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Tyson’s bare-knuckles businessman

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in Leaders & Managers

Donald J. Tyson was an entrepreneur with a vision when he dropped out of college and built his father’s Arkansas chicken business into one of the world’s largest producers of poultry, beef and pork. Shrewd and folksy, he was often likened to fellow Arkansans Sam Walton and former President Bill Clinton.

But his risk-taking style often led him to the limits of the law—or just beyond.

Where he got it right:

He kept in touch with his roots. Tyson’s down-home billionaire persona gave him credibility with employees.

He dressed in the khaki uniforms of his workers, with “Don” and the Tyson logo stitched over the shirt pockets. He looked like a farmer down at the feed co-op: a stocky man with a paunch, weather-beaten face and a gray chin-strap beard.

He relentlessly sought out lucrative niches. His “grow or die” philosophy helped him spot potential markets, such as Chicken McNuggets. And it led to many acquisitions, notably the bitterly contested purchase of Holly Farms for $1.5 billion in 1989, which made Tyson’s the No. 1 poultry producer.

Where he slipped:

He allowed his tigerish corporate philosophy to lead him to questionable business practices. Tyson and his son were accused of helping to arrange illegal gifts to President Clinton’s secretary of agriculture. Tyson Foods eventually pleaded guilty to the charges, paying $6 million in fines and costs. And he came under fire from environmentalists, animal-rights groups and regulators.

Overall, though, his story reflects the steady climb of a bare-knuckles businessman. When Tyson surrendered day-to-day control of the company in 1995, after running it for 30 years, it ranked 110th on the Fortune 500 list, with sales of $5.2 billion.

— Adapted from “Donald J. Tyson, Food Tycoon, Is Dead at 80,” Robert D. McFadden, The New York Times.

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