Questions about John R. Tyson were brutal but justified

Financial analysts and journalists asked some really tough questions concerning both the promotion and the arrest of John R. Tyson. But were those questions too tough?

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After every fiscal quarter concludes, Tyson Foods hosts an earnings call with analysts and hosts a related question-and-answer call for journalists that regularly cover the company.

These are almost always must-participate events, but the timing of these particular calls made it even more so.

As I would suspect nearly every one of our regular readers knows, the company’s newly appointed chief financial officer, John R. Tyson, a descendant of the man who founded the company, was arrested on November 6 on suspicion of criminal trespass and public intoxication after he was allegedly found asleep and smelling of alcohol in the residence of a young woman whom he did not know.

Tyson Foods’ CFO has traditionally spoken, at minimum, at the earnings calls, and since this was the first quarter to conclude after his promotion, he was expected to speak and take questions.

That certainly upped people’s interest in the matter.


John R. Tyson (Courtesy Tyson Foods)

During the earnings call CEO Donnie King was the first to speak, giving a summary of operational and financial dealings over the past quarter. Then it was on to the CFO, who offered a more detailed analysis of the fiscal aspects of the quarter.

Then, about 28 minutes into the call, Tyson himself acknowledged the elephant in the room, rapidly reciting what appeared to be a pre-written apology, while also assuring those who were listening that an incident like that would never happen again.

King jumped back in to inform investors that the company takes these charges seriously and that an independent review is taking place.

What people wanted to know

When it comes to the court of public opinion, the 32-year-old Tyson is at an awkward age. Some people view him as too young to hold the responsibilities of being the CFO of one of the world’s largest food companies. But they also view him as being too old to still be getting drunk to the point of such alleged incoherence.

And one analyst on the earnings call insinuated Tyson was too young and inexperienced to be the CFO, stating that Tyson had a history of “putting people into the CFO role who have 20-plus years in the finance track,” adding the company in the new hirings “did the opposite.” He followed by asking how Tyson Foods was “responding culturally to these decisions?”

King said he was “perfectly comfortable” with the company’s decision to reassign Tyson from his previous position as chief sustainability officer to the CFO position, and touted his experience not only in the world of finance, but also with Tyson Foods.

During the rest of the earnings call, questions about the circumstances surrounding Tyson’s recent arrest was pretty well left alone, but in the media call, it was a different story.

Suffice it to say punches were not pulled.

One reporter bluntly asked: “Could you tell us a little bit more about what was going through your mind on that night and how you found yourself in that young woman’s apartment? Could you just give us an update on the police investigation and what you think happens next on that?”

Tyson responded by reiterating points of his earlier comment, while offering nothing further.

Another reporter, speaking directly to Tyson, informed him that he had read reports that he would seek alcohol counseling, and asked him to elaborate on that. Tyson said he earlier addressed that topic with Tyson Foods employees, and declined to speak further on the matter.

Then came the questions to King, asking him who exactly would be the people conducting the review of the alleged incident, and what types of questions would be asked and answered.

King declined to answer either question and instead described the company’s “robust corporate governance program,” and that the program should be allowed to “run its course” as it relates to the CFO’s situation.

Were the questions appropriate?

I’ll have to admit that I was surprised at the boldness of some of the questions, mainly because earlier calls never featured such tough questions. But then again, never before had there been such circumstances.

Human nature unfortunately is to be a little bit judgmental of people, and often people we don’t even know. I, for one, don’t know Tyson and therefore I don’t know what other things he has going on in his life. I try to be respectful, forgiving and willing to give people grace.

Having said that, I think the reporters were justified in asking such tough questions.

When you are a high-level leader of a business, whether you like it or not, it becomes your persona to many people. And what you do on and off the job reflects on that business. The stakes become even higher when it is a publicly traded company, because if you do something that reflects poorly on that business, that can have financial consequences to those who work for the company, but also those who invested in it.

And there’s nothing wrong with asking for justification of personnel moves if there are people who think those were unwise staffing decisions. Again, that affects the investors financially and the employees in several ways.

Regardless of the outcome of the independent review, there will be someone who is unhappy. In the meantime, I guess we’ll just need to remember the principle of innocent until proven guilty, and to let the review, as King said, “run its course.”

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