Posted 1/27/2014 12:00 am
Updated 8 months ago
Mark C. Simmons has never been one to shy away from a daunting task. Whether taking over the family company when only in his 20s, overseeing one of the nation’s largest privately held broiler processing companies and the largest private label pet food company during economic turmoil or working to keep northwest Arkansas growing while protecting its natural beauty, Simmons accepted the challenge.
Maybe it has something to do with having your name on the sign in front of the building where you go to work every day. A sign seen by the people who come to work there, by suppliers who come to do business and by the people of your community who drive by on their way to work or to school. Simmons knows what that means and the responsibility that comes with it.
Simmons was born Oct. 2, 1946, in Holdrege, Neb., where his father, M.H. — known to everyone as Bill — worked as the manager of a meat packing plant and his mother made a home for Mark and his three sisters. In 1949, Simmons’ father and food distributor Frank Pluss opened Pluss Poultry in Decatur. The Simmons moved to Siloam Springs, about 15 miles away. When the opportunity arose to grow by building a processing plant in Siloam Springs, Bill Simmons jumped at it. A few years later, he bought out his partner and dropped the “s” from the end of Pluss, creating Plus Poultry.
Mark grew up in that business, experiencing many of its production jobs as he worked through high school and into college. Simmons graduated from Siloam Springs High School in 1964 and headed to Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas. He studied business, minoring in agribusiness. While at the university he met Diane Dean and they were married between their junior and senior years.
In 1969, Simmons received his bachelor’s degree in business administration and joined the family business. Simmons worked alongside his father, helping the poultry business to expand into new areas. In 1974, when Mark was 27, his father passed away and he found himself the leader of the company.
It was a crossroads for Simmons. Selling the company crossed his mind but that thought passed quickly. Instead, he changed the name of the company to Simmons Foods, Inc. and began expanding and innovating in the spirit of his father. He was named president of the company and appointed chairman of the board in 1987.
Under his guidance, Simmons Foods has grown to include processing, packaging and distribution of chicken for food service and retail sales and has expanded the company’s pet food products and feed ingredients. He constantly leads the business into new areas as the industry and the economy changes and evolves.
Simmons Foods is now one of the nation’s largest privately held broiler processing companies and the largest private-label pet food manufacturer in North America. The company has grown from one plant with less than $24 million in sales and 350 workers in 1974 to approximately $1.4 billion in sales and nearly 6,000 team members in more than 20 facilities in North America.
Simmons also is a leader in the poultry industry nationally, having served as a board member, chairman, vice-chairman and secretary-treasurer of the National Chicken Council. On the state level, he has served as the chairman of the board of directors of the Arkansas Poultry Federation and as president of the Poultry Processors. In 1990, Simmons was recognized as the Arkansas Poultry Federation’s Man of the Year. In 2009, he was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for agribusiness in the Southwest area-North. He also is a past director of the Poultry and Egg Institute of America.
Simmons’ full-time job is chairman of Simmons Foods, but people say he has another — as a supporter of Siloam Springs and an advocate for northwest Arkansas. He has employed his business savvy and his calm demeanor to help guide the region as it has experienced an unprecedented period of growth. He has spent countless hours serving on boards and committees in Arkansas, a commitment to seeing the state thrive in education, economy, environment and culture.
Simmons was one of the original members of the Northwest Arkansas Council, formed to face some of the challenges posed by the economic boom in the region. He served as treasurer and chair of the strategic planning initiative and is the current presiding co-chair. He also was chosen as the chairperson to lead the process to bring the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport to the area.
Simmons is keenly interested in working to improve higher education in Arkansas, serving 27 years on the board of John Brown University. He is a 20-year board member for the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation. He received the Outstanding Civic Leadership Award from the Siloam Springs Chamber of Commerce in 2011.
Among other offices held, Simmons is a past member of the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and a past director of the Arkansas State Council on Economic Education. Simmons has supported education efforts to allow Siloam students to attend the Ozark Natural Science Center in Huntsville, and to fund scholarships at Siloam Springs High School, the University of Arkansas and John Brown University. In 1979, Simmons founded his company’s M.H. “Bill” Simmons Memorial Scholarship Program for children of Simmons employees and growers, which help 25-40 students a year attend college or vocational-technical schools.
Simmons is an avid outdoorsman with a passion for the rivers and streams of northwest Arkansas. He has been a board member of the Illinois River Watershed Partnership since its inception. He has been a board member and officer of The Nature Conservancy for seven years. He supported The Nature Conservancy’s development of many of its Arkansas programs including water resources policy, the Kings River Preserve and the Big Woods Project and he is instrumental in the conservancy’s involvement in ongoing Illinois River stream restoration work. In 2011, Simmons received the Golden Paddle Award in Agriculture from the Illinois River Watershed Partnership.
Family, of course, has always been at the forefront for Simmons and Diane. The couple’s son Todd graduated from Georgetown University and lives with his wife Shelley in Siloam Springs.
Like his dad, Todd Simmons worked in the family business during summers while he was in school. Upon graduation from college, Todd took a sales position with the company and now has taken over from his father as CEO of Simmons Foods, Inc. He and Shelley have two children: Caroline and Charlie.
Simmons’ daughter Sarah lives in Connecticut with her children Asher and Sadie. Sarah is actively involved in the family business as well as serving on the advisory board of Simmons.
Simmons had to develop leadership skills early to continue the success of the family business and make it grow to new heights. He continues to share those leadership lessons with his family, his community, his industry and his region.