Franklin "Frank" Parsons Perdue was a farmer from Maryland who revolutionsed the poultry industry in America through the introduction of his brand name chickens.
A Shy Boy From Maryland
Frank was born on the 9th of May 1920 in Salisbury to Arthur W Perdue and his wife Pearl Perdue. Whilst working on the railroads in Salisbury in 1915, Franks father decided that he would love to become a farmer. He knew that there wasn't money in agriculture, but the egg farmers seemed to be prosper. So in the same year as Frank was born, Arthur left the railroad, bought his first car and set up business.
A Family Business
It was this business that Frank was involved in from an early age. At first he helped his parents to feed the chickens and empty their coops.
"I always helped my father with the farm, from the time I was so small that I had to hold an egg with two hands.
He started work with the family at 7 in the morning. His father was very disciplined and hard working and encouraged Frank to do the same. He was also thrifty and made good use of items which were ordinarily thrown away such as saving old shoes to use their leather for mending door hinges.
By the time he was 10 his father had given him his own responsibilities in the business. 50 of the least promising laying hens from the farm. Frank gave them lots of attention and after a month had them laying as many eggs as the other hens. He made between $10 and $20 a month with the 50 chickens which was a good amount of money in Depression.
I kept records on how much the chickens ate, what I paid for their feed, and how much I earned for the eggs. That experience gave me a taste for the business."
In 1937, Frank attended Salisbury State Teachers College. He graduated in 1939 but decided that teaching wasn't for him as he wanted to earn more money than a teacher career would offer, so went back home to work for his father.
Whilst working for his father he gave his all to the company working 16 hours a day. He even had a cot in his office where he would nap when he felt tired despite his house being across the road.
A Change of Direction
An infectious disease called leukosis wiped out the companies flock of 2000 Leghorn chickens just before World War II. This meant a change for the company as they decided to start again with a breed of chicken less susceptible to diseaeses, the New Hampshire Red. They also changed from having egg production as their priority to broilers. This happened at just the right time as meat prices climbed during the war. This is when the Perdues started hatching thousands of their own chicks, and after raising them, sold them. By 1943 they were making £1000 a week which inspired Frank's father to change the name of the company to A.W. Perdue && Son.
After the war, the Perdue's added another string to their bow. They became feed dealers. Frank suggested that his father should be the saleman for the feed side of the business, but his dad had other ideas and insisted that Frank did. Being a feed salesman helped the shy Frank Perdue come out of himself as he was proud of the product he was selling.
"In 1951, I started mixing my own. To research it, I went to Arkansas, and I met John Tyson and many people in the chicken business there. Being so far away in Maryland, I was no competitive threat to them, so they weren't reluctant to answer my questions. I also got information on feed formulations from different universities. I was one of the early ones to mix my own feed in this area."
He developed a feed which contained marigold petals and dye which when fed to the chickens, gave them a golden hue without changing their taste, but made them sell better.
Frank was made president of the family business in 1952. At this time it had a revenue of $6 million a year and processing 2.6 million broilers a year. The chickens were hatched at the Perdues farms and then dispatched to contract farms to be raised. The largest contract farm was the Country Time farm in Salisbury. It had two enormous chicken house holding 33,000 chickens each. They were both automated to give the chickens 22 hours of daylight each to encourage the birds to keep eating so that at 7 weeks they weighed 8 pounds and were ready to be sent to processing plants.
Expansion of the Business
By 1967, Perdue decided that the processors who prepared the chickens for sale were making the most profit in the chicken business due to the massive expansion of the business and the profit per chicken lowering. This led to him buying a proccesing plant in need of renovation.
Before any chickens were processed, Perdue did extensive market research. He spent ten weeks on the road finding out what people wanted ranging from how they were packaged to what improvements needed to be made to the quality of chickens already on the market. He returned to the farm with two thick notebooks full of information from butchers who knew about the need for quality produce.
New York was the first place he was to release his new line of chickens and decided advertising was the way to proceed. He approached the head of advertising for Best Foods who told him that it didn't make any sense to advertise chicken. Frank didn't agree with this marketing theory an continued with his plan.
Radio commercials for Perdue chickens started in 1968 and the price of their chickens went up steadily year by year. In the third year, they decided to switch advertising agencies. After interviewing 48 different agencies, he decided on Scali McCabe & Sloves who visited Perdue's premises and learnt how the business worked.
"As we were walking around, if I saw somebody doing something wrong, I would go over and raise hell about it. That's how I operate, but they were shocked. They thought, "This guy is something!" Ed McCabe called me into his office and said that after seeing how fanatical I was about quality, he thought the ads would work better if I was on camera. I absolutely didn't want to appear in the ads. I hated the idea. But if it would sell more chickens, I'd do it."
So, in 1971 Frank Perdue started appearing in television commercials and became the famous face of poultry through eastern America. Ed McCabe decided on the slogan "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" and with this and Perdues unique look which some describe as a bald headed droopy eyed chicken, the family farm was transformed into the third largest chicken processor in the USA.
Perdue featured in 156 different adverts between 1971 an 1994 and brand recognition rose drastically countrywide.
He also decided that the best way to persuade companies to buy Perdue chickens was to show them how the chickens were prepared for sale. He organised as many as 26 charter flights a year to take distributors and supermarket meat managers around the Perdue plant for a tour. They would stay and have lunch and meet Perdue himself. No-one had really taken notice of the influence the supermarket workers had over the customers before, and Perdue capitalised on the idea.
In the 1970s, Perdue added more processing plants to the companies portfolio. These were in Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina making Perdue chickens available in more places and enabling the shipping of more than two million broilers a week, packed in ice.
Father and Son
Frank's son, Jim, started work for the company in 1983.
"It was never a question that I would someday hand the business over to him. So in 1991, when I was 71, Jim took over as president, and he now serves as chairman and CEO."
Frank didn't retire however. He still went to work every day and was involved in business meetings. He also spent time visiting growers and farmers.
There were some low points in Frank life though. At one point the company aeroplane had to be sold to combat a ebb in business and there were a few problems with animal rights issues and workers unions. In the late 1980s, there was a complaint about the workers in his plants getting health problems. This was found to be due to the repetative handling, sorting and cutting tasks throughout the day. $40,000 was paid in fines to the workers in two plants in North Carolina in 1989 for carpal tunnel syndrome and a program to reduce injuries through job rotation and rest periods was established a few years later.
By 1994, Jim started appearing in the Perdue television commercials instead of Frank.
With Frank's determination, obsession with quality, hard work, innovation and honesty, he regularly ranked in Forbes list of 400 richest American. By 1997, he was ranked 214th with an estimated net worth of $825 million. The company now sells more than 48 million pounds of chicken products every week as well as turkey, grain, vegetable oils and ingredients for pet food.
At the age of 84, on March 31st 2005, Frank Perdue died after a brief illness at his home in Salisbury, Maryland. The cause of death wasn't released fuelling rumours that he dies from avian flu. He was still chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors of Perdue Farms Inc. He was laid to rest in Parsonsburg, Maryland after a funeral service which was held at Emmanual Wesleyan Church.
He left his third wife, Mitzi Ayala Perdue, four children from his first marriage, 12 grandchildren and 2 stepchildren.
Frank's generoristy lives on through his dedication to charitable causes including the Arthur W. Perdue baseball stadium he paid $4 million to have built in his father's honour and the business school he donated to Salisbury University.
drownzsurf says "He was famous for getting dwi's by the State Police, too."