Editor’s note: Story updated with comments from officials with Tyson Foods and from U.S. Rep. Steve Womack.
Donald “Buddy” Wray, one of the legendary execs who helped Don Tyson grow a regional poultry operation into a multibillion global food company, has died. He was 78.
Wray served in several executive positions over decades with Tyson Foods, including chief operating officer and executive vice president and special assistant to the president and CEO. He joined the management of the Tyson plant in Rogers and then was made manager of the company’s first processing plant in Springdale. Wray was part of a small team of Tyson principals who managed acquisition growth and played a pivotal role in Tyson’s product development, sales and marketing through the 1970s and 80s.
He was named chief operating officer, overseeing all operations including live poultry production, processing and sales. In 1991, Wray was promoted to president and held that office until he retired in 2000. He was a member of the Tyson board of directors from 1994-2003 and came out of retirement in 2008 to serve as executive vice president – special assistant to the president and chief executive officer.
John Tyson, Board chairman and Tyson Foods, provided this statement: “Buddy Wray was a legendary figure at Tyson Foods. From the earliest days of the growth of Tyson Foods, Buddy, along with my dad and Leland Tollett made the company succeed, from the early 1960s through the 1990s. He was instrumental in everything the company did for over 50 years. There is no way to express what Buddy meant to the company and thousands of its team members during that time. He was also a long-time dedicated Springdale community leader who will be missed by many and long remembered.”
Tyson Foods President and CEO Donnie Smith issued this statement: “Buddy was one of my mentors and I will miss his leadership, insight and especially his friendship. He earned the gratitude and respect of all of us here at Tyson Foods and we will never forget him.”
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said Wray also will be remembered as a community leader.
“Buddy Wray was an institution in both his field and the community he so selflessly served. I’ll leave his legacy to the poultry industry to the experts, but as for his dedication to the region, he’s in the company of our area’s finest leaders and will be missed immensely.”
A TYSON FOODS PILLAR
Jim Blair, an attorney who worked with Tyson Foods over the years, said he knew Wray since 1958. Blair said Wray “bled khaki” and is “one of the pillars” on which Tyson Foods has been built.
“First of all, he was a person of grave integrity. His word was always good, and he was always fair and he always put the company first,” Blair told Talk Business & Politics. “Many many times, he was the first executive there (at the office) and the last to leave at the end of the day.”
Blair also said Don Tyson put Wray and Leland Tollett “in competition” to see who would become the No. 2 exec. A health issue put Wray behind in that competition, according to Blair, but both men deserve more credit.
“The company never would have been built, never would have been what it is, without the both of them,” Blair said, adding that Wray was one of the first industry leaders to build products around consumer preferences. ”Buddy was the marketing guy. … He had the vision of what they had to provide the customers.”
Blair’s wife, Nancy, also worked as Wray’s corporate secretary for seven years.
“Buddy was the kindest and the most generous boss I ever had. He was always fair to me and always good to me and I will miss him terribly,” she said Monday.
In a February 2015 interview with Talk Business & Politics, Wray said his intention out of college was never to join Tyson Foods. After a short stint with the U.S. Army and after graduating from the University of Arkansas with an agri degree, Wray pursued another degree. In 1959, Tollett had already joined Tyson Foods – then just a regional poultry company with John W. Tyson and his son, Don, running the show. Tollett had encouraged the Tyson’s to interview Wray. Wray planned to finish graduate school. Halfway through the first year he was asked to visit with John W., Don and Bill Martin about working for Tyson Foods. The Tyson’s had a good sales pitch.
“Consequently, I never went back to graduate school,” Wray said in the story.
Wray’s early job with Tyson Foods was to recruit farmers to raise chickens. He drove many miles those years, with many of those miles “where there wasn’t much blacktop.”
“You have to remember, poultry was in its infancy,” Wray said in explaining the difficulty in convincing farmers to enter the business.
The infancy didn’t last long. Wray was promoted in 1963 to run a processing plant in Rogers that Tyson Foods acquired from Garrett Poultry Co. In those days, the plant manager of a processing plant was also responsible for sales. That’s where Wray began learning about sales and marketing. In 1965 he was moved to manage the Springdale processing plant – the original Tyson processing plant – and also assumed the sales manager role for the entire company.
Tyson Foods had around $5 million in sales his first year with the company.
“Man, I thought that was a huge company,” Wray said.
The company would post more than $7.2 billion in sales in 2000 when Wray first retired. With the $8.5 billion Hillshire acquisition under its belt, the company has posted total revenue of more than $40 billion.
Blair said Wray was pleased with the Hillshire deal and the company’s overall direction. He said it was the goal of Wray and Tollett to diversify the company so that “one mistake could not hurt them.”
“I think he felt like they had matured that strategy” with the Hillshire deal, Blair said.
Blair also said Wray was a “seriously religious man,” loved high school football, was an avid hunter, and proud of his family.
Wray was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2014. He also was named University of Arkansas Distinguished Alumni of the Year in 2000. In 2004, the university established the Donald “Buddy” Wray Chair in Food Safety in the Dale Bumpers College of Agriculture. In 2012, Wray was named by the Northwest Arkansas Community College as a “Quality of Life” honoree, which recognizes individuals for their leadership in building and sustaining an excellent quality of life in northwest Arkansas. He was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2012.