Don Tyson, who built largest U.S. meat company, dies at 80

By Jim Webster

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Washington, Jan. 6 - Don Tyson, revered and reviled for building first the largest integrated chicken processor and then the largest combined meat and poultry operation in the U.S., died of cancer Thursday. He was 80. Along with Lonnie (Bo) Pilgrim and the late Frank Perdue, he revolutionized the chicken industry as it evolved to its integrated model through the last half of the 20th Century.

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Tyson also was a political force in Arkansas and nationally, with a key role in the 1976 election campaign of former President Jimmy Carter. But his relationship with former Arkansas Gov. and former President Bill Clinton became strained. His company's gifts to former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy were partly behind Espy's resignation during the Clinton Administration.

Tyson joined his father's feed and hatchery company in Springdale, Ark., in 1952 and supervised construction of and managed its first chicken processing plant in 1958. He led the acquisition of nearby poultry operations and took the company public in 1963, raising capital for a growth spurt through the 1980s. Acquisition of Val-Mac, Lane Poultry and Holly Farms in 1989 more than doubled the size of the company and made it the largest U.S. poultry producer.

After relinquishing the titles of CEO to his protégé Leland Tollett and chairman to his son John, the company bought Hudson Foods in 1998 after what was then the largest tainted hamburger recall in history at Hudson's plant in Nebraska. He took over IBP, the largest beef processor, in 2001. The sum of the acquisitions made Tyson the world's largest poultry and beef processor and second largest pork processor with sales more than $24 billion. It is now second to Brazil's JBS.

Tributes were many and swift. “Don was known by all to work hard, but also to play hard,” said Tyson CEO Donnie Smith, who noted that he was a legendary ocean fisherman. (At times he had second homes in the Caribbean and Baja California to indulge the passion). “Don Tyson was a business giant who helped put Arkansas on the world map for poultry and food production,” said Gov. Mike Beebe. National Chicken Council President George Watts called him “a titan of the modern chicken industry” and “a pioneer in moving beyond commodity chicken to value-added products and in the development of new products and international markets.”

Tyson's success also generated strong criticism from “animal rights” crusaders, critics of the industry's grower contract practices (which were the genesis of USDA's proposed new marketing regulations) and environmental advocates. The company frequently defended, and nearly always prevailed against, suits by poultry and livestock growers who claimed price manipulation and unfair practices.

The family plans to hold a private service Saturday in Springdale and a public memorial later. Pallbearers will be his son John, grandson John Randal Tyson and long-time contemporaries Leland Tollett, Donald (Buddy) Wray, Jim Blair, Greg Mohney, Ned Tabor and Fred Cameron.

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