New Tyson Chief An 'Inside Outsider'

November 22, 2016 | The Wall Street Journal

Tom Hayes will take over as chief executive of Tyson Foods Inc. just as the nation’s biggest meat producer faces a new bout of competition for consumers in both supermarkets and restaurants.

Supplies of beef, pork and chicken are plentiful, with downward pressure on supermarket and restaurant prices that were reflected in Tyson’s latest quarterly results.

Mr. Hayes’s 29-year background in prepared foods will be leveraged as the company continues its pivot away from commoditized meats into greater reliance on prepared meals and meats that have been cooked or pre-seasoned.

Prepared meals are one of the fastest-growing supermarket categories, though Tyson faces intense competition from private-label producers.

The 51-year old University of New Hampshire graduate has taken a more prominent role in investor briefings since arriving at Tyson in 2014 and has emphasized its global ambitions that have fueled analyst speculation that it could seek another big acquisition, even with asset prices that analysts say are elevated.

Mr. Hayes will take over the CEO role held by Donnie Smith for the past seven years, having been anointed as successor in June with his appointment as president of the Springdale, Ark., company.

He joined Tyson from Hillshire Brands at the time of Tyson’s $7.7 billion purchase of the company in 2014 that added brands such as Jimmy Dean sausages and Ball Park hot dogs, enhancing Tyson’s position in higher-margin prepared foods.

Mr. Hayes, who also has an M.B.A. from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, has previously worked at units of ConAgra Brands Inc., Kraft Heinz Foods Inc., Sara Lee Corp and US Foodservice Inc.

He “has been on the board’s CEO succession radar for the last year,’’ said Jeffrey Cohn, managing director for global CEO succession planning at recruiters DHR International. “He’s an ‘inside outsider’ who has proven himself since the acquisition.’’

Tyson directors were especially impressed by Mr. Hayes’s ability to build teams, lead others and establish credibility with consumers, recalled Mr. Cohn, an acquaintance of Chairman John Tyson and a former Tyson adviser.

He “is a strong operator who is able to think creatively and develop new products,’’ Mr. Cohn added. “That’s hard to find in one person.’’

It is especially challenging to run Tyson right now because the company needed a CEO who could “lead two different types of businesses with different economics and cultures,’’ and execute a consumer-focused strategy, Mr. Cohn said.