Donnie King Is 53rd Distinguished Alumnus

Forget the plush oval-shaped office, complete with a matching oval desk and oval chandelier above.  Forget the wood paneled walls surrounding a work space large enough for three high level executives.

            The man who occupies this office is a no-nonsense, hard-working guy from Rison who just happens to be second in command of one of the world’s largest food corporations.       

            Donnie King is president of  North American Operations and Food Service for Tyson Foods, Inc., one of the world’s largest processors and marketers of chicken, beef, pork, and processed foods.  He is also the 53rd Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

            King’s success is no accident. He started working part-time at Tyson’s Pine Bluff plant while still in high school, spending spring breaks and summer vacations on the job. His mother, the late Ruby King, had what King describes as a “30-plus year association with Tyson” while his father, the late Marvin King, worked as an independent chicken grower for England Farms.

            Donnie attended UAM from 1980 to 1984, pursuing a degree in business management, but never had time for the traditional college experience. He took classes Monday, Wednesday and Friday and worked at Tyson’s Pine Bluff plant on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. “If I wasn’t in class, I was working,” remembers King.

            During this time, King caught the eye of Dr. William Abbott, general manager of the Pine Bluff operation, who took an interest in the hard-working college student and showed his young protégé the ropes.

            As King neared graduation, he received interest from two poultry companies as well as an offer from Simmons Bank in Pine Bluff. He chose a job in the food industry because “in good times and bad, people do two things – eat and drink.”

            King started out with Tasty Bird Foods in Carthage, Tex., which was bought in short order by Tyson. His earlier experience with Tyson, his work ethic, and his willingness to do things that needed to be done landed him a job as assistant plant manager of the Berry Street plant in Springdale in 1986. In a matter of months, he moved up to manager, at 24, the youngest in Tyson history.

            The same year, King married Charlotte McKinney of Rison. “I’ve known her all my life,” he says. “Rison’s not a big place.  But we didn’t hang out or even like each other in high school.”

            That changed when King returned to Rison in 1984 to check in on his father, who was battling cancer. Charlotte was also back in Rison recuperating from a car wreck. The two ran into each other and started talking. “She said ‘Call me,’ but I didn’t,” says King. Two weeks later, he was back in Rison to tend to his father when he passed Charlotte on the street.  “She wouldn’t even look at me,” he says. “When she finally talked to me she said ‘I thought you were going to call.’”

            Eventually a romance blossomed and Donnie and Charlotte married two years later.

            In 1990, Tyson announced the construction of a new plant in Pine Bluff to produce boneless, skinless chicken for KFC. King asked for the opportunity to manage the plant from the ground up and spent the next three years running the Pine Bluff operation.

            From there, King began a dizzying climb up the Tyson corporate ladder. In 1993 he became logistics manager at Tyson’s Springdale headquarters, then spent 13 months in Monett, Mo., managing Tyson’s complex of 1,000 plant workers and 500 growers. In 1996, Tyson bought McCarty Farms and King went to Jackson, Miss., to oversee five plants and a large grow-out operation.

            In 1999 he returned to Springdale as vice president of several complexes and a few months later took over responsibility for all food service operations. Now he sits at the right hand of Tyson CEO Donnie Smith, supervising production of chicken, beef, pork and processed food while managing the company’s supply chain and food service division.

            To understand the scope of King’s responsibility, take a quick look at these numbers — Tyson Foods had annual sales of $42 billion last year; King was responsible for $36 billion of that total.

            King doesn’t seem fazed by those numbers.  In fact, the bigger the challenge, the more he seems to thrive. “I like dealing with people,” he explains. “I like the challenge. It’s like a large puzzle. I like planning and doing things that others can’t do or haven’t done. And I like getting better every day. I literally get to participate in feeding the world.”

            The Kings have two children – daughter Kristen, 26, who works at Vanderbilt University while completing her degree as a nurse practitioner from the University of Tennessee; and son Mark, 24, who lives in Fayetteville and works in food service sales for Tyson.

            When he has time, and it isn’t often, King stays in shape by working out, running or biking. He lives next to The Blessings, a Robert Trent Jones designed golf course on the north side of Fayetteville, and enjoys an occasional round. But what he really enjoys is work. “To me, working is fun,” he says. “Seeing us be successful is fun.”