When you look around a room for John Tyson, the CEO of the world's most vast meat company and heir to a Forbes Fortune 400 family, you may look for a tycoon in a slick designer suit. But when the sea of formalwear parts, what you get is the guy in a common tan Tyson work shirt embroidered "John," looking more like a line worker than a multi-millionaire.
Tyson, who leads the empire of 140 chicken, beef and pork plants, speaks just as straight-forwardly as he may tend to dress. He made his first visit to Storm Lake Tuesday, and liked what he saw.
He predicted expansion for the Storm Lake Tyson plant within the next five years, and said that he feels a personal responsibility to consider supporting Storm Lake's Project AWAYSIS destination park if it moves forward.
Mostly, Tyson just wanted to feel out the operation of Storm Lake's largest employer, a plant he gained in the massive buyout of IBP that he masterminded.
"I'm pleased to see how well they have taken care of the grounds. Not all plants have that kind of attention," he said. "I like to visit every location we have, just to talk to some of the people and see what's on their minds. It's also a chance to do an 'eye check' for me - I know what our executives tell me is happening at a plant.
"Once I see it for myself, I can tell how accurate that information is."
Like many industries, what Tyson hears first from his massive workforce everywhere in the country is a concern about health care costs and availability.
"From the newest entry-level hire to the person at the top in any plant, health care is the issue. Fortunately, we have been able to keep our health care benefits stable, only because the big gains we have made in workforce numbers have given us more power to negotiate," Tyson said. "When you talk about 120,000 employees, you can expect to get a better deal from providers."
Area residents may have noticed some new television commercials from Tyson, and in a society that is increasingly more aware about their diet and health issues, the company will continue to adapt.
"We have gone trans-fat-free in our school lunch programs, and we are working to get more information on our products to the consumers in ways that they can understand and use it. People are more informed than ever before. Of course, people still love taste, and they still eat their fried chicken."
As for the Storm Lake Tyson plant, the company has already purchased a few homes, mobile homes and business sites - about a third of a block in area, to prepare for future expansion. Or, as Tyson likes to refer to the process, he's "taking the kinks out of the rope."
Tyson said that incremental expansions of the pork plants is expected in the company's five year plan, and also said that it is possible that additional pork plants may be purchased from other companies.
An increase in buying of animals from the surrounding rural area is also expected.
The Storm Lake plant currently processes 14,650 head of hogs a day, with plans to reach 15,500 soon. Additional cooler space will need to be constructed to continue increasing production, Tyson said.
The Storm Lake plant and its management deserves credit for its environmental efforts and the help it has provided to immigrant workers to learn the language, Tyson said. "The schools people tell us that 90 percent of the newcomers have become proficient in English, and that's just great."
The company is also stressing automation to replace some manual labor, but Tyson said that he does not expect any reduction in workforce in Storm Lake as this develops, just some changes in the types of jobs.
Tyson also continues to stress case-ready products that can go straight from the plants to the grocery stores. That process is paying off better in pork than in beef divisions, he admits.
The CEO has little to say about the recent unionization attempt of the Storm Lake plant. About a third of the Tyson facilities across the country are union, and in most cases the company and the unions have worked well together, he said. "But my granddad and dad always had a belief in talking to the person you're dealing with face-to-face," he said.
Storm Lake city officials took the opportunity to introduce Tyson to the Project AWAYSIS destination park, and he was so impressed that he said he would like to look into the possibility of establishing a Vision Iowa program in his native state of Arkansas.
"It is an outstanding effort. You have a great vision for your parks, and obviously, you would want us to have an interest in the project, since we are a key part of your community as well," Tyson said.
While not promising any funds at this point, he noted his company's involvement in building the event center in Sioux City. "I think we have a responsibility to consider participating in some role if this project moves forward," he said.
Tyson is the namesake of his grandfather, a shoestring trucker in the 1930s who started hatching chickens and then milling his own feed. His son Don quit his studies in the 1950s to join the effort in an increasingly competitive poultry market, with the first Tyson processing plant built in 1957. The elder John died in a car-train accident in 1967, but the company continued to grow, becoming the nation's leading hog producer, and debuting in the Fortune 500 in 1982.
John Tyson dropped out of law school to join the company in the 1970s, the New York Times detailing his struggles for a time with alcohol abuse and the political scandal surrounding former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy. He rebounded personally and professionally, becoming chairman of the board in 1998 and CEO in 2000, and spearheaded the $3.2 billion purchase of IBP in 2001, making his company the world's largest meat processor. During the 9/11 disaster in 2001, Tyson sent food and cooking teams into New York and the Pentagon area to help feed volunteers.
Things have to get done and our company has to be profitable, but I want to accomplish that in a kinder and gentler way that communicates a servant style of leadership," Tyson said in an interview at that time.
Tyson made the national news in 2002, when he pulled down a $3.48 million bonus on top of a $1 million salary.