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Ross Perot Got It Wrong. : In Arkansas, Don Tyson Is the Real Chicken Man

January 10, 1993|DONALD WOUTAT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SPRINGDALE, Ark. — When Don Tyson travels to Washington for his pal Bill Clinton's inauguration later this month, he'll have to leave the Oval Office to do it.

Tyson, the man behind the chickens that have become emblematic of the incoming President's Arkansas roots, operates from a replica of the White House Oval Office that he ordered built at the headquarters of his Tyson Foods in the late 1970s.

He says his unusual sanctum was inspired by Jimmy Carter's election to the presidency: "He was a friend of my chicken friends in Georgia." And Tyson was on the move himself, transforming a family business into the poultry industry's unchallenged cock o' the walk.

Tyson's Oval Office has a distinct chicken flavor. A rooster's likeness is carved into the Arkansas white oak over the fireplace, and the door knobs are shaped like chicken eggs. In the adjacent office is a bronzed egg carton.

In other words, Ross Perot had the wrong guy when he called Clinton "chicken man" during last fall's presidential campaign.

While it's true that low-tech chicken jobs had plenty to do with Arkansas' rapid job growth under Clinton, the real chicken man is Tyson, 62, an aw-shucks country boy credited with leading the flinty chicken industry into the modern corporate era--complete with a string of 20 takeovers in 20 years.

Tyson is all Arkansas, part of a heritage that--in addition to various political overachievers--has produced such noteworthy businessmen as financier Jack Stephens of Little Rock (worth more than $900 million, placing him ahead of Tyson on Forbes magazine's list of richest Americans) and the legendary Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart Stores, who recently died, leaving $25 billion behind.

In fact, political kingpin Stephens helped bankroll Walton and Tyson over the years, illustrating the sort of close ties among leading Arkansans that prompted criticism of Gov. Clinton. He was accused of being too chummy with outfits such as Tyson Foods, handing out tax breaks and going easy on environmental regulations.

But when Perot ridiculed an economic culture of "chicken pluckers"--figuratively holding his nose at the mention of a barnyard low-life that has come to symbolize cowardice, ignorance and worse--he may have missed the mark.

"Tyson's a huge, modern business," says Prof. James Combs, an expert on politics and culture at Valparaiso University in Indiana. "It's really no different than Perot's high-powered computer company--except for the association between chickens and backwardness, illiteracy and Ma and Pa Kettle that makes it supposedly inferior to high technology. It's an invidious charge."

A self-described liberal Democrat and proud Arkansas loyalist, Tyson built a $4-billion enterprise that has made him one of the nation's wealthiest men. Tyson Foods grew along with America's love of cheap, low-fat chicken in the 1970s and 1980s, when per-capita consumption of the bird jumped from 40 to more than 70 pounds annually--almost 90 pounds in California.

Indeed, admirers say Tyson's acumen helped chicken to rival beef at the center of America's dinner plate. As Clinton managed to do politically with his down-home homilies and Oxford University chums, Tyson has helped the lowly chicken straddle both the downscale and the upscale. Take your choice: lard-fried chicken or mesquite-grilled capon with raspberry chutney.

He also produces pork and beef, and now has acquired a seafood company--all en route to his target of $8 billion in sales by 1995.

"We're going to have to catch at least one more big fish," says Tyson, a compact, buoyant, quick-to-smile man who wears a khaki uniform to work with a "Don" patch over the shirt pocket.

His Tyson Foods, headquartered here in northwest Arkansas, has been fighting off some alligators lately: union organizers, unhappy growers, environmentalists and some who object to his political clout.

But a recent collapse in the price of the corn that Tyson feeds the chickens makes it all easier to bear. Tyson is the nation's biggest buyer of corn.

Wall Street's handful of poultry followers wax almost poetic at Tyson Food's acquisitions--a binge that landed the company 25% of the nation's chicken business.

Analysts are also impressed by Tyson's production flexibility, which rivals that of Japanese car makers, and by the firm's development and marketing of the "further processed chicken": deboned, flavored, breaded, frozen; your chicken pot pie, chicken hot dog, or chicken bologna. Not to mention the landmark Chicken McNugget--or, way back in 1972, the first mass-produced frozen chicken ready for the microwave oven.

By controlling the system from breeding to marketing and turning the simple chicken into more than 300 products with fixed prices, Tyson shielded itself from the historical volatility in prices of plain whole chickens. Those now account for just 15% of the firm's sales.

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