Tyson Foods in recent years sees rapid turnover at top job

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 6,826 views 

It’s proven to be a tough job to hold as of late. The Tyson Foods chief executive officer role has turned over four times in seven years since Donnie Smith stepped down. Tyson Foods CEO Donnie King, CEO since June 2021, is the fourth in the job since Smith left in 2016.

Smith held the CEO position through a growth period for Tyson Foods from 2009 through 2016. He oversaw the acquisition of Hillshire Farms in 2014 and is credited with achieving four straight years of record net income and multiplying stock value six times in seven years.

At 57, Smith stepped down as CEO with a hefty retirement package valued at $24 million, which included a three-year consulting agreement that paid him a minimum of $5,800 per hour worked. His exit package also included $3.53 million in severance and restricted shares and stock options valued at $5.5 million. Additional shares, valued at $6.69 million, were to vest if his successor Tom Hayes achieved certain performance goals. Smith also had a minimum of $8.16 million in retirement benefits. Smith logged 36 years with Tyson Foods, joining the company after college graduation.

For the first few years into retirement, Smith focused on investing in poultry farms in Africa with his nonprofit African Sustainable Agriculture Project. Smith said in 2019, he was enjoying time with family. But in the summer of 2022, Smith was named CEO of Livingston, Calif.-based Foster Farms, a private company owned by Atlas Holdings.

Smith runs Foster Farms and oversees about 10,000 workers in California, Washington, Louisiana, Oregon and Alabama. The operation is about one-tenth the size of Tyson Foods and only involves chicken production. Foster Farms generates around $3 billion in annual revenue, and Smith’s salary has not been disclosed.

Picture of Donnie Smith during his tenure as Tyson Foods CEO.

Smith and wife Terry relocated to Livingston, in the San Joaquin Valley, in 2022, but they still call Rogers home, according to social media posts. Smith said after five years and a three-year COVID shutdown, he was bored.

“There is nothing good about a bored Donnie Smith,” he said in March speaking at the National Grain and Feed Association’s 127th Annual Convention held in southern California.

Tom Hayes took over as CEO of Tyson Foods in November 2016. Hayes had been promoted to the role of president under Smith a year before his retirement. Hayes joined Tyson Foods in the Hillshire Farms acquisition in 2014.

At 53, Hayes led a shift of Tyson’s strategy to focus on sales of packaged and prepared foods,  which have higher margins than raw meat. He changed the company logo and moved the marketing division to Chicago. Hayes also oversaw acquisitions of Keystone, American Protein, Smart Chicken, Original Philly and AdvancePierre Foods, most of which were still being integrated into Tyson’s business when he resigned.

Tom Hayes, former CEO of Tyson Foods

Hayes was paid $9.486 million in his final year as CEO. His base salary increased to $1.208 million with a cash bonus of $1.392 million, and stocks and options paid to him were valued at $4.698 million and $1.375 million, respectively. His pension and other compensation totaled roughly $812,000.

Less than a year into his tenure, Tyson had to cut its earnings guidance amid volatile commodity markets and challenges in the chicken segment. Less than two years into the CEO role, Hayes announced his departure for personal reasons. He signed a non-compete agreement that expired Dec. 1, 2020. His severance package was valued at about $6.35 million, according to proxy statements when he left the company in late 2018.

In June 2020, Hayes signed on as CEO of Ocean Spray, based near Boston, where he grew up. He continues as CEO there with a salary of around $1 million. Ocean Spray operates as an agriculture cooperative and is owned by the farms. He oversees the production of cranberry juice drinks and dried cranberries and a global organization of more than 700 grower farms and 2,500 employees. The company’s annual revenue is forecast at $2 billion, about 25 times less than Tyson Foods.

He has held the Ocean Spray CEO role longer than his time at Tyson Foods in the same position.

When Hayes exited Tyson Foods, the board of directors selected industry veteran Noel White to take control. He had, by 2018, managed every business in the company’s meat portfolio and oversaw international affairs in the 35 years he had logged with the company.

Former Tyson Foods CEO Noel White

White got a vote of confidence from industry analysts who were “extremely confident” in his ability to run Tyson’s complex business. White was 61 years old when named CEO.

He led the company through unprecedented times of uncertainty and was focused on growing higher-margin sales in the prepared foods segment. Transformation of the segment from primary food service to a diverse unit through the acquisitions of Hillshire Brands, AdvancePierre and Original Philly allowed sales to double in four years.

White was able to negotiate a lucrative exit package from CEO to a board vice chairman role in October 2020. White agreed to a base salary of $1.25 million for the first year, $1.15 million for year two and $1 million for year three (2023). At age 64, White earned $1.464 million last year for his vice chairman role. He also holds more than $6.5 million of Tyson Foods shares in retirement and family trust.

Dean Banks was 46 when he got the nod to take over as CEO of Tyson Foods in October 2020. He had been a board member since 2017, and White had named him to the role of president in 2019.

Dean Banks, former CEO of Tyson Foods

“The board and I are truly excited about the breadth and depth of capabilities of Dean and the entire executive leadership team, and we look forward to the energy and vision they will bring in leading Tyson Foods into the future,” John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, said at the time.

However, many challenges were waiting for Banks. The company had recently posted a volatile third fiscal quarter, with earnings down 22% from the prior year and down 5% on an adjusted basis. The pandemic ensued and continued to disrupt operations. Bank’s experience at Alphabet, the parent company of Google, prior to Tyson Foods prompted Tyson to take a chance hoping the tech expertise would prove valuable.

However, Banks did not have food processing experience, and just eight months into the job, he resigned from the company and the board for personal reasons. He earned $14.48 million in compensation in 2021 and $12.782 million in 2020, including a $5 million sign-on bonus when he took the CEO job in 2020. Banks also got $2.36 million in severance pay in 2021 when he left the company.

His LinkedIn page as “Dean B” indicates he was a senior advisor at Boston-based Advent International in June, and he has been a board member at Indigo for the past year. Banks lists his occupation as a “catalyst for change. Believing, building and investing in a brighter future.”

Since leaving Tyson Foods in June 2021, his LinkedIn page indicates he has served as an advisor at X – The Moonshot Factory in Mountain View, Calif., and a board member at Omeat from February 2022 to March 2023. He is still an acting advisor at Shiru Contract of San Francisco and Vergent Bioscience of Minneapolis, a company he co-founded.