Frank Perdue Biography

Born Franklin Parsons Perdue, in 1920, in Salisbury, MD; died after a brief illness, March 31, 2005, in Salisbury, MD. Chief Executive Officer of Perdue Farms. Agri-business pioneer Frank Perdue was responsible for the evolution of his family's chicken business into Perdue Farms, the third-largest poultry producer in the United States. The company captured its market share largely through Perdue's innovative ideas about large-scale breeding and processing, but he also served as its advertising pitchman in a long-running series of television commercials. Thanks to his credible delivery which explained why his birds were superior to those of the competition, Perdue Farms became the first nationally known brand of chicken.

Born in 1920, Perdue was the son of Arthur W. and Pearl Perdue, two egg farmers in Salisbury, Maryland. His father had been a railroad worker, but noticed that the egg farmers who brought their in goods for shipping appeared to be a bit more prosperous than their vegetable-growing counterparts. Perdue began working on his parents' small enterprise at an early age, recalling in one interview that he helped out at time when he still had to use two hands to carry an egg. At the age of ten, he started a farm-club project with some culls, or reject hens destined for slaughter, that his father gave him. He took good care of them, and they soon began to produce as many eggs as the other hens. The venture gave Perdue pocket money of $10 to $20 a month—an impressive sum during the hardest days of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Despite his success, Perdue had zero interest in entering the family business. He loved baseball, and played for the team at State Teachers College in Salisbury, but realized he did not possess the requisite athletic talent. After earning his two-year degree in 1939, he also realized that a lifetime of grading papers might be tedious work, and so he headed back to the egg farm to join his father full-time in the operation. They switched to raising chickens for meat rather than selling eggs after a disease outbreak decimated their flock, and began breeding New Hampshire red chickens for broiler meat. The farm earned a small fortune when meat prices climbed during World War II, and the business grew steadily over the next decade.

Perdue became president of the company in 1952, and continued to oversee the Perdue Farms expansion plan. It was his idea to make the chicken meat appear yellower—thus more appealing to consumers—by adding marigold petals to the feed bins, and he opened new and larger processing plants over the years, which speeded up the time from factory to table. He also began to deliver his packaged meats on ice, rather than fully frozen, when refrigeration technology improved.

It was Perdue's determination to launch a national advertising campaign, however, that turned the company into a nationally known brand. In the early 1970s, he met with several dozen advertising agencies before hiring one that agreed with his plan for a campaign, but he was told that the commercials required a humorous approach, and that he needed to personally convey why his packaged supermarket chicken was better than the rest. Perdue was dubious about both strategies, but agreed to make his first television commercial.

The results were positive for the first Perdue Farms commercial, which aired in 1971. Nearly 200 more followed over the next 23 years, most featuring the tag line, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" and Perdue's homespun delivery. "His bald head," noted New York Times journalist Melanie Warner, "droopy-eyed expression and prominent nose made people smile and feel comfortable with him. They tended to trust him more than they did slick-looking announcers." An analyst of marketing trends echoed the sentiment in another article that paid tribute to Perdue. "He looked and sounded like a chicken," Bob Garfield of Advertising Age told People magazine. "He had a weird authenticity that made you want to believe there was actually something special about his broilers."

Perdue set a new trend in advertising in which the CEO served as spokesperson for the brand. A decade after he started starring in his own commercials, Lee Iacocca of the Chrysler Corporation became Perdue's most well-known imitator. Over time, Perdue's company became the number-three poultry producer in the United States, and its successful strategies were carried on by Perdue's son, Jim, who took over in 1991. By 2004, Perdue Farms posted sales of $2.8 billion in sales, and employed 19,000.

Perdue suffered from Parkinson's disease in his later years, and died after a brief illness on March 31, 2005, at the age of 84. He was married three times, and had four children and two stepchildren. All six survived him, along with third wife Mitzi Ayala Perdue. "He built a poultry empire," asserted Joe Holley, writing in the Washington Post, "by putting his name on chickens and standing behind them. He may have been a country boy, but he also was a shrewd businessman who helped revolutionize the industry." Sources: Chicago Tribune, April 2, 2005, sec. 1, p. 13; Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2005, p. B15; New York Times, April 2, 2005, p. B11; People, April 18, 2005, p. 92; Washington Post, April 2, 2005, p. B1, p. B6.

Carol Brennan

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