Tyson Plants Reflect 'Most Admired' Reputation

Tyson's heritage remains in evidence despite super-sized growth.

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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Digital Editor's Note: This article is one of three segments of Food Processing's December cover story on its "Processor of the Year," Tyson Foods. Click here to read the feature on the mega-processor's business philosophy and operations; click here to access the article on Tyson's R&D facility.

America has a soft spot for entrepreneurs and family operations. But make no mistake: The reputation of Tyson Foods Inc. goes far deeper than a sentimental nod to the passage of three generations of leadership from father to son.

With annual sales now exceeding $26 billion, the strength of this family-owned business (the Tyson family retains 37 percent of the public shares and 90 percent of the voting power) is that it functions as one giant family, 114,000 strong.

Twice in the past three years, Tyson has topped the Fortune magazine list of "America's Most Admired Companies." The Fortune report cites eight criteria for which the company has exceeded all expectations. But the reasons for the widespread business world admiration for Tyson can really be boiled down to one: Boy, do these guys know how to run a business.

Nowhere is Tyson's savvy more evident than in the operations of its 300-plus facilities in 26 states and 20 nations. With the acquisition of IBP Inc. (formerly Iowa Beef Processors) four years ago, Tyson, the world's largest processor of poultry, acquired the world's largest supplier of premium beef (and No. 2 in pork products). An amazing protein powerhouse emerged.

Both companies carried reputations for running efficient and productive plants in disciplined, strategic, uncompromising fashion. And nothing today seems to have been lost in the mix.

John Tyson chatted with some team members during a recent visit to the Pasco, Wash., plant, which processes beef.

"We know how to run plants well. We know our business, and we are willing to invest in next-generation equipment," assesses John Tyson, chairman of the board and CEO. "We continue to manage and operate our plants better. Often you have folks managing the equipment instead of their jobs. We have been able to get the best of the best."

Tyson's greatest asset from the company's inception has been its nimbleness, a corporate quickness and agility. Long has it demonstrated an ability to turn on a dime, to develop and deliver products made to order for foodservice customers and made to the needs of the consuming public on the retail side. But, as a former Kraft CEO once remarked, "At our size, it takes a lot to move the peanut." How quickly can a $26 billion company now turn?

"We have a simple mantra," says John Tyson. "Respond and do whatever the customer wants done. From there we will figure it out."

Without on-time, high-quality execution in the plants, that mantra would be an empty chant. Fortunately, nowhere is that trademark Tyson nimbleness more in need or in evidence than in the processing plants.

Of course, with spectacular growth and the acquisition of IBP have come growing pains. Both product line and geographical expansion have brought about blending and occasional collisions of cultures. Every Tyson employee carries the company's mission statement and goals on a business card printed in seven languages, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Sudanese and Laotian. The workforce at a pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, includes 650 Bosnians, while there are 600 Sudanese at a Canadian plant. "We even have a large population of Somalians," says John Tyson. "You have to teach, communicate, and explain our Western customs. It makes for a very interesting dynamism. Our values serve as our guardrails."

In response, Tyson has made diversity and leadership training a corporate priority. To discover skills and leadership qualities among a diverse group of 114,000 — many from cultures that may not have had prior access to high-skill or management positions — requires both perceptive leadership and formal disciplines.

"We have built a database to look for skill sets and leadership traits among workers, who come from many different cultural backgrounds across the company," says Richard Bond, chief operating officer, noting that Tyson prefers to develop talent internally. "We try to identify people and see how far they can go. You look at line workers and see abilities. You test them, teach them and help them up the ladder. It creates hope."

The engineering edge

"Lean and mean" translated into weak and nil in the technology brain centers of many a processing firm. When downsizing commenced in earnest during the 1990s, engineering and R&D were quiet casualties.

Not at Tyson.

"We've looked at that trend in the industry as an opportunity," says John Tyson. "For us it is a point of difference with our customers. We emphasize our strong research and development. The same with engineering. By having our own people tinkering, each breakthrough leads us to the next generation of equipment, better production, accelerated payback. This is a selling point with our customers."

Cooked chicken strips with grill marks head for a portioner on a line making fajita kits.

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