Larger Than Life Legacy

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Like all obits, his began in the customary fashion: “Don Tyson, who led Tyson Foods to become one of the world’s largest food processing companies, died early this (Thursday) morning at the age of 80 after a brief illness that reportedly was cancer. Donald John Tyson was the son of company founder John W. Tyson and Mildred Tyson, and in 1952 began helping his father grow the Tyson Feed and Hatchery business based in Springdale, Ark.”

The rest, as they say, is now history.

That capsule summary, though accurate, hardly captures the scope of both a business career and a life story that is unique to the American food industry.

Born in Arkansas in 1930, Don Tyson started his poultry industry career at age 14, when his father drafted him into the family business as a chicken catcher and truck driver. He attended Kemper Military School in Boonville, Mo., and the University of Arkansas, but left school in 1952 to join his father in expanding the business. The company opened its first poultry processing plant in 1958 in Springdale, with Tyson as the firm’s original plant manager.

That may seem but a banal detail in a long career, but truth is, few if any CEOs these days actually get started driving trucks or sweeping floors in a plant somewhere. Today, they’re far more likely to spend their adolescence at some well-connected prep school and later the “right” business college at a prestigious university. Don Tyson is one of the last generation of business leaders who actually learned the business from the ground up, and trust me: “chicken catching” ain’t nearly as easy as it might sound.

Tyson was named president of the company in 1966 and led the firm through a period of major expansion via acquisition. Renamed Tyson Foods in 1971, the company entered the hog production business the following year and became quickly America’s largest hog producer. Tyson Foods became the nation’s No. 1 poultry processor in 1986, a position it cemented with the 1989 acquisition of rival poultry processor Holly Farms. In 2001, Tyson Foods pulled off the ultimate coup, acquiring the No. 1 red meatpacker IBP Inc, in a nearly $5 billion deal that tripled company’s annual sales to more than $24 billion a year and made Tyson the world’s leading poultry, beef and pork producer.

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