Like most chief executives, Donnie Smith spends a lot of time talking with his senior management about performance and strategy, meeting with investors and visiting plants. He also does something less common. He reads the Bible every day and reads it cover to cover once a year. He also spends 10 days each year of his own time helping farmers in Africa grow more food to improve their lives.
Smith became a Christian in 1981 after having what he calls “a conversion experience,” and his devout faith and personal relationship with God have guided him ever since. His everyday life and his faith are completely integrated, he says. This and other personal and professional attributes took him from being a field man at Tyson Foods’ Shelbyville, Tenn., poultry plant in 1980 to company president and CEO in 2009.
Smith is like few other chief executives. His enthusiasm and personal warmth are contagious. He is gregarious, self-deprecating and down to earth. He gives you the impression he is just as thrilled to meet you as you are to meet him. Yet all this is unsurprising when you learn more about his upbringing in a small rural community in Tennessee.
It’s a long way from Springdale, Ark., to Musanze, Rwanda. But Smith is at his most animated when describing how he built a feed mill there to make high-quality feed for farmers’ animals. That’s because Smith developed a great love of agriculture as a boy. He learned the value of hard work and always looking out for others.
“Dad grew up on a farm,” Smith says. “He’d wake up in the morning, shake some snow off the blankets and go to school. During the summer, he would take the mule and go plow the field and come back three or four days later when he was done.”
Smith’s father eventually left the farm but instilled in Smith a great work ethic. “Dad’s philosophy of life was if you get up before everybody else, work harder than everybody else and stay later than everybody else, one day you’ll be everybody else’s boss.” It’s no surprise that Smith is now “boss” to 125,000 people at Tyson Foods.
In his early years, Smith also learned the importance of knowing your roots 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.” 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 entered the Univ. of Tennessee to study at its veterinary school. But his supervisor, Dr. Charles Goan, told Smith that he didn’t have a chance to get into vet school because of his lackluster grades. He suggested Smith pursue poultry science instead.
“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 his 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 indicative of his zest and energy that he graduated on Dec. 12, 1980, married Terry on Dec. 20 and started working for Tyson on Dec. 28.
This same 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 became the “boss.”
Faith in Business
Smith’s 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, not far from Tyson’s headquarters.
“He not only teaches the Bible, he lives the Bible,” the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor at Cross Church told Fortune magazine in an interview about Smith’s faith-based leadership. “He’s just a passionate leader in his faith as well as in the corporate setting.”
Smith’s communication skills are deeply infused with his faith. He’s quick to quote the Bible to make a point. “In Matthew, Chapter 7, Jesus tells us not to judge other people, so it’s not my job to judge others. In Acts, he tells me that I’m to be a witness of what he’s done in my life. God’s the judge, I’m not.”
This leads to Smith not judging others, even if he sees them making decisions that will end badly, he says. “I don’t judge them because I’ve made bad decisions in my lifetime. My calling is to be the witness, not the judge.”
Smith leads Tyson with what he calls “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. 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.”
Smith doesn’t tell other people how to live, however, “I can clearly explain to them how the Bible says we should live our lives. But I have tons of friends, some of whom are atheists or other different faiths and sexual orientations. I don’t want anybody ever to think they have to be like me or behave like me or accept my belief system to be able to succeed here, because that is absolutely not the case.”
As for Tyson being a faith-friendly company, this is how Smith explains that concept: “The thing that bugs people is when you say you’re one thing but in reality you’re not. To me, integrity is being that whole person, so the thing you say you are is backed up by the way you live your life every day. That’s what people respect and the opposite of that is what gets them all sideways around the whole faith-at-work issue. We believe that people have a soul and spirit and body, and it all comes to work together. So let them exercise that freely, whatever they believe, whoever they are, and it works.”
Caring is at the Core
Tyson has two great principles, its core values and its cultural tenets, Smith says. “We like to say our core values inform our cultural tenets. Our core values say we respect people, and we’re a group of diverse people gathered to produce food. The way that expresses itself in behavior is how we care about each other. As long as we’re consistent with what we say we believe and how we say we behave, we’ll make the right choice. Whether we make the most money or not, it’s about making the right choice and doing the right thing, because ultimately you will end up in the right place.”
Tyson’s model for successfully managing 125,000 people is servant leadership. “It is more important to me that I do what’s best for you than I do what’s best for me,” Smith says. “It’s a matter of putting myself last and putting you first … because here’s what we found: If I’m focused on my team and how to make my team successful, then they will be successful. That in turn makes me successful.
“Doing what’s best to serve the organization, serving others and the people that we work with is in our self-interest because it develops the most people the most broadly and creates this atmosphere of teamwork, collaboration and empowerment. If I’m only interested in what you can do for me to make me look good, you are never going to be loyal to me because you know I’m all about me. But if I prove to you that I’m all about you, you’ll be incredibly loyal to me. That’s the whole mindset behind the servant leadership model and it works.”
This philosophy permeates every layer of Tyson’s workforce.
“Let’s say you are a supervisor of a debone line, with 25 people working for you. We want you to go in every day concentrating on what’s in their [your employees] best interest. Do they know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, are they in a safe environment, are they well-equipped, can you help them through the day? If somebody has a personal problem, how can you find a way to get them the time they need to take care of that problem and still work with the rest of the team? Maybe you do that by stepping on the line for an hour and deboning with your hourly team members. That’s the kind of attitude we look for because those team members will know their boss cares about them. They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
Smith recalls how his good friend, Robert Nunnell (from their feed mill days), retired a year ago and told a gathering, “I’ve always liked Donnie because he would never ask us to do anything he wasn’t willing to do.” This was one of Smith’s proudest moments, he says, because it is the epitome of the servant-leadership model.
“You have to wake up every day with an appreciation for the fact there are 125,000 families represented in your business and you’ve got to know you’re giving them the best chance to be successful, enjoy what they do and to feel empowered and to want to do a great job. We talk about our purpose: ‘Making great food. Making a difference.’ It’s not about running product, it’s about making food. Having that mindset really makes a difference, it makes a culture where people want to keep coming back to work every day.”
Smith tries to set aside a few days a month to visit plants. Terry travels with him at times, and he’s quick to add that he pays her bills.
“We will speak to some of the management team, put our gear on and walk through the plant. I will stop and talk to folks, supervisors will show me their area, and we all end up in the conference room. The management team, supervisors, anybody who can be there, will get a chance to ask me anything they want to ask,” he explains. “They love to know their boss appreciates them and has a world of respect for what they do. I want to get in their environment and thank them for doing what they do every day.”
Smith also touches base with each person on his management team (he has 11 direct reports) every week. “This takes 30 minutes to an hour so that’s a day a week. At the end of every quarter, we spend a lot of time reviewing the quarter but far more time looking ahead.”
The approach depends on the business, Smith says. “Fresh meats (beef and pork) can change week to week and be almost in a daily cadence. The chicken business is in a weekly cadence. The supply is set and so, over a period of a two or three weeks, you can make decisions that can affect the balance of the quarter. Most of our prepared foods business is in a monthly cadence, and a lot of the decisions in the branded business are made quarterly.”
A key to great leadership is to surround oneself with great people, Smith says. “I don’t have anybody working for me who needs me looking over their shoulder. They’ll come to me when decisions need to be made, we’ll get the appropriate amount of data and we’ll make a call. But I don’t have to ride herd over my folks.”
The toughest decisions to make are when Tyson closes a facility, Smith says. “It doesn’t bother me as much when we sell a business, because you know those team members are going to end up working for somebody else. But when we have a facility and there’s nothing else we can do but close it – and we’ve had to do some of that recently – that’s the toughest thing for me. Maybe it’s my soft spot for people.”
Smith has been fascinated with Africa since the early 1980s and has wanted to help people there. His and Terry’s dream finally came true in 2012 when they went to Tanzania and Rwanda. They created the African Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) Foundation and built the first computerized, commercial feed mill in Rwanda.
“It makes this great feed called Zamura, which means ‘to lift up.’ The critical element was that farmers didn’t have well-mixed feed for their chickens, dairy cattle and goats. So they couldn’t get full productive capability out of the genetics. So we removed the most limiting factor in the value chain. Now hens lay more eggs, dairy cows get 30 percent more milk, which creates more demand for feed, which creates more demand to grow crops.”
In Tanzania, Smith and his wife joined with World Vision to donate money for a woman to build a school for pregnant girls. Momma Kuku, whom Smith calls his friend, had a little chicken business. “To see that even with her limited resources, she had this dream to make other people’s life better, so I said I just have to participate.”
Smith and his wife have donated in many other ways. In February 2014, they pledged a $3.2 million gift to the Univ. of Tennessee to establish an endowed chair in International Sustainable Agriculture. The new faculty position helps bring science-based agricultural solutions to areas of the world with struggling agricultural practices and economies.
Smith doesn’t think about any legacy he might leave. But he does reflect on why God put him on the planet. “It was to make a significant difference in the lives of the people I get to touch. Post-Tyson, whatever I do will be meaningful, it will be purposeful and it will be making a difference, because I just have to do that. I will be chasing my passion to help African farmers become sustainable.”