Last month, I paid my first visit to Arkansas as part of a media event with Tyson Foods. One of my favorite parts of exploring new areas is getting a chance to experience local history in person – seeing a town with your own eyes brings the past to life in a special way. During my stay, I explored Bentonville and Springdale, which are primarily on the map for being home to Walmart and Tyson Headquarters, respectively. John Tyson and Sam Walton were both local to this area and good friends back in the early days, long before their small companies would turn into internationally-known powerhouses, which helps explain why the two companies are so linked. That, coupled with the the fact that this area is a major trucking hub, gives a clear picture as to how these companies grew and became what they are today.
We started off our visit with a tour of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a free museum founded by Sam Walton’s daughter Alice. An avid art lover, she opened this museum to display a large collection of art from the United States, including some pieces from her private collection. There was a prominent Andy Warhol piece showcased, which was a treat – he is one of my favorite artists, so it’s always a pleasure to view his work in person. Fittingly, there is also an entire hallway of his work displayed on a hallway in Tyson HQ – a literal Andy War-hall. If only he’d made a Tyson chicken print!
Following our tour of the museum, we also stopped by the Walmart Museum in Bentonville. Here, the history of the company is laid out, showing the many products and changes over the years.
My favorite part was a wall showing some of the most unusual returned items the Sam Walton received. This hand mixer was brought back for a refund due to “Possession”:
Just a few miles down the road in Springdale is the Tyson Founder’s Room museum, which is located in Tyson’s Corporate Headquarters and open to the public.
We were shown around by a longtime tour guide – and lucked out to have him, as this was one of his last tours prior to retirement. As with many longtime residents, he was good friends with the Tyson family and remembers seeing John Tyson at his church when he was a child – or, as he was always referred to, “Mr. John”.
Mr. John was a product of the depression, starting his chicken farm with a nickel. A true farmer, he knew all there was to know about raising quality chickens, but it was his son Don who had a truly ambitious marketing vision for the company. Don Tyson used his business savvy to propel this small family farm into what we know today.
Don liked to make his point efficiently. One well-known anecdote is that, prior to the company going public, a team was brought on board to give a thorough presentation to potential shareholders. They labored over a meticulous presentation of spreadsheets and slides – but before they got a chance to speak, Don took the stage and showed the crowd this stick figure diagram. “Look, boys, it’s very simple: We have the farms, which make the chicken for our plants, which goes to the customer, and then we profit. Any questions?” And the rest is history!