'He Did It His Way' (Editorial)

by Arkansas Business Editors  on Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 12:00 am  

An era inArkansas business is passing before our eyes. With the death last week of Don Tyson, only three of the first 17 business titans inducted in the University of Arkansas' 12-year-old Business Hall of Fame are left.

Tyson was 80, but his death still came as a surprise. The cancer that took him was described as "a brief illness," and for that we can be grateful. Still, it is hard to believe that the man whose work-hard, play-hard approach to life was referenced even in an official company obituary can really be gone.

Don Tyson didn't start Tyson Foods Inc. It was already a publicly traded company when his father, company founder John W. Tyson, and stepmother were killed in a car wreck in 1967. But Don Tyson built Tyson Foods into the largest manufacturer in Arkansas and made it a household name throughout the country. (Who can forget the thinly veiled "Tyler Chicken" episode of "Seinfeld"?)

"From the beginning of his leadership of his company, he saw the future of the industry and worked to make his vision a reality. He was a pioneer in moving beyond commodity chicken to value-added products and in the development of new products and international markets," the National Chicken Council said in a statement following the news of Tyson's death. "Don Tyson was a key figure in transforming the industry into the powerhouse it is today."

Many of the prominent people who marked his death last week made comments similar to Sen. Mark Pryor, who said, "Don never forgot where he came from, including the hard work and principles that made him a business legend."

For photos, including the one on this page taken for the "25 Living Legends" feature in Arkansas Business' 25th anniversary issue in early 2009, Tyson preferred to pose in company khakis, "Don" embroidered in red on his breast pocket. And he was as approachable as the uniform made him appear.

"He treated everybody with dignity," his friend Thomas Schueck of Little Rock said.

But Tyson was a man who enjoyed his billion-dollar family fortune, indulging his passion for fishing and what former President Bill Clinton called "his insatiable hunger to learn and experience new things."

Tyson "believed that everybody should have a good time," Schueck said. "And one philosophy that he always shared with me was there was no time to have a bad time."

Last month, Footnoted.com, a watchdog website that trolls Securities & Exchange Commission filings, named Tyson Food's official explanation of perks provided to Don Tyson, particularly his use of corporate aircraft, as "the worst footnote of 2010."

Would Don Tyson be bothered by such notice? Doubtful. As Clinton — himself a beneficiary and political victim of Tyson largesse — noted in an official statement, Tyson possessed a "fearless determination to prevail in every endeavor on his own terms."

"From the first time I met him in 1974 until our last talk a few months ago, I was captivated by his keen insight, straight talk and raw energy. I'll miss him. He did it his way," Clinton concluded.



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