Donald Tyson: A Family Food Empire That Started With Chicken

Donald Tyson
Donald Tyson

Donald J. Tyson, former president and CEO of Tyson foods, died on Thursday from complications related to cancer. He was 80.

Known for his simple demeanor and unassuming clothing, Tyson's outward appearance belied a brutal, take-no-prisoners approach to business. In his 43 years at Tyson Foods, he transformed the company from a small chicken companyto the world's largest poultry producer. Along the way, he changed the way that America -- and the world -- eats.

Tyson's father, John W. Tyson, started out with little more than a trucking business: He basically carried chickens from farmers to markets. Before long, however, he began expanding, building hatcheries, growing houses and feed mills. In 1952, as the business continued to grow, Don Tyson, then a senior at the University of Arkansas, left school to help with the new venture. He never returned.

Five years later, the Tysons built their first processing plant and started buying up competitors, a process that the company would continue under Don Tyson's leadership. Its most famous purchase was probably the 1989 buyout of Holly Farms, which made it the largest poultry producer in the world. However, between 1967, when he became CEO after his parents were killed in a train wreck, and 1995, when he stepped down to become "Senior Chairman," Tyson swallowed up dozens of other food companies.

Innovations on the Plate

While absorbing competitors helped make Tyson's fortune, he also was a major innovator. There is some question over his company's role in creating Rock Cornish Game Hens, but there is no dispute over the massive profits that Tyson Foods derived from the adolescent birds. Developed at roughly the same time that Tyson began its first massive expansion, the popular fowl are basically five- to six-week-old chickens, and are neither Cornish nor game nor necessarily hens. However, they are quick to mature, can be sold at inflated prices and look good on a plate, three things that spelled profit for the young company.

While the Cornish game hen might have been Tyson's most dramatic development, the company's constant struggle to simplify food production drove sales throughout Don Tyson's tenure. In the early 1980s when McDonald's launched McNuggets, Tyson was tasked with actually producing the pressed-together little chunks of chicken and phosphate salts. In fact, the company developed a new chicken breed -- dubbed "Mr. McDonald" -- that it used in the morsels. Ultimately, Tyson became the primary chicken supplier for most fast food restaurants.

Tyson's innovations also found their way into America's homes. Banking on the idea that increasing consumer convenience would also increase sales, the company launched a vast array of processed chicken products, from precooked chicken strips to breaded chicken pieces. In the 1990s, Tyson even experimented with "gizzard burgers," sandwich patties composed of chicken gizzards and ground beef. However, after a test run in an Arkansas prison nearly led to an inmate revolt, the idea was scrapped. Looking back on it years later, Tyson joked "You know, you could almost eat those gizzard burgers."

A Bold and Brave Tenure

In his 28 years of running the company, Don Tyson often found himself skating on the fine edge of illegality. In the 1990s, he raised eyebrows by advising Hillary Clinton on her cattle investments and donating $29,000 donation to Bill Clinton's election fund. Once the Clintons got into the White House, however, Tyson really got in trouble for his disturbingly close relationship with Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, the Cabinet member with the most regulatory power over his company. In addition to giving Espy free plane rides, hotel rooms and football tickets, he also contributed $60,000 to help pay off the campaign debt of Espy's brother Henry, who launched an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. The resulting scandal led to Espy's resignation and a $6 million fine for Tyson.

Tyson also had a problem with differentiating between his personal finances and those of his company. In 2005, the SEC fined him $700,000 for using company funds for personal use, including purchases of jewelry, vacation homes and a horse. Later, the company paid $1.5 million to deal with an investigation into its questionable accounting practices.

Even beyond its more public crimes, Tyson Foods has often been criticized, and even investigated, for environmental abuses, cruelty to animals and worker discrimination. In 2005, it was even charged with smuggling illegal immigrants into the country to work on its line. Ultimately, the company and its employees were acquitted.

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Through it all, Don Tyson remained a hard-driving, Hemingwayesque presence, noted for his intensity both inside and outside of the boardroom. When he stepped down from the company in 1995, it ranked 110th on Fortune magazine's list of America's top companies, and brought in more than $5.2 billion in yearly sales. It shipped 6,000 products to 57 countries, and slaughtered 29 million chickens per week.

And Tyson's retirement only increased the Hemingway comparisons, as he spent an estimated two weeks per month on his 62-foot yacht, reeling in oversize marlin, which he would later have mounted and hung in the company's various offices.

Tyson is survived by his four children and two grandchildren. His son, John Tyson, was CEO of the company until 2006 and is currently its chairman.