Don Tyson, who helped build his namesake family business from an Arkansas chicken hatchery into the country’s largest meat processor, died earlier today following a brief illness, the company said. He was 80.

“An era has passed,” John Tyson, Don’s son and the chairman of Tyson Foods Inc., said in a statement today. Don Tyson “was a true visionary who led Tyson Foods from a small regional chicken company to a multi-billion dollar food processing enterprise,” John Tyson said. “He will be missed by everyone who knew him.”

Born April 21, 1930 in Olathe, Kan., Don Tyson and his family moved to Springdale, Ark., the following year to expand a business hauling produce to Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago. The family soon expanded into poultry, supplying feed and baby chicks to local farmers, then built its first chicken processing plant in 1958.

Don Tyson was named chief executive officer in 1967 after the death of his parents in an automobile accident. By the end of the 1980s, following a series of acquisitions, Tyson Foods was the largest U.S. poultry producer. In 2001, the company expanded into beef and pork processing, paying $3.2 billion for IBP, Inc.

Tyson Foods now controls about 21 percent of U.S. cattle slaughter capacity and 18 percent of hog capacity, according to industry estimates.

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

Christine McCracken, an agribusiness analyst with Cleveland Research Co., said Don Tyson was “instrumental” in the meat industry’s shift toward a “multi-protein model,” as traditional chicken producers diversified into beef and pork.

“He forged a path into new areas,” McCracken said. “He was an amazingly dedicated contributor to the company and never stepped away from that.”

The two largest U.S. chicken producers, Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., are also among the biggest beef and pork processors, McCracken noted. Pilgrim’s Pride is controlled by JBS S.A., a Brazil-based beef and pork company.

For Tyson Foods, beef and pork “gives them an offset when chicken fundamentals soften,” McCracken said. During Tyson’s most-recent quarter, the company posted net income of $213 million as sales rose 3.2 percent, to $7.44 billion.

Tyson Foods was also among the first meat companies to “vertically integrate,” meaning they controlled most of the production process through ownership of hatcheries, feed mills and processing plants. Others have adopted similar structures, including Smithfield Foods Inc., the largest U.S. pork producer.

As it grew, Tyson Foods faced increasing criticism and regulatory scrutiny. Some argued that industry consolidation gave large meatpackers too much influence over animal prices, hurting competition at the expense of smaller livestock producers.

In December 2001, the U.S. Justice Department charged Tyson Foods and six company managers with conspiring to smuggle illegal immigrants across the border with Mexico to work in the company’s slaughter plants. In March 2003, a federal jury acquitted Tyson of having knowingly hired illegal immigrants.

Don Tyson stepped down as CEO in 1991, though he remained chairman until 1995 and was on the company’s board of directors until his death. In addition to his son John, Tyson Foods’ CEO from 2000 to 2006, he is survived by three daughters.

The Tyson family will retain control of the company through a limited partnership that holds about 70 percent of the voting shares, Tyson Foods said in a statement today.

By Bruce Blythe, Business Editor, Vance Publishing