Buddy Wray says mistakes are necessary for business success

by The City Wire staff (info@thecitywire.com) 54 views 

Buddy Wray does not fear mistakes or weaknesses. They are essential to the growth of any company, he says. But there is a caveat.

“Now, don’t make the same mistake over and over,” he noted during a recent interview.

And weaknesses are good only if honestly assessed, with the assessment used to develop strengths within processes, products and people. Or all three at the same time.

“Too many great things happen through mistakes, so you have to look at those … and find strengths in what your weaknesses are.”

Donald “Buddy” Wray, 77, one of the legendary execs who helped Don Tyson grow a regional poultry operation into a multibillion global food company, is one of four new members of the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.

After a short stint with the U.S. Army and after graduating from the University of Arkansas with an agri degree, Wray began with Tyson Foods in 1961. In 1959, Leland 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.

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 is poised to post total revenue of around $42 billion in its next fiscal year.

During the same time, Tollett was rising through the ranks to run parts of the business involved in getting the chickens to processing facilities. Wray’s responsibility was then to turn the clucking chickens into higher margin dead chickens.

Wray said one of the first times he and Tollett traveled with Don to visit with market analysts, Don Tyson introduced them as “live chicken and dead chicken.”

But after going public in 1963, the company became more complex than a bifurcation based on the status of a chicken. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Don Tyson was focused on growing the company, primarily through acquisitions. By 1982 Tyson Foods made the Fortune 500 list. Wray said it was often he and Tollett’s job to integrate the new operations Don would add to the portfolio.

Although it required a bitter fight with ConAgra Foods and ended up costing Tyson Foods a premium price of $1.45 billion (roughly $450 million more than the initial offer), acquiring Holly Farms in 1989 boosted Tyson Foods’ U.S. market share in chicken to more than 25%. 

Not all of the Tyson acquisitions were a success. The 1992 purchase of Arctic Alaska Fisheries proved to be a multi-million dollar bust. Wray said it was relatively easy to know how many chickens could be produced to meet demand. There was no certainty in how many fish could be scooped from the sea.

“We just couldn’t make that work,” he said.

A year before the Alaska deal, Wray was promoted from chief operating office to company president. He held that position until he retired in 2000. He also served on the Tyson Board of Directors between 1994 and 2003.

In addition to hiring smart people “who have different specialties,” Wray said part of the success of those several decades was the chemistry between he, Don and Leland. They were similar in age, essentially grew up together in the business and had the opportunity to work several years with company founder John W. Tyson.

“Did we always agree? No,” Wray said, adding that Don “could get very mad,” but it was never personal and there never were hard feelings or grudges held.

The triumvirate of Don, Leland and Buddy appeared to have ended its run in 2000. Tollett ended his day-to-day work in 1998. Wray retired in 2000. Don had turned over company management to his son, John, in 2000.

With the purchase of beef producer IBP in 2001, several new faces were added to the Tyson management roster. Sales initially boomed for Tyson Foods, but commodity prices, competition and a national recession began to weigh on the company’s bottom line. Deeply in debt, Don called the old school kids together for one last tour. 

“Don called Leland. Leland said he would come back if I would,” Wray explained of his 2008 return to the company as executive vice president-special assistant to the president and CEO. That interim CEO was Tollett. One of the first things they did was to bring Donnie Smith into the mix and prep him to become the next CEO.

Wray said there were no “major tweaks” required to get the company back to profitability. 

“I did the old walk around,” Wray said when asked how he began the process of getting the company back on its feet.

A change in culture removing some measure of authority and responsibility from key managers resulted in what Wray said is the worst thing that can happen in any business.

“They were all turtled up,” Wray said, using his body to mimic a person pulling up within a shell.

Wray told the story of a mid-level manager coming to him with a problem. Instead of responding to the manager’s request for help, Wray, who with his wife Linda are possibly the biggest fans of Razorback basketball, began to talk about sports. The manager would bring the conversation back to the problem. Wray would again talk sports. Eventually the manager presented his own solution to fix the problem. It was a good solution and it worked.

“The people were there. They could get it done. … You just had to get them to open up,” Wray said. “We just had to back off and let them do it. We had to get back to the culture.”

The culture is back. And humming. Wray ended his second run with Tyson in February 2014. On Nov. 17, Tyson Foods blew past market expectations and posted fiscal year revenue of $37.58 billion, well ahead of the $34.374 billion in the previous fiscal year. Annual income of $864 million was up 11.05% over the 2013 fiscal year.

Wray does not back away from his belief that corporate success can be as simple as hiring the right people and giving them the tools to succeed. He also had a simple answer when asked how the college graduate of today might become a future business hall of famer. His advice was to work hard, work smart, and have fun.

“I can honestly say to you that I never dreaded, not one day, never dreaded going to work. Now, some days were more fun than the others.”