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Donald J. Tyson dies at 80; led family's poultry company, Tyson Foods

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Donald J. Tyson, the former Tyson Foods Inc. chief executive who led his family's poultry company from being a regional producer to dominance in the industry, died Thursday. He was 80.

Company spokesman Gary Mickelson said Tyson died at his Arkansas home of complications from cancer.

In 1952, Tyson joined the business his father founded about two decades earlier and in 1966 became its president. He built up the company by acquiring other poultry producers in the 1970s and '80s, and Tyson Foods became the world's largest poultry producer when it bought Holly Farms in 1989.

"He was a true visionary who led Tyson Foods from a small regional chicken company to a multibillion-dollar food-processing enterprise," John R. Tyson, his son who is now chairman of the company, said in a statement. "He will be missed by everyone who knew him."

Don Tyson was recognized for his "no bad days" outlook and "was known by all to work hard, but also to play hard," the company said in its statement announcing Tyson's death.

Although the Springdale, Ark.-based company went public in 1963, in practice it remained a family business with Tyson family members owning controlling shares.

Don Tyson, who retired as senior chairman in 2001, was fined $700,000 by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2005 and Tyson Foods paid $1.5 million to settle an investigation into lavish spending of company money between 1997 and 2001.

The SEC found that he used $3 million in company funds to pay for vacation properties in England and Mexico and such items as jewelry, artwork, a horse and clothing, all improperly documented in company regulatory filings.

Tyson was also known for his philanthropy. He founded the Tyson Family Foundation, which offers college scholarships to students who live in areas where Tyson has facilities. He also was a supporter of conservation and the arts.

Tyson was born April 21, 1930, in Olathe, Kan., and moved with his family to Springdale a year later. His father, John W. Tyson, founded the company in the early 1930s. John Tyson became a leader in the industry by hauling live chickens to distant markets in the Midwest at a time before refrigeration made for easy transport.

Don Tyson told the Associated Press in a 2008 interview that he started work at the company hatchery at age 12.

"When I was 14, of course, I could drive a truck," he said. "That made me more valuable."

The business grew to include hatcheries, feed mills and, in 1958, processing plants. Tyson, who studied business and agriculture at the University of Arkansas, left college before earning a degree to work full time for the business. He was the first manager of the company's first processing plant, built in Springdale under his supervision. He also went on to develop prepared-food lines, which helped further widen the company's scope.

Tyson added the titles of chairman and chief executive in 1967, the same year his father was killed in a car-train accident. In addition to Holly Farms, the company's major pickups under his leadership included Val-Mack, Lane Poultry and, in 1998, Hudson Foods. Tyson left the daily operation of the company in 1995 but remained chairman when Leland Tollett became chief executive.

Under Don's son, John, the company became the leading meat company with its purchase of IBP Inc. in 2001.

Until his death, Don Tyson was the managing general partner of the Tyson Limited Partnership, which owns 70 million shares of the company's Class B common stock and 3 million shares of its Class A common stock. The partnership, consisting of Tyson family members and former executives, will retain control of the company, current Tyson President and Chief Executive Donnie Smith said.

Besides his son, Tyson's survivors include three daughters, Carla Tyson, Cheryl Tyson and Joslyn J. Caldwell-Tyson, and two grandchildren.

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