SNEAK PEEK: Tyson Foods' servant leader

by Steve Kay
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SPRINGDALE, Ark. – In a candid, sit-down interview with MEAT+POULTRY’s Contributing Editor Steve Kay, Tyson Foods Inc. President and CEO Donnie Smith gives readers some insight into his background and the importance of his faith in successfully leading a team of 125,000 people. In M+P's August issue cover story, Kay and the CEO discuss some of the most important things that motivate the Univ. of Tennessee alumnus with the name “Donnie” embroidered on his khaki shirt. 

Donnie Smith, president and CEO, Tyson Foods
Donnie Smith, president and CEO of Tyson Foods.

In his early years, Smith says he learned the importance of “knowing your roots,” knowing what’s important and how important it is to give back. “We didn’t have much but my Dad was an incredibly generous man with his time and energy and effort, making sure that family was important,” he says. The grass roots principles of integrity, faith and hard work that Smith learned as a child, are, he says, “the foundation for how I ought to live my life.”

Like many people’s careers, Smith’s took an unexpected turn early on. He enrolled at the Univ. of Tennessee to enter its veterinary school. But his supervisor, Dr. Charles Goan, told him he didn’t have a chance because of his grades. He suggested poultry science instead.

“I was padding my resume. I thought, maybe I don’t have the grades but if I was a well-rounded student, maybe they would let me in. I was using the poultry science club to pad my resume and Dr. Goan knew Tyson had a complex in Shelbyville. He said, and we have joked about this for years, that he thought I could trick them into hiring me. And sure enough I did. So here I am.”

Smith and wife Terry eventually endowed a scholarship at the Univ. of Tennessee in Dr. Goan’s name. “There’s some kid that’s going to need a little help getting through school. Dr. Goan has a history of giving young kids a little help, like he did me.”

Smith met Terry at the university. It’s a measure of his energy that he graduated on Dec. 12, 1980, married Terry on Dec. 20 and started working for Tyson on Dec. 28.

This kind of energy led him to learn every aspect of the company’s business, from poultry operations to commodity purchasing, engineering, food safety and quality assurance to environmental health and safety. He moved into the company’s consumer products division in 2008 and only a year later was “the boss.”

This exceptional grasp of the business made him well-qualified to be president and CEO. But his gifts as a teacher and communicator are just as important. These attributes reflect his deep faith. Every Sunday when he can, Smith leads a Bible study class at Cross Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Springdale, Ark., where Tyson is headquartered.

Smith leads Tyson with what he calls a “humble confidence.”

“No one wants a leader who seems to not know what he’s doing. So you have to appear confident without being arrogant or too self-confident,” he says.

“Communication is having clear expectations and being able to clearly communicate to 125,000 people what we need to do. It is so important to keep everybody focused,” he continues. “And I do think God has graciously given me a lot of great experiences, some to prepare me for what I’m doing now, some to prepare me for my outside-of-Tyson stuff. But my desire to teach and my love of communication that I get to practice almost every Sunday at church and a lot of times around here continue to help me hone my skills to be able to communicate.”

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