Egg Industry News and Commentary

  —  Nov 26

Tough Man Tender Chicken- A Review


Mitzi Purdue, widow of Frank Perdue has prepared a biography on the industry pioneer who passed away in March 2005 at the age of 85. The book considers his life history from the standpoint of his business creativity, ethics and approach to management.  This is no hagiography.  Mitzi Purdue is an accomplished writer who earned a baccalaureate in government from Harvard University and a Master’s in Public Administration from George Washington University. 

She has worked as a professional journalist working with Capital News and Scripps Howard and is a syndicated columnist.  She is the daughter of Ernest Henderson, co-founder of the Sheraton Hotel chain and has been active in philanthropy and public affairs.  She was obviously deeply attached to Frank through their 17-year marriage and her selection of topics and emphasis in the biography provides a valuable insight into a complex and often misunderstood industry figure.

The biography of Frank traces his life from his early days in the hatchery business established by his father, Arthur Perdue, through to the transition to the third generation of leadership of the Company by his son Dr. Jim Perdue. Mitzi Perdue manages to effectively encapsulate Frank’s business philosophy through his interaction with colleagues, employees and customers. Starting in the immediate post-WWII years Frank built his enterprise from a family endeavor selling chicks to local farmers to a company ranked fourth in U.S. broiler production and seventh in turkey output, employing 19,000 and marketing products in almost 100 nations.

Uppermost in his approach to business was a totally ingrained work ethic which started when he cared for his own flock and worked in the family hatchery before and after school. Through his entire career he worked twelve or more hours a day and only needed a few hours sleep each night, often on a fold-out bed in his office in Salisbury.  His nocturnal phone calls to management and employees, visits to plants and the loading docks of his customers are legendary.

 He was extremely frugal as evidenced by his modest ranch home which he occupied for over forty years, his decision to invest in a processing plant rather than in a corporate office building and his concern for conservation of assets and resources. This trait was a forerunner of the current concept of “sustainability” There is a difference between frugality and tightness.  Frank was always ready to invest in new technology and upgrades if this improved efficiency and quality.

Perhaps Frank’s greatest attribute was his ability to step aside from day-to-day details, of which he was a master, to see the larger picture of where the U.S. broiler industry was progressing. Not only was he expert at forecasting trends, he demonstrated his capacity to actually create and execute change in his company in accordance with his views. Not that he was impulsive or foolhardy, quite the opposite, he acted only after extensive research and evaluation but he was a quick learner, able to extract the core message from a meeting, consultation or presentation.  He was instrumental in the birth of the contract-grower system in Delmarva together with his late father in the early 1950s. This approach to integration forms the basis of the U.S. broiler industry which currently produces upwards of 165 million birds each week.

In 1961 he invested in a soybean crushing plant which he realized was a key to providing his growers with feed of consistent quality.  In 1967 he extended his company into full integration by establishing a processing plant which was later supplemented by additional facilities and the purchase of plants from competitors during periods of cyclic low profitability.

  Coincident with his entry into processing, he recognized the need to establish and entrench markets for his products.  He was the first producer to turn a generic ice-pack product into a branded item. Ed McCabe, a partner in the advertising agency selected by Perdue Farms after customary detailed evaluation became a lifelong friend. Ed coined the phrase “It takes a tough man, to produce a tender chicken”. This was the theme of a series of television advertisements which featured Frank and made the Perdue Brand a household name. To become an effective spokesman for his company he had to overcome shyness although his sincerity and enthusiasm came through clearly in his TV advertisements aired in the Northeast. 

Frank had an intense capacity for detail which extended to the quality of Perdue products. This was illustrated by his personal inspection of birds as they came off the line when his first plant opened. He insisted that quality should conform to his specific standards irrespective of the decisions of USDA inspectors. He maintained his interest in processing and was a frequent visitor to plants attired in his white coat and bump cap rubbing shoulders with line-workers and QC supervisors.  He had a phenomenal memory for numbers and could estimate and calculate costs and profitability in his head long before the introduction of calculators and computers.  Even in declining health, he demonstrated a facility with numbers which surpassed that of his physicians. 

Frank was a realist and believed very strongly in turning any adversity or setback into an advantage.  This was evidenced early in his career when his egg-producing pullets died of fowl typhoid and he was forced to change his scope to broiler breeders.  When he was confronted with what he considered unfair competition from a consortium wishing to establish a competitive soybean plant on the Eastern Shore using Federal grants he actively campaigned for what he considered to be correct and ethical. His determination to prove the justice of his situation before a Congressional Committee confirmed his tenacity to support his investment to the benefit of his growers, associates and customers.

It has been incorrectly held that Frank was a difficult boss.  It is true that he demanded high standards and commitment to quality and customer service.  He never asked any employee to do anything that he himself would not do.  He encouraged loyal opposition from his management team and in a closed room would discuss a topic heatedly at multi-decibel level although his interaction never became personal.  It was said that Frank never fired anybody but those that failed to progress or lacked the initiative and commitment that he expected, invariably left the Company.  His loyalty to employees was exemplary. He supported the decisions of his managers and engendered commitments which were expressed by careers measured in decades. 

He believed very strongly in sharing wealth from entrepreneurship.  He regarded all of the broiler breeder and grower contractors in Delmarva and North Carolina and in Indiana, where his turkeys were produced, as independent businessmen creating opportunities for their families based on an association with Perdue Farms. His personal philosophy clearly emerges from the anecdotes in the biography relating to frequent interaction at Company picnics and barbecue events at his home.

As an aspirant professional baseball player in his young days, he was keen on supporting the sport.  The Arthur Perdue stadium in Salisbury and contributions to the local United Way were only part of his philanthropy.  His greatest contribution to the Eastern Shore was stimulated from his early experience as a prospective schoolteacher.  He endowed the Salisbury University with a business school which has benefited the region and provided an opportunity for Perdue associates and residents of the area to acquire a formal education in business management. 

Unlike many strong entrepreneurs who have built successful enterprises, Frank demonstrated flexibility in his approach to Company policy.  When provided with facts and logic he was able to embrace innovations proposed by his management team.  An example of his rational approach to business was accepting the principle of distributing IQF portions despite the forty-year image of Perdue Farms as a supplier of only fresh product.  While some in his company were disinclined to broach the subject, his response at a meeting when “frozen” was raised was “well if that’s what customers want we should be supplying it” Although he believed strongly in designing and erecting his own facilities, he was willing to authorize purchase of competitors’ plants at depreciated book value when expedient.  He was always willing to adopt any new technology from research and development conducted within the company or at Land Grant universities.  During the early 1980s he purchased a company manufacturing specialized equipment since it possessed technology and personnel to facilitate production of a broader range of cut-up and further- processed products.

Perhaps the least recognized aspect of Frank Purdue was his strong belief in family. It is said that he never had a disagreement with his Father throughout their working career. According to his biographer, his three daughters have commented favorably on his parenting and his ability to convey strong personal qualities.  When they worked in the Company they were not allowed any special privileges. 

The greatest strength which Frank displayed later in his life was his ability to transition from his role as the major moving force in his company and to reconcile himself to an advisory role. He delegated responsibility and authority to his management team, and backed their decisions. In his late 70s he would find time to interact with many of the old associates but his appreciation of the formalities of channels of communication and organizational structure took second place to his inherent friendliness and his perception of the need for rapid resolution of problems. 

He was wise in his approach to the advancement of his son.  Initially Jim did not display any desire to enter the family business and he completed baccalaureate and Master’s degrees in Biology and earned a Doctorate in Marine Biology at the University of Washington.  Eventually he entered the business but at an entry-level position in a plant.  Rapidly advancing through the hierarchy and after obtaining a MBA degree he assumed the Chairmanship in a structured succession. This has ensured the future of Perdue Farms as a family-controlled industry leader continuing the heritage established by Frank.

Tough Man, Tender Chicken. Mitzi Perdue. Significance Press. New York, NY. (2004)