Don Tyson of Tyson Foods dies at 80

Donald J. Tyson, the entrepreneur who built his family’s regional poultry business, Tyson Foods Inc., into one of the world’s largest poultry, beef and pork suppliers, died Thursday after a battle with cancer. He was 80.

The former chairman of the board and chief executive of Tyson Foods, Tyson was considered a pioneer in the retail and foodservice businesses, working closely with such giant restaurant brands as KFC and McDonald’s.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said 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.”

Tyson, who joined the Springdale, Ark.-based company in 1952, is the son of company founder John W. Tyson and father of current chairman John H. Tyson. He was named chief executive in 1967 and held that post until 1995. During his tenure as head of the company, he was responsible for a number acquisitions — including Holly Farms in 1989 — that more than doubled the size of the company, making it the biggest U.S. poultry producer, according to the company.

When he stepped away from day-to-day operations in 1995, the company sold 6,000 products in 57 countries and generated sales of $5.2 billion. It ranked 110th on Fortune magazine’s list of the 500 biggest companies.

In an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News in 1995, Tyson said: “What we do is anticipate a need and then try to fill that need. We make whatever our customer wants.”

For the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2010, Tyson had sales of $28.4 billion and net income of $780 million.

George Watts, president of the National Chicken Council, called Tyson “a titan of the modern chicken industry. He was a pioneer in moving beyond commodity chicken to value-added products and in the development of new products and international markets.”

The NCC named him a “Pioneer of the Industry” in 2004.

Born April 21, 1930, in Olathe, Kan., Tyson grew up on a farm. He entered his family business in 1952 after leaving the University of Arkansas in his senior year. When both of his parents died in a car-train accident in 1967, Tyson took over the business, becoming president in 1966 and chairman in 1967.

During that time Tyson often dressed for work like his employees in khaki pants and a matching shirt with his first name sewn on. “In our business,” he told NRN, “if you were sitting around in a suit and tie, you wouldn’t go out to a chicken plant or chicken farm. It lets you have access to all parts of the business.”

Tyson oversaw the company’s daily operations until 1995 but remained chairman when Leland Tollett was named Tyson’s chief executive. He retired as senior chairman in 2001.

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., said: “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 businessman. He was a good man. For that, he will be greatly missed.”

Contact Paul Frumkin at [email protected]