Editor’s note: This story, written by Ben Pollock, appears in the latest magazine edition of Talk Business Arkansas. Simmons will be inducted in the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame on Friday night.
Mark Simmons was not expecting anything unusual from the lunch last September. His old friend Greg Lee called him up to see him. With Simmons still chairman of Simmons Foods Inc., they have a lot in common. Lee is retired from being Tyson Foods’s chief administrative officer and president of its international division.
He found at the table his son Todd Simmons, the family company’s chief executive officer, as well as Eli Jones, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.
“I thought, ‘This is going to be an opportunity to give to the capital campaign,'” Mark Simmons said.
Instead, Lee invited him to be one of 2014’s four inductees to the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. Lee chairs its selection committee. Simmons accepted.
The ceremony will be Feb. 7 at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock. The hall itself is set in the atrium of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for Enterprise Development at Walton College on the Fayetteville campus.
Simmons Foods, headquartered in Siloam Springs, over the years developed its niche as primarily a business-to-business enterprise selling to private-label (store) brands and food-service companies. It “co-manufactures” products with brand label firms — and not just for the dining table but the bowl on the floor. Simmons Foods claims to be the largest private-label pet food manufacturer in North America.
Mark Simmons in 1974 became president. He was 26, having begun working there in 1968 after graduating from UA with a business degree. In his first years he worked in the field and also handled special projects for his father, M.H. “Bill” Simmons, the firm’s co-founder who died in 1974 following a long illness.
Bill Simmons started the company with Frank Pluss in 1949 and bought out Pluss a few years later.
Mark Simmons was named board chairman in 1987. He turned over the CEO mantel toTodd Simmons only in late 2012, who had served a decade as chief operating officer.
Mark Simmons is a founder of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a private nonprofit that focuses on the region’s infrastructure, economic development, education and related matters. He was a top proponent to create Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. Simmons has been a longtime board member of John Brown University in Siloam Springs. He has been an officer of the Nature Conservancy and is a founding board member of the Illinois River Watershed Partnership. The Arkansas Poultry Federation has honored Simmons, and he has held top positions in The Poultry Federation.
Lee in an email credited for his friend’s induction “the growth and success of Simmons Foods under his leadership [which] has made Simmons one of the largest employers in the state of Arkansas. Mark has been generous with both his time and financial resources for the betterment of NWA and the state of Arkansas.”
In an interview in his light-filled, Prairie-style office, Simmons, 67, explained how he steered the company to its specialties.
“My dad didn’t focus on private label, but he didn’t shy away from it,” he said. “[From the mid-1950s we sold] cut-up, tray-pack chicken with the Manor House label on it, which was a Safeway label. Dad did some branding work, but never had used the name Simmons much. … We recognized in the mid-’90s that we were not going to be able to develop our own brand name.
“We’ve chosen to focus our business down on a more narrow path, where we’re about 3 percent of the national production roughly.”
Besides private label for store chains and its own Bolo brand, Simmons Foods co-manufactures pet products. Most are confidential but “we do the canned pet food for most of the Iams products” as well as the boutique company Blue Buffalo.
“We started the Ol’ Roy brand with Mr. Sam [Walton] in ’79,” Simmons said.
“We try to still feel small, but we’re not, we’re 6,000 people,” he said.
After the 20th century ended and with the company’s course set, he looked toward the future. He wanted his son to have the resources he didn’t.
“My dad was sick a lot, and I didn’t get to work with him a whole lot, four or five years, before he passed away. … He and I never had a really strong conscious discussion about whether I was coming back to the business or not. I assumed I was.”
“It was almost an accident that [my father] had a strong enough organization to survive my education” in the workplace, he said.
“Given that experience, the abrupt experience with his father, he very intentionally created an environment for me” to learn the job, Todd Simmons said in a telephone interview. “He has allowed me to make mistakes, and move me into the right direction.
“My mom and dad always encouraged my sister [Sarah] and me with ‘you don’t have to do what I do.’ They encouraged us to seek other things.
“Growing up, I always want to be a chicken man like my dad. … It was different for my sister [Sarah].”
She lives in Connecticut and has a boy and a girl. She is involved in the family business as well as being a member of its advisory board, said a company representative.
Todd and Shelley Simmons plan to pass along to their Caroline and Charlie the lessons of Mark Simmons and his wife of 46 years, Diane. “We want to share with them the understanding there’s a responsibility in being an owner, in being an employee,” the new chief executive said. “We want to raise our kids to understand the value of a dollar and the importance of giving.”
Besides Todd Simmons, “our management team has matured away from me,” Mark Simmons said. “Now we are developing management talent that is more of a job of recognizing who is talented and helping them develop. That is much more my job today. But it still is work.”