- Tyson Foods announced Monday that CEO Tom Hayes will be replaced by Noel White, Tyson's current beef, pork and international group president, at the end of the month, according to a company release. White, who served as Tyson's COO and president of its poultry division from 2013 to 2017, will also serve as company president.
- The meat giant said in the release that Hayes, who has led the company since 2016, "is stepping down for personal reasons." Hayes previously served as chief supply chain officer of Hillshire Brands, which Tyson acquired four years ago.
- Tyson reaffirmed its adjusted earnings guidance of $5.70 to $6.00 per share for the year, but company shares slipped 2.8% in pre-market trading. "I look forward to accelerating the current trajectory of growth as a global modern food company through our operational excellence, innovative thinking and focus to sustainably feed the world," White said in the release. "With the company’s strong portfolio of fast-growing brands, diverse capabilities, exceptional enterprise leadership team and dedicated team members, we are well-positioned for continued success."
Hayes' departure comes as a surprise, considering he took the helm of the meat processor less than two years ago, on New Year's Eve 2016. During this brief time he implemented a series of aggressive changes that better positioned the company to keep up with industry trends and respond to evolving consumer demands.
“The leadership that I’ve hopefully brought to the team can be uncomfortable because people are used to a certain way of working, and when you are trying to transform to be more set up for the future, it sort of butts up against what people have known,” Hayes told Food Dive last year. “They get nostalgic about how things were in the past. They feel the future is a little scary."
But Hayes was careful not to lose sight of Tyson's role as a powerhouse protein producer, either. Tyson's $4.2 billion acquisition of AdvancePierre, maker of ready-to-heat chicken, burgers and sandwiches, and purchase of Original Philly Holdings, producer of raw and fully-cooked cheesesteak products, bolstered the company's presence in prepared protein-based foods under his watch. The strategy has also given the company a new path to stable, long-term growth.
Hayes kept the company's eye on the future by transforming Tyson's corporate leadership structure to better respond to an increasingly volatile protein market. This resulted in 450 layoffs, mostly in the corporate space, to make the legacy food maker more nimble and responsive to market changes. This forward-looking perspective was also reflected in the company's purchase of a 5% stake in plant-based food maker Beyond Meat in 2016, which made Tyson the first major protein producer to invest in a plant-based protein company.
This year, Tyson stepped further beyond the traditional meat space to buy a minority investment in leading cell-cultured meat firm Memphis Meats and co-led a $2.2 million seed investment round for Israeli-based biotech Future Meat Technologies.
"This isn't an 'either or' scenario; it’s a 'yes and' scenario," Hayes said in a statement explaining that lab-grown meat doesn't compete with Tyson's main business. "If you think about it, a protein strategy inclusive of alternative forms is intuitive for Tyson Foods. It's another step toward giving today’s consumers what they want and feeding tomorrow's consumers sustainably for years to come."
Significant expansions of the company's meat processing plants, as well as the construction of a new Tennessee poultry facility and the sale of two of Tyson's non-protein businesses, also marked Hayes' determination to "double down" on protein. Tyson continued this strategy more recently with its $2.16 billion acquisition of Keystone Foods, maker of McDonald's chicken nuggets in August.
It would be wise for White to continue Hayes' search for bolt-on deals that can strengthen Tyson's portfolio and make it a more dynamic competitor in the meat space. This is likely why Tyson decided to name a successor in-house, since White's extensive experience with the company has earned him valuable insight not only into Tyson's customers, but also the strengths and weaknesses of the meat producer's latest strategy.
Tyson isn't the only company attuned to growing consumer demand for protein as well as plant-based and lab-grown meat alternatives. Cargill has also been a first-mover investor in these budding categories, and White will need to be on the lookout for future deals that can expand Tyson's share in these markets. Still, Hayes leaves Tyson in a strong position and a clear blueprint for the company's future — assets that should help White hit the ground running once he transitions to CEO.