Donnie Smith, the former CEO of Tyson Foods, will turn 60 years old next week. Retired for nearly two years, Smith has focused on four areas with his time and talent. Smith was the speaker at the Summit Business Luncheon at Cross Church in Rogers on Thursday (Sept 26).
Smith said after walking away from 30-plus years at Tyson Foods, he struggled with what to do each day. He said the fast-pace world of corporate America was always ripe with challenges and obstacles which he found exciting and fulfilling.
Before he officially stepped away as CEO, Smith said he called a family meeting with his three children and his wife, Terry. He asked them to think about what they wanted the Smith family legacy to be. It would be something he would invest in and work on for the rest of his life.
“When we met again around Thanksgiving they overwhelmed me with their ideas and we settled on four lanes to focus on which are feeding the hungry, helping the poor, caring for kids at risk and leadership development,” Smith said.
The Smith Family Foundation focuses on these four areas and has learned to say no to requests outside these lanes, he added. Smith said he plunged headfirst into the African Agricultural Sustainability Project and set out to help farmers in Rwanda create businesses that raise the standard of living and stamp out hunger and food insecurity.
Smith, who spoke of his investments in Africa last year at the Trade with Africa summit held in Bentonville, said his family foundation began setting up farmers with small chicken coops costing $625, which they finance over three years. They teach the farmer sustainable broiler raising practices. He said the growers have been able to raise their standard of living because they sell birds after 6 weeks for roughly $87, much more than the average $27 monthly income for a family of 5.
Smith also runs two feed mills and a chicken hatchery to supply better quality chicks for the growers. He said the family bought into a chicken breeding operation in Zimbabwe, a connection he made through his position at Tyson. Smith said all the enterprises in Rwanda are being run by locals which creates more jobs and helps with economic development.
Smith has said by 2050 the world will have added 2 billion more people and half of them will live in Africa. His mission for the rest of his life is to try and foster sustainable farming practices across the continent so families can break the cycle of poverty and feed the generations to come.
Aside from the investments in Africa, Smith and his wife Terry also gave $3.2 million to their alma mater the University of Tennessee to establish the Smith Endowed Chair for International Sustainable Agriculture. He said learnings from this venture will be shared with his farmers in Africa and elsewhere.
Smith said his oldest daughter Rachel had a passion for teaching children with disabilities and for years he sought to provide her with a stage to do that work. The family trust purchased a camp in Gentry, that was a former WPA campsite about 18 months ago and began rebuilding the camp into a place where she could teach and enrich the lives of children with disabilities. He said Camp Acacia opened this summer and he spends time there mowing and doing whatever needs to be done.
Smith also obtained his pilot’s license and is working on the instrumentation license. He said flying is the one thing he always wanted to learn, and retirement provided him the time.
While Smith is enjoying this quieter phase of this life, he said, “I miss the hunt, I miss the fight and the external challenges of running a large company. I loved the thrill of creating a new product or signing a new customer and most of all … so many of the relationships I made during my years at Tyson Foods.”
Smith said he didn’t miss “trying to convince a 34-year-old analyst that I know what I am doing” and “regulatory overreach and Washington thinking it knows best on how to run a business.”
When asked to share some leadership insights, Smith said those five to seven years into their careers should “bloom where you’re planted. Do your job and do it well, seek out new learning opportunities and those looking down will notice.”
For those stuck in middle management, Smith said it is important to focus on relationships, and think about your job as not what you do, but more like what gets done under your watch. He said this is the time in your career to focus on interpersonal relationships and building crucial leadership skills so you can get more out of the teams you supervise.
“Be where you are and be the best you can be,” Smith said.
For senior employees nearing retirement, Smith urged them to take their knowledge and find ways to pass that along to shorten the path to success for the ones coming behind. He said this is a time to mentor and share wisdom collected over the years.
“Throughout my life, it is felt more like bumper cars and I think having a mentor along the way would have helped smooth the transitions. I do enjoy mentoring others today,” he said.
Smith said he doesn’t want to waste a day. He said losing his friend Dennis Leatherby, former Tyson chief financial officer, who died suddenly just three months after he retired was a wakeup call.