Don Tyson, an aw-shucks Arkansas farmhand who turned his father's single-truck poultry-hauling business into a worldwide protein empire, crowning himself America's "Chicken King," died Thursday at his home near Springdale, Ark. He was 80 and had cancer.
Tyson was the longtime leader of Tyson Foods, the top U.S. meat producer with sales of more than $28 billion a year and 115,000 workers across the globe.
Under his direction, Tyson Foods became the leading supplier of chicken and meat products to 88 of the top 100 fast-food restaurants.
Tyson sold chicken to Burger King and KFC. When McDonald's wanted to mass-produce a new poultry product, thumb-size boneless tenders, the world's largest fast-food chain turned to Tyson.
He helped develop a new breed of chicken, genetically engineered to grow large breasts, and supplied the company with an endless pile of McNuggets.
For many Americans, Tyson products became the answer to a daily question: What's for dinner?
By the early 2000s, Tyson Foods marketed more than 6,000 products and turned out more than 25 billion pounds of beef, chicken and pork. At peak production, Tyson Foods facilities are capable of slaughtering 25 million chickens in a week.
The key to Tyson's success was in processing meats in innovative ways. In 1972, his company was one of the first to sell frozen chickens to be cooked in microwaves.
His facilities could also debone, marinate, slice, batter, bread, cook and freeze chicken meat into patties, nuggets, tenders, quarters, legs, breasts and whole birds.
"People say, 'I dont want to cook that damn chicken, it takes too long,' " Tyson once said. "They just want to take it out of the package, plunk it in the microwave and serve it."
Donald John Tyson was born in Olathe, Kan. The family moved to Springdale when he was an infant after his father's truck ran out gas in the middle of town.
As Tyson recalled, his father "came into town in 1932 with 11 cents and a half-load of hay." He began supplying feed and baby chicks to poultry farms across the state.
Tyson attended the University of Arkansas but left in 1952 to join the family business. In 1965, he made an indelible mark on the company's history by helping to introduce a new kind of chicken to the market.
Tyson is credited with developing Rock Cornish game hens, small fowl that weigh a few pounds. He sold them whole for 50 cents each -- earning more of a profit than with larger chickens that sold by the pound.
A year later, when Tyson's father and stepmother were killed in a car-train accident, control of the fledgling company was thrust into his hands. At the time, the Tyson company had revenue of $35 million. When Tyson left the business in 2001, revenue had grown to $7.4 billion.
In 2007, Forbes estimated Tyson's net worth at $1 billion.
He was married multiple times.
Survivors include his son, John, now chairman of the business, plus three daughters and two grandchildren.