story by Kim Souza
She’s a small lady with a big smile, but don’t let that size fool you. Sara Lilygren is a trailblazing executive, seasoned lobbyist and the highest ranking female at Tyson Foods Inc.
No one who knows Lilygren is the least bit surprised by her success and Lilygren believes there is more to do in her new role as executive vice president of corporate affairs, and in leading the company’s charitable giving efforts.
Lilygren saw the world up close from an early age as one of four children in a military family during the Cold War.
“My dad was Air Force and my mom was an incredible role model. She packed up the four of us kids, time and time again. I lived in three countries and called eight houses home from the time I was born until I graduated at 17,” Lilygren said.
Living abroad, she was recruited by Air Force and West Point but said her heart was set on being a diplomat from the time she was a junior in high school.
“I spoke three languages, knew how to pack a suitcase and move, and really saw myself traveling the world as a diplomat,” Lilygren recalled. “I worked as translator in both French and German when I was living abroad as a teen.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in foreign relations from the University of Virginia and and made a beeline to Washington D.C. after graduation hoping to take the exhaustive State Department exam required for diplomat appointments.
“When I got to the State Department I was told they were no longer giving the exam because it was one of the few times in our history the federal government was laying people off. Jimmy Carter was president and mortgage rates were 18%,” Lilygren sighed.
“My career as a diplomat derailed at that point and a friend of friend put me to work in public relations, licking stamps and stuffing press packets because I had to support myself,” she said.
Lilygren’s confidence and diplomacy skills caught the eye of Archie Schaffer III, the former head of Tyson’s lobbying and public relations efforts. In 2002, Lilygren worked as veteran lobbyist and public relations executive for the American Meat Institute in Washington D.C. – a career that spanned 18 years.
“Archie recruited me to Tyson to head up their lobbying efforts in D.C. I had been doing both PR and lobbying for the trade organization. Even though I hated to give up the PR work, I was excited about the possibilities with Tyson Foods, and it’s been a good fit,” Lilygren said.
Between 2002 and 2009, Lilygren said she ran Tyson’s lobbying efforts out of Washington, which was no small feat. According to OpenSecrets.org, Tyson Foods’ lobbying efforts totaled more than $10 million during that time as the meat company lobbied against ethanol subsidies and promoted Tyson’s position on trade, taxes, immigration, environmental and labor issues.
When Schaffer retired in November 2012, Lilygren was promoted to “Executive VP” within the top management ring at Tyson Foods.
Marvin Childers, a lobbyist and director for the Arkansas Poultry Federation, said Lilygren is a skilled negotiator, astute and one who knows well all the issues facing Tyson Foods the meat industry as a whole.
“She’s engaged in ongoing discussions and has served on the Arkansas Federation Poultry Board for the past two years. Her diplomacy plays well as she works with competitive firms on major issues such as food safety and environmental concerns,” Childers said.
Lilygren sees herself as a bridge builder and said finding middle ground is the most important part of negotiating. She said her intellectual curiosity and flexibility are also key attributes learned or gained during her childhood.
Childers said Lilygren played a key role in the initiating Tyson’s Farm Check program, which is an effort to audit the treatment of animals at the livestock and poultry farms that supply Tyson Foods.
In recent years animal activists have stepped up efforts to call out meat companies for perceived animal cruelty. Tyson officials believe their “Farm Check” program is a move toward transparency and aligns with the company’s stewardship mission.
“She has top management’s ear and decision making authority. Her expertise is respected throughout the state and meat industry,” Childers said.
Randy Zook, CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce says. “Sara Lilygren is a star on the Arkansas stage.”
“Her experience in government affairs is keen at the state and national levels, she has worked closely with the State Chamber office engaged and advising on issues relating to ethanol, alternative energy, workers compensation and labor policy. Her expertise is much broader than Tyson’s key issues as she has been a great source for general business concerns as well,” Zook said.
Zook says Lilygren is a skilled leader and asset for the state as whole.
A NORTHWEST ARKANSAS ASSET
Lilygren moved her family to Rogers in the summer of 2009 and turned in her lobbying credentials as she accepted a new role in the company’s Springdale headquarters – senior vice president of external relations, overseeing the company’s charitable giving as well as community and public relations segments.
“I was so excited to get back into the PR side of the business and I had no real experience in charitable giving, as I has worked all those years in the non-profit world. It was great to have the opportunity for me at this point in my career,” Lilygren said.
She was soon appointed to the Walton Arts Center’s Corporate Leadership Council, which she now chairs.
“Sara was a key member of leadership team that conceived and created the Masquerade Ball three years ago and she has been instrumental in creating one of the most unique and successful fundraisers in Northwest Arkansas,” said Peter Lane, CEO of the Walton Arts Center.
He said under Lilygren’s leadership, the Walton Arts Center raised more than $100,000 this year through the Masquerade Ball. These proceeds support the efforts of 50,000 students and teachers across the state to explore world cultures and connect to live performances through the center’s various arts education programs.
She also serves board for the Ozark Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for Cure and is an advisory council member for the Arkansas World Trade Center and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
While Lilygren keeps a busy work schedule, traveling extensively at times, she has also participated with the Northwest Arkansas Council on a number of issues, according to CEO Mike Malone.
“Sara has been helpful to the NWA Council sharing her unique perspective on policy-related issues. Her interests are broad: including quality education and quality of life, which are two of the council’s key focus areas,” Malone said.
As the only woman to cross into top management at Tyson Foods, Lilygren is naturally seen as a role model for women in business. But it’s not a new position for Lilygren. For more of her professional career – especially in the predominately male lobbying ranks for a largely masculine meat industry – she was one of the few women in her work sphere.
Lilygren embraces the female role model crown.
“I had a very strong role model in my mom and understand the importance of that among younger women today. On my own dime and time I routinely take a few women from Tyson Foods to lunch on a regular basis so that I can hear their dreams and they can share their goals with me,” she said.
Lilygren also directs an internal women’s meeting group at Tyson Foods and has done so since she moved here in 2009.
“She’s an asset to the region given her position and professional stature and I am glad that my two daughters have these strong professional female role models in business. Sara is one of several who come to mind.,” Malone said.
Lilygren says she just makes time for the things that matter in spite of her busy schedule. And that includes riding motorcycles with her husband Alex May, an attorney at Wal-Mart Stores Inc,. and spending time with her sons Ryan and Conner who are 15 and 13.
She owns a Heritage Softail Custom Deluxe, which she bought and took lessons to ride at Pig Trail Harley Davidson in Rogers.
“I learned to ride in self-defense because my husband wanted to and I have to say I love it,” Lilygren said.
She enjoys cruising the scenic byways around the state but says she’s still learning to ride with confidence and attends the annual Bike & Blues festival via car because of the crowds and slow traffic.
Lilygren has traveled the world over and lived many places but says she feels at home in Northwest Arkansas.
“I was taken back by the beauty of Northwest Arkansas and surprised to find this region very much feels like an expat (expatriate) community, not too different from D.C. because so many folks have been drawn here to work, like folks are drawn to D.C. for government and agency-related jobs,” Lilygren said. “I have been surprised and very much enjoy the ease of quality of life here.”