Monday, January 09, 2012

Visiting some Lutherans at Tyson Foods Corporate

The history of Lutheranism and Tyson Foods in Northwest Arkansas are curiously intertwined. Of course, Tyson is much bigger than Lutheranism in Northwest Arkansas. Much bigger. Their corporate headquarters in Springdale has approximately 2500 employees, and that is just one of many locations for Tyson in NWA.

The reason Lutherans have a Tyson connection has a lot to do with IBP. Tyson has, over the years, acquired many other companies, and in the late 1990s (I think--any Tyson employees reading this should fact check me on details) Tyson bought IBP, a meat-packing plant based in Iowa.

Still, you might wonder why Lutherans. Well, for one, I grew up on a farm in Iowa, and we raised cattle, and we sold most of our cattle to IBP. So in a round-about if ancillary way the pastor of the only ELCA church in Fayetteville has an IBP connection.

The main connection, however, is Sioux City, Iowa, plus a few other places in NW Iowa and NE Nebraska, all of which saw many people in IBP management make the shift to Tyson, relocating them and their families to Northwest Arkansas in the process. Good Shepherd Lutheran in Fayetteville saw steady growth through the last decade, fueled to a good degree by the migration of these families to the area.

The presence of Lutherans in Arkansas is almost exclusively through secondary migration, so this should be no surprise. Some of the best evangelists for Lutheranism in this fine state have been developers of retirement communities, and these major corporations like Tyson and Walmart (not to mention the University of Arkansas) who have brought Lutherans from "up north." We have yet to, but are working on, becoming "indigenous."

As a result, our congregation is made up of many, many people who have moved here from elsewhere, especially the upper midwest.

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Today I had the opportunity to take a brief tour of Tyson corporate headquarters. I had lunch with six men who work with Tyson in various departments, including accounting, packaging, Walmart-division, human resources, etc. Before lunch, I had the opportunity to stop and visit with the director of the chaplaincy department. Tyson Foods is unique among major corporations in having developed an outstanding chaplaincy department. Many Tyson plants have a full-time, or at least a part time chaplain, on staff. Chaplains provide various kinds of caring and listening presence, do ministry-by-walking-around, and offer services during emergency or traumatic situations.

They also play a crucial role in helping plants and companies with very diverse religious constituencies navigate the intricacies of a multi-faith context. If you're Muslim, there are certain kinds of meat you won't want work with. If you're a Coptic Christian, you observe Christmas at a different time than the rest of the culture. And so on. One plant Tyson runs has 26 different primary languages spoken. Tyson is incredibly diverse. Chaplaincy helps navigate this diversity faithfully.

Tyson has chaplains first of all by philosophical inclination, because their CEO believes in bringing together faith and the workplace (see, for example, the center Tyson has developed at the University of Arkansas for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace), but also because they see workplace and financial benefits. Since it is costly to lose employees or have high rates of turnover, it is not unimportant that Tyson and other companies have seen lower rates of turnover in plants that have a healthy and functioning chaplain.

After time spent with the chaplain, we ate lunch. It's a big enough place that by bringing together six men from various departments, all of whom go to the same church and work in the same complex, some of them were meeting each other for the first time. Fun to sit and listen and hear them describe their work. In the modern white collar world, it often takes a bit of listening and time to understand what it is people actually do in their work. When we work in teams, and only do part of the whole, this is even more true.

Nevertheless, touring and talking helped me understand what Tyson does much better than I had in the past. The company is about foods and meats, and it is as much about shipping, efficiencies, and packaging. They have to find effective ways to get large amounts of products all over the world, and package them in such a way that consumers want to buy them off the shelf (and since I'm a novice, layperson in this area, I'm probably not saying any of this with the precision and wisdom many of those who work at Tyson would employ).

As a result, at the headquarters there is a whole area devoted to product testing, test kitchens, test processing centers, to see both how the foods will appear and taste, but also how they will work their way along conveyor belts and other machines, all the way to how they will appear on the shelf or in the refrigerator or freezer display.

The whole building has a spectacular feel, with amazing art lining many of the hallways (think, for example, actual Andy Warhols!). It's a modern corporate office building, conference center, and educational space that has been developed right on top of what once was (and to a certain extent still is) a cattle grazing ranch.

I'm proud to have such competent, skilled people as members of our congregations, influencing and leading a company like Tyson. They give a real impression of loving their work and taking pride in their company.

On the way out, we toured the new mini-museum that charts the development of Tyson corporation. Visit it some time. It is a great example of telling the story, and reinforcing the corporate mythos.

Since Tyson food is on half of the pizzas served in our nation, and sells approximately 1/3 of the meat we eat (especially in our public schools) it's a company worth knowing about. Thanks to everyone for the tour!

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I just shared this on my blog. I used to work for the old Monfort/Swift & Co. and we too, having former IBP folks, had a fair number of Lutherans in our area of Colorado which was heavily Catholic and Mormon--and then us Iowa and Nebraska boys and girls who went to the Lutheran churches in Greeley (all four of them!).