Tyson Foods Legacy Forged On Tough Times, Risk Taking

by George Waldon  on Monday, Jan. 31, 2011 12:00 am  

Fifty years ago, a small poultry company in northwest Arkansas was riding out an especially rough market along with its peers across the nation.

Broiler prices were insufficient to cover production prices for 34 straight weeks during 1961. Tyson's Feed & Hatchery Inc. of Springdale was feeling the financial pinch as it burned through reserves.

Adding to the strain was the overhead associated with its one and only processing plant, which had opened in 1958.

The Springdale facility had been developed at the urging of Don Tyson, eldest son of company founder John W. Tyson. The plant, a one-shift operation capable of processing 120,000 chickens weekly, started up under a cloud of controversy.

Originally budgeted at $75,000, construction costs rose to $90,000. John Tyson wasn't happy, and it wouldn't be the last time someone questioned how Don Tyson spent money.

But his savvy, risk-taking ways shaped what became today's Tyson Foods Inc., an international leader with total revenue topping $28 billion that employs 117,000 at more than 300 facilities around the world.

Don Tyson's overshadowing leadership remained ever-present, even at the end when his official role with the company was noted simply: consultant.

His influence on corporate affairs was a constant for more than half a century, through his succession as chairman and CEO after his father's death in 1967 to his 2001 retirement and until his own death on Jan. 6.

"Tyson Foods was one of the first fully integrated folks in the business, and Don pursued the concept to the hilt," said Haskell E. Jackson, who worked for the company from 1960 to 1978.

Development of the first processing plant established the company as a vertically integrated poultry firm, handling chickens from egg to market.

But 50 years ago, Tyson Foods was just another small company trying to make its way in a developing industry. The tough times of the early 1960s served as a crucible in the company's formation.

"It really, really took us down and drove us to the first long-term debt position," Jackson said. "That money vanished like water in the desert, and we needed more capital."



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