New Tyson Foods CEO Dean Banks Talks Company’s Digital Transformation

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Dean Banks discovered early that Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale was pressing hard on its technological efforts.

Banks, a former executive at Alphabet Inc.’s technology company X, had been named a member of Tyson Foods’ board of directors in 2017. At an early meeting, he questioned whether the company had looked into using a certain technology. A business unit leader left the meeting and returned with a laptop presentation of how the company was using that “cutting edge” tech.

“I found the culture here at Tyson — I wouldn’t say surprising because you know there is a lot of amazing tech here — but overwhelmingly surprising in a sense that I would come to board meetings thinking I could offer something technologically,” Banks said. “That is one of the reasons why I am here.

“Tyson Foods and actually many of the Fortune 500 companies are in a pole position effectively to take advantage of these technological developments that we see very minimally utilized across corporate America. There is not really an industry more suited than farming. Information technology today allows you to dramatically expand the scale and scope of what an individual can do.”

Banks took over as Tyson Foods’ CEO on Oct. 3 and joined Chief Technology Officer Scott Spradley in a video presentation Tuesday for the Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit. The annual summit was held as a virtual event this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Banks said he was always drawn to his passion of innovation and technology through his career, which has included a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps and executive positions in the health care and venture capital industries. As the world’s population continues to grow, the challenge of feeding them will only be met with the help of technology, Banks said.

“I can’t imagine being at a better place,” Banks said.

Spradley has long been fascinated by technology since he had a Commodore 64 computer and tried to hack into things as influenced by Matthew Broderick in the 1983 film “WarGames.” Spradley’s career has taken him to companies such as Hewlett Packard, Intel and eventually Tyson Foods.

“I am very curious,” Spradley said. “I want to find ways to solve problems.”

Spradley has led Tyson Foods’ digital transformation, starting with consolidating all its transactions and information on a single platform. That has been the foundation used as the company has expanded its portfolio from poultry to include beef, prepared foods and international sales in recent years.

“I made the statement in this building long ago when I said, ‘We really ought to be a technology company that just happens to be the preeminent provider of protein,’ ” Spradley said. “We are on that journey.”

Banks said technology is not just about building robots to do automotive work; beside, he said, humans are much more skilled at many jobs than a robot could be or will be for many years. Technology is about such things as sustainability, visibility and, if Banks had to choose one word to describe protein in five years, intimacy.

Banks said the world has gotten more spread out as the population has grown and the distance between farm to table has grown lengthier. He said he believes within the next decade, though, it will be possible for someone about to eat a steak dinner to access an app that details that entire supply chain journey of that meal. 

Tyson Foods is also working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on using technology to record and video protein production and inspections, something that because of manpower limitations is not possible for every chicken breast, pork loin and T-bone. Having such technology available would allow more efficient monitoring and reduced production delays.

It would also allow Tyson Foods to immediately know if a product has been compromised and give the company the ability to remove it from the supply chain.

“The underbelly of the technological transformation is to first bring visibility; make sure we can see everything that is going on,” Banks said. “The second step is to get predictive and get better understanding.” 

Tyson Foods has promoted its sustainability efforts recently, including a beef initiative on cattle raised on more than 5 million acres of land. Banks said technology will allow pastures and livestock to be properly managed and supervised in ways impossible with the old ways of ranching.

“Within 10 years, maybe sooner, I don’t want there to be a tradeoff between sustainability and having animal protein,” Banks said. “Animals have always been a critical part of an ecology.”

Spradley said Tyson Foods’ use of new technology puts it ahead of many of its competitors; a “new Tyson Foods,” as he called it. Banks, when asked about Tyson Foods’ use of new technologies, said the company has reached a tipping point.

“I would say, prepare to be surprised,” Banks said. “Most non-technology companies, when they go to deploy technology, they have a set of problems or challenges. Every business has them. They think, ‘Oh I’m going to bring machine learning to fix this one thing.’

“Tyson is on a journey in this process, but we are reaching a tipping point. The tipping point is when you are deploying technology on known problems but a cluster of different technologies start to yield a future you wouldn’t have thought possible. It is the art of what is possible that is at the stage of being discovered here. Now where can we go? It’s exciting.”