UA Business Hall of Fame 2015: Donald E. “Buddy” Wray

UA Business Hall of Fame 2015: Donald E. “Buddy” Wray
Buddy Wray

Donald E. “Buddy” Wray
Retired President and COO, Tyson Foods Inc.

It was 1961, the year Yuri Gagarin would become the first person to orbit the Earth. In northwest Arkansas, Buddy Wray was setting out on a voyage of discovery all his own.

After serving in the U.S. military, Donald “Buddy” Wray was back in Fayetteville where he had earned a bachelor of science degree in animal husbandry from the University of Arkansas in 1959. He had completed one semester of graduate school when he got a call from Tyson to see if he wanted to work for the company. Since he was between semesters, Wray decided to give it a try. It turned out to be quite a try.

He started as a field service technician in 1961, beginning a career that lasted until February 2014 and saw Wray involved in an innovative transformation of the food industry in America.

In 1961, the poultry industry was — as Wray puts it — “in its younger days.” His job was to call on individual growers to help them and explain the best way to grow healthy chickens.

Wray also was expected to enlist new farmers to grow poultry for Tyson. He would drive the dusty roads of northwest Arkansas, spot a likely homestead and go up and knock on the door. He stopped at every place that looked like they might be interested.

In 1963, Tyson acquired a poultry company in Rogers. The manager of that plant retired and Wray was enlisted to become plant manager — which also meant being the sales manager.

In those days, processed chickens were sold whole on ice. Cut-up chicken parts were just beginning to be introduced and deboned chicken meat was still in Tyson’s future. Whole, butchered chickens on ice do not last long, so there was pressure on the sales manager — Wray — to move product every day.

In early 1965, Wray moved to Tyson’s first Springdale processing plant and began managing both plants. He was still sales manager too.

As the business grew, Wray was an integral part of expanding it into cut chicken parts, deboned chicken meat and one of Tyson’s early expansions into the Cornish game hen business. That was the beginning of Tyson’s sales and marketing as we understand it today.

Tyson made other acquisitions and Wray was put in charge of processing, sales and marketing and was made chief operating officer in 1992. President was added to his titles in 1993. He held those positions until retiring in 2000. He served on the Tyson board of directors from 1994 to 2003.

In his career, Wray worked closely with Leland Tollett and Don Tyson, all under the watchful eye of Don’s father John until he was killed in a car crash in 1967. Wray says Don was always the one pushing for moving as fast as possible, with John Tyson often urging a more conservative path.

Wray says he was fortunate to go to work at a small, growing company and that he was somewhat lucky he was in the right place at the right time with the right product.

During Wray’s and Tollett’s years working together with Don Tyson, they grew Tyson Foods into the global company it is today. Through Wray’s and Tollett’s joint leadership, the company created thousands of jobs and became a worldwide leader in poultry production and processing.

In 2008, Don Tyson called Tollett and Wray, asking both of them to return to work. Wray stayed with the company until his second retirement in 2014.

One of the major innovations during Wray’s tenure was precooked chicken products, ones that were nutritious yet easier and quicker to fix.

The first product was a chicken patty called Ozark Fry, introduced in 1976. The fast food business wanted a handheld product, so, working with customers, the company came up with the chicken nugget.

Wray grew up in Des Arc, in Prairie County. He says that for years his only hobby was working, but he does enjoy hunting quail, pheasant and duck. He is an avid Razorbacks fan in just about all sports, but especially football, basketball and baseball.

He and his wife Linda were married in 1966. He has been honored many times over the years. He was the University of Arkansas Distinguished Alumni of the Year in 2000, the Poultry Federation Man of the Year in 1999 and was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2012, the same year he was recognized as the Distinguished Golden Mulerider by Southern Arkansas University.

The Donald “Buddy” Wray Chair in Food Safety was established in the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences in 2004. He was a Quality of Life honoree by Northwest Arkansas Community College in 2014.

He serves on the boards of the Jones Trust and Arvest Bank and is a former member of the boards of the Endeavor Foundation and the Care Foundation in Springdale.

Wray formerly served on the Dean’s Executive Advisory Board at the Sam M. Walton College of Business and on the National Chicken Council and the Arkansas Poultry Federation. He also is a past director of IFMA, the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association.

He is a member of the American Studies Institute National Advisory Board at Harding University and a former member of the Board of Trustees of the College of the Ozarks in Missouri. He serves as a deacon and elder of the Robinson Avenue Church of Christ in Springdale.

He and Linda have three children: Scott Wray who is an attorney in Fayetteville,

Jana Morrison who lives in Indiana and Cynthia Spain who lives in Virginia. They have eight grandchildren.