, through the Tyson Limited Partnership. Because of this, Tyson’s family has retained nearly 70 percent voting power over Tyson Foods, according to the 2010 proxy statement.

The Tyson Limited Partnership will maintain effective control of Tyson Foods with management of the partnership in the hands of a small group of Tyson family members, former Tyson executives and trusted Tyson confidants, a company statement said Thursday.

Shares of Class A stock closed at $16.56 Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange, up 11 cents or 0.67 percent. It has traded between $12.58 and $20.57 in the past year.

Don Tyson’s son John Tyson said the company had a very successful year and has an outstanding board of directors and a strong leadership team to continue the success into the future.

“That is what my father worked for his whole life, and it’s what those of us still involved with the company intend to deliver,” John Tyson said in a company release Thursday.

Tyson’s personal wealth was estimated in 2005 by Fortune magazine at $1 billion when he last made the magazine’s 400 richest Americans list, ranking 346th. He first made the list in 1986 with a net worth of $275 million.

Tyson Foods’ rise to a giant in the meat industry didn’t come without conflict.

The company agreed to pay $6 million in fines and restitution in 1997 for giving more than $12,000 in gratuities to former Clinton administration Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy.

Don Tyson, then senior chairman of the company, pleaded guilty on behalf of Tyson Foods as part of a plea agreement that included a $4 million fine and $2 million in investigative expenses.

In 1998, Espy was acquitted of all charges of taking illegal gratuities in a federal corruption trial.

Some of the benefits and perks that Don Tyson enjoyed as a consultant to the company drew the attention and the sanction of the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2005.

The SEC charged that, in proxy statements filed with the commission from 1997 to 2003, Tyson Foods had made misleading disclosures of perquisites and personal benefits provided to Don Tyson before and after his retirement as senior chairman in October 2001. The SEC also charged the company with failing to maintain adequate internal controls over Tyson’s personal use of company assets. Tyson was separately charged with causing and aiding and abetting the company’s disclosure violations.

In a settlement agreement, the company agreed to pay a penalty of nearly $1.5 million, and Tyson agreed to pay a $700,000 penalty. Both parties agreed to cease the offending actions.


Warren Stephens, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Little Rock-based Stephens Inc., said Don Tyson and his company were more than just clients to his firm.

“Our families have enjoyed a close friendship spanning 50 years and three generations,” Stephens said in an e-mailed statement. “We lost a great friend today and we extend our sympathy to his family and Tyson associates.”

Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, Clinton’s former chief of staff, said, “To say Don lived a full life would be an understatement. He was one of a kind and a singular force in business, politics and philanthropy.”

Don was known to work hard and play hard, according to a Tyson Foods statement.He was a world-renowned fisherman and founded the Billfish Foundation that promotes the catch and release of marlin and other billfish. He was a longtime member and benefactor of the International Game Fish Association, a group that tracks and certifies world records for fishing.

He was famous the world over for his “No Bad Days” outlook on life and credited lessons he learned as a high school member of the Future Farmers of America, now the National FFA Organization, as the foundation for his company’s leadership principles.

FFA representatives were among the more than 50 people present in September 2008 at the presentation of former Tyson executive Paul Whitley’s book featuring Tyson and other company executives.

Whitley wrote I Refuse to Have a Bad Day so that the leadership principles of Tyson and others in the company could become better known, he said after the presentation at the Tyson Foods world headquarters in Springdale.

The title is one of Tyson’s favorite sayings, Whitley said.

When Whitley asked about writing the book, Tyson was agreeable but cautious.

“I told him, ‘Let me read it before you write it,’” Tyson said after the presentation.

Tyson later presented two copies of the book to every chapter of FFA. The 20 students at the presentation - 10 each from Springdale High and Springdale’s Har-Ber High schools - received individual copies that they didn’t hesitate to ask the author and Tyson to autograph.

Auburn professor Simpson said that, although he never met Don Tyson personally, Tyson’s philosophy of “No Bad Days” has had a profound influence on him.

“I first heard it years ago on a video conference where Tyson talked about it. That to me was an inspiration and I reflect on it almost every day,” Simpson said. “Instead of asking how a bad day could get worse, I think about how it could get better and what I can do to make it so.”

The FFA and other student organizations such as 4-H were important to Tyson, said Mike Kidd, director of the Center of Excellence for Poultry Science at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

Tyson supported the center not just with money, but with his time and interest, Kidd said.

“He was always up here. He participated in our activities and he knew all the faculty. He was always a strong supporter of students in general and all aspects of education and youth,” Kidd said Thursday.

Tyson also created and led the Tyson Family Foundation, which among other things provides scholarships for postsecondary students from communities where Tyson Foods has operations. He has been a well-known philanthropist in Arkansas and elsewhere, supporting countless causes, primarily in the fields of education, conservation and the arts.



Tyson, 14, starts in the poultry industry as a chicken catcher and truck driver at Tyson’s Feed and Hatchery, a company started by his father John W. Tyson.


Tyson leaves his agricultural studies at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to join his father’s company as a general manager.


The company opens its first poultry processing plant in Springdale with Tyson serving as plant manager.


The company goes public and changes its name to Tyson’s Foods Inc. Tyson makes its first significant acquisition, buying Garrett Poultry Company in Rogers.


The company’s expand-or-expire strategy begins with 19 acquisitions between 1966 and 1989.


John W. Tyson and Don Tyson’s stepmother Helen Tyson are killed when a train strikes their car in Springdale. Don Tyson is named president of Tyson’s Foods and to its board of directors.


With broiler sales reaching 72 million, Tyson’s Foods joins Fortune magazine’s list of America’s 1,000 largest companies, ranked at 903.


Tyson acquires Krispy Kitchens of Bentonville and Ocoma Foods, with plants in Tennessee and Arkansas, doubling the size of the company. Tyson’s Foods changes its name to Tyson Foods Inc.


Tyson Foods purchases hog-production facilities in North Carolina, and by the end of the decade is the nation’s largest hog producer.


Tyson Foods implements a 4-for-1 stock split.


Tyson Foods debuts on the Fortune 500 chart.


Leland Tollett, longtime Tyson executive, is named president of the company. Company initiates a 2-for-1 stock split.


Tyson Foods tops $1 billion in sales.


Tyson Foods splits its stock again, this time 5-for-2.


With shareholder approval, Tyson Foods reincorporates to Delaware from Arkansas. The new corporation has two types of stock, Class A and Class B.


Tyson becomes the nation’s top poultry producer. Don Tyson debuts on Forbes magazine’s 400 richest Americans, with a net worth of $275 million.


Stock split 3-for-2.


Tyson buys Holly Farms, the nation’s third-largest poultry firm, doubling in size and bringing the company’s total employees to 48,000 and sales to $2.5 billion.


Don Tyson retires from daily operations. He stays on as chairman of the board.


Tyson Foods is shipping products to 54 countries abroad.


Don Tyson becomes senior chairman of the board of Tyson Foods.


Tyson Foods pleads guilty for illegally giving gifts and favors to former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. The company was sentenced to pay $4 million in fines and another $2 million to help pay investigation costs. Don Tyson pleaded guilty on behalf of the company.


Stock split 3-for-2.


Tyson purchases longtime competitor Hudson Foods.

John Tyson, son of Don Tyson, becomes chairman of the board.


Tyson becomes the world’s largest processor and marketer of not only poultry, but also red meat, with the acquisition of beef and pork powerhouse IBP Inc. Don Tyson retires as senior chairman but maintains a seat on the board of directors.


Don Tyson is ordered by the Securities and Exchange Commission to pay $700,000 and the company is ordered to pay $1.5 million for misleading disclosures of perquisites and personal benefits provided to Don Tyson both prior to and after his retirement as senior chairman in October 2001. Tyson Foods named Most Admired Company in Food Production by Fortune magazine.


Don Tyson recovers after a visit to the Mayo Clinic at Rochester, Minn., to remove a tumor from his liver.


Don Tyson, 80, dies in his Springdale home after a short illness.

SOURCES: Tyson Foods Fact Book and corporate website; Forbes magazine; and Tyson from Farm to Market by Marvin Schwartz.

Don Tyson Born April 21, 1930, in Olathe, Kan., the son of John W. and Mildred Tyson. John W. Tyson was founder of the company that would become Tyson Foods Inc.

Don Tyson attended Springdale Public Schools, Kemper Military Academy in Booneville, Mo., and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he studied agriculture and business. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by the UA in May 2010.

He had four children: son John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods Inc., and three daughters, Carla Tyson, Cheryl Tyson and Joslyn J. Caldwell Tyson.

In 2005, Don Tyson was ranked 364th on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans. His net worth was listed at $1 billion.

He first made the list in 1986.

Information for this article was contributed by Alex Daniels, Bill Bowden and David Smith of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and former Democrat-Gazette writer David Irvin.

Thoughts about Don Tyson can be sent to [email protected].

Front Section, Pages 1 on 01/07/2011

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