May 21, 2012
by Joel Crews
With modest fanfare and no apparent hoopla, Tyson Foods officials unveiled its museum-quality Founder’s Room in late 2011, to the joy of its visiting customers, employees and meat-industry historians. The project was the brainchild of Don Tyson, former chairman and CEO who passed away in January 2011. His vision became an impressive reality in early November 2011, when the company’s exhibit was opened to the public.
Spanning approximately 1,500 sq. ft. in the lobby of the company’s Springdale, Ark. headquarters, the Founder’s Room was developed by a committee led by Archie Schaffer III, executive vice president of corporate affairs, and Heather Chilson, director of corporate services. The duo say they dedicated a part of each day to its completion for about 18 months before it was unveiled. The team worked with Circa Inc.’s Todd and Tracy Johnson, whose San Angelo, Texas-based company designed the museum-esque exhibit.
Honoring a vision
Schaffer, a longtime executive, recalls discussing the project’s objectives with Don Tyson himself.
“The goal that Don established was to tell the history of the company and to show people the culture of the company as it grew and developed, from the early days up to present day,” says Schaffer, a resident historian of the company. Visitors to the company’s lobby are welcomed to the exhibit by the “Generations Wall,” which depicts the company’s founding with photos of John W. Tyson’s original chicken house and the company’s first headquarters building, on Emma Ave. in Springdale. A wall-size photo taken in 1959 of John W. and his son, Don Tyson, is also hard to miss at the entryway. Once inside, historic artifacts and photographs chronicle the company’s evolution, decade by decade, beginning with the 1930s. It highlights not only the career of John W. Tyson, the company’s founder, but also longtime executives of the firm and its diversification and growth through the years as well as the key role of its employees and that of its network of growers and suppliers.
Schaffer points out that the current exhibit is an evolution of a smaller-scale Founder’s Room at the Springdale office, where the company moved in 1969. Situated in the executive wing of the office, that room was built in 1979 and was nowhere near as thorough or accessible as the updated version.
“It was nothing but Mr. Tyson’s desk, a few pictures on the wall and his hat on the hat rack,” staged to look like the Emma Ave. office. “It didn’t tell as much of the company’s story,” Schaffer says, “it was more of a place dedicated to recognize Mr. Tyson and remember him. Three years ago, Don said he wanted to expand it.”
The original included photos, but most of them didn’t include captions or context, unlike the 300-plus photos and 30,000 words used to describe the company’s people and history in the current Founder’s Room. The latest rendition also features an exhibit of John W. Tyson’s office replicated using the only two known photos that exist from the company’s original headquarters. Care was taken to not miss a detail, down to even the original period-based fluorescent lighting that hung over his desk and the paint color on the wall. A replica rotary telephone, office chair and a coat rack are also situated exactly as they are in the photos of Tyson’s office.
Accessibility to the new Founder’s Room was one important goal, which is why the decision was made for it to be in the company’s lobby area, to ensure the photos and artifacts could be enjoyed by visitors and Tyson employees, many of whom have only worked at the company for years, not decades. The area now occupied by the new Founder’s Room previously had been used for office space, including Don Tyson’s office for several years.
Chilson says it has become common for employees working at the campus to walk through the exhibit during their lunch breaks or before or after their shifts. “There are people I’ve talked to since this opened that, in 20 years of working here never went to the old Founder’s Room,” she says. “But now they’ll take a break and come to read about a decade of company history each day, for example.”
The team pored over photos from old scrap books, many others that were only on slides and still more that were dug up from longtime and past employees, including Tyson family members. More than 3,000 photos were scanned for consideration, many of which will likely be incorporated in the future. Besides Schaffer, photos and input from Donald “Buddy” Wray, Leland Tollet, Greg Mohoney and many Tyson family members was integral to the success of the project.
Chilson says perhaps the most interesting part of working on the project was “getting to hear the stories from Buddy, Leland and Archie and learning more about the history.” Compiling the photos and artifacts in addition to remodeling the company’s lobby to facilitate the exhibit created quite a buzz among the employees at headquarters leading up to the opening in November. “When we finally opened it and they saw that it was actually museum-like they understood why it took more than just a couple of months to create,” Chilson says.
John H. Tyson, Don Tyson’s son and the company’s current chairman of the board who also served as CEO from 2001 to 2006, played a vital role in developing the Founder’s Room. Indeed, he was among the first people to see the finished product. Plastic sheeting covering the entrance and exit to the room wasn’t enough to deter Tyson’s curiosity. “That didn’t stop him from wandering through, checking on the progress,” Schaffer jokes.
Informing and interesting
The Founder’s Room is proving to be an effective vehicle for welcoming and educating visiting customers to Tyson and highlighting its history and commitment to the industry and the community. “To be able to walk them through this space and show them where the company came from and how it developed is going to be a great tool for our sales people and all our executives,” Chilson says.
The exhibit has already been viewed by hundreds of people, including Tyson team members and their families, customers and many members of the Springdale community.
Chilson enjoys hearing comments from groups that have viewed the exhibit. Many locals enjoy identifying some of the hundreds of people depicted in the old group photographs of team members, she says. Others express amusement about the in-plant photos where female line workers can be seen donning skirts and high-heel shoes, a far cry from today’s line workers. Many Tyson workers have noted that the birds depicted in many of the older processing photos are much smaller and skinnier than today’s birds.
Overall feedback has been positive. “Everyone, from our chairman to Donnie Smith and on down, has been very pleased and feels like we accomplished what we set out to do,” says Schaffer. Deciding on what’s next for the exhibit will be the looming challenge. Exhibits such as the Tyson room are designed to have a shelf life of 10 to 15 years, and are constructed so that the contents and artifacts can be tweaked and updated to keep them fresh and interesting.
The museum-like exhibit is a valuable way of telling the fascinating story of Tyson Foods, Schaffer says, and the heritage is unique. “Unlike a lot of Fortune 100 companies, the fact that the company started out with one man and his vision and the hard work that he and his son put in to grow the company is really important to the people who’ve been here for a long time as well for the newer team members who can now have a better appreciation for that history.”