Perdue, Franklin Parsons (“Frank”)
Perdue, Franklin Parsons (“Frank”)
(b. 9 May 1920 in Salisbury, Maryland; d. 31 March 2005 in Salisbury, Maryland), poultry grower and longtime president of Perdue Farms who built the company into a billion-dollar enterprise and became a household name and face as its spokesman in scores of popular television commercials.
Born and raised on the Delmarva Peninsula, the isolated strip of land that divides Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean as it crosses the state lines of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, Perdue was the only child of Arthur and Pearl (Parsons) Perdue. His paternal ancestors were French Huguenots who were among the first Europeans to arrive in the region during the seventeenth century. The family entered the chicken business around 1920, purchasing fifty leghorns and housing them in a homemade chicken coop with the idea of selling eggs to supplement Arthur Perdue’s income from his job as a Railway Express agent. The egg business prospered and became a full-time occupation for all members of the family, including Perdue, who was expected to do his share, feeding the stock, cleaning coops, digging cesspools, and collecting and candling eggs.
Perdue began his education at a rural one-room primary school and then attended Salisbury High School, where he was an average student and excellent baseball player. Graduating in 1939, he enrolled in Salisbury State College, hoping to find a career outside agriculture. After two years of study he was forced to return home to work on the family farm, whose future had been thrown into question by an epidemic of leukosis, an infectious disease that destroyed most of the two thousand leghorns in the Perdue flock. Following the U.S. entry into World War II, meat prices began climbing, and the family shifted its business from eggs to the raising of broiler chickens, making loans to purchase some 800 New Hampshire Reds. Perdue worked closely with his father during the 1940s, learning to produce custom chicken-feed mixtures suited to the specific needs of the flock and goals of the business. By the end of the 1940s the family was enjoying a level of financial security it had never known.
Following his father’s death in 1952, Perdue became the president of what was now known as Perdue Farms, Inc. At the time, it was grossing about $6 million annually on sales of a quarter million chickens. Undertaking an ambitious expansion plan, Perdue built a new processing complex in Salisbury, which opened in 1958. The new complex modernized Perdue’s chicken-production process while diversifying the entire enterprise with facilities for the manufacture of soybean and corn by-products, including oil and flour, which are yielded in the making of chicken feed. In 1968, with gross revenues topping $35 million, further expansion was implemented with the purchase and renovation of a Salisbury processing plant formerly owned by Swift & Company. Completed in 1970, the facility was among the first in the meatpacking industry in which computers were used by geneticists to regulate nutrition and breeding. Marked increases in the volume of breast meat per animal were achieved, making the company the talk of the industry. Perdue continued to expand capacity throughout the 1970s, adding plants in Virginia, North Carolina, and Delaware and penetrating markets the length of the eastern seaboard. By 1980 Perdue Farms was producing almost two million chickens weekly, including broilers, roasters, cornish game hens, and breeders. It directly employed some 3,100 workers and, as the chief customer for more than 900 independent contract farms, was indirectly responsible for the livelihood of thousands more.
These continuing expansions would not have been feasible but for Perdue’s unique understanding of the opportunities presented by the emerging media environment for the sale of chickens. With a television in every American home, a radio in every automobile, and billboards lining the highways, no product, not even the chicken, had to remain anonymous. His plans to “brand” the Perdue chicken for American consumer culture began with his desire to fully exploit one of the packaging advantages of the Perdue chicken: its color. Elaborating on work he had begun with his father, Perdue discovered that when xanthophyll, a substance found in marigold flowers, was added to chicken feed, birds developed a noticeably richer yellow skin color and that the effect was enhanced by the transparent plastic wrapping and flourescent lighting found in most supermarkets. Contrary to the presentation of most products at market, however, a package of chicken did not contain any information beyond weight and price, leaving Perdue frustrated that he could not fully capitalize on the golden hue of his chickens. He believed consumers would ask for Perdue chickens by name, if only they knew the name.
In 1968 Perdue ordered that a red-and-yellow tag, containing the company name and his personal quality assurance, be attached to every whole chicken and chicken part processed in his facilities. As the identification process was integrated into the production process, he conducted an exhaustive search for an advertising agency he felt was up to the job of telling the world about the special qualities of a Perdue chicken, interviewing dozens of firms before hiring Scali, McCabe & Sloves. According to Sam Scali, it was not Perdue’s intention to become his own corporate spokesperson, but as the client explained the specifics of superior chicken production at Perdue, the agency partners agreed that no actor could approximate the level of sincerity that he brought to the job. Despite his shyness, and no experience in acting or public speaking, he agreed to give it a try.
Perdue’s initial mass market advertising campaign was a 1971 media blitz, including television, radio, print, and billboards, focused in the New York City metropolitan area, the company’s largest market. The results were spectacular. More than 10,000 individuals wrote or called the company to request names of stores that carried Perdue chickens. Moreover, some 22,000 letters arrived in Salisbury addressed directly to Frank Perdue. Regardless of content (not all were favorable), each was answered with a note of thanks and a free cookbook in appreciation of the writer’s time and trouble. As sales increased, the advertising campaign was extended throughout Perdue markets in the Middle Atlantic and New England states, with similar results.
Over the next twenty-five years, Perdue, a gawky six-foot, one-inch-tall 165-pounder with a nasal, whiny voice and not much hair on his head, appeared in more than 200 television commercials, becoming a familiar figure wherever his chickens were sold. While competitors in the fresh chicken industry continued to limit their advertising to food-industry trade publications, Perdue Farms steadily grew its annual advertising budgets into the millions and rose from obscurity to become an industry giant.
There was always something humorous in Perdue’s minihomilies on the particulars of growing and processing a superior chicken, and the ads became increasingly funny with the passage of time. In a campaign to introduce a line of roasters, Perdue proclaimed his breed “the master race of chickens.” Explaining to viewers that his company conducted its own inspections, stricter than those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said, “If you’re not completely satisfied with my chicken, you can always write to me—the president of Perdue—and I’ll give you your money back. If you’re not satisfied with some government-approved chicken, who do you write? The president of the United States? What does he know about chickens?” When the company decided to shift emphasis to the selling of chicken parts, he matter of factly told female viewers, “Whether your husband is a breast man or a leg man, he’ll be satisfied with my chicken parts.” An opponent of shipping frozen chickens for retail sale because of a flavor loss, he told viewers, “Frozen chickens? Never! I’d rather eat beef!” The unifying logo of the television, print, and billboard ads over the years was a portrait shot of Perdue attached to the slogan, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.”
Perdue was the subject of criticism on several accounts. Animal-rights activists came to see him as a pioneer in the creation of livestock factories, criticizing sanitary and psychological conditions for animals in these facilities. In 1986, in testimony before the Presidential Commission on Organized Crime, he admitted, with regret, that on several occasions he had attempted to enlist the aid of a known organized crime figure to oppose unionization at Perdue Farms. Some workers complained that Perdue was insensitive to occupational hazards, and the state of North Carolina fined him $40,000 in 1989 for failing to modify work routines that led to cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, a wrist injury. Behind the wheel, Perdue was a notorious speeder, receiving dozens of citations and becoming involved in several serious automobile accidents, including one that resulted in a fatality.
Perdue Farms remained a private company in family hands, even after achieving gross revenues of more than $1 billion. In 1991, the year the billion-dollar milestone was reached, Perdue handed executive control of the company to his son, James, who also took his place for a time as the company spokesperson. Not quite retiring, Perdue kept a seat on the board of directors and remained active in company affairs for the balance of his life.
Although Perdue never earned a college diploma, he made significant donations to Salisbury State College, helping the institution grow into Salisbury University. These included a major gift, which resulted in the naming of the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business established in 1986. He was appointed to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, the governing board of the state’s higher education system, and served for five years. A lifelong baseball enthusiast, he donated $4 million toward the building of the Arthur W. Perdue Stadium in Salisbury, which serves as home field to the Delmarva Shorebirds, a minor league team. Perdue was inducted into the American Poultry Historical Society’s Poultry Hall of Fame in 1995.
Given his extraordinary wealth—he was generally believed to be among the 500 richest Americans—Perdue maintained a relatively modest lifestyle, residing in a lakeside home in Salisbury and a beachfront condominium in nearby Ocean City, Maryland. His favorite pastime was playing tennis. In 1945 Perdue was wed to Madeline Godfrey, whom he met while in college. The couple had four children. They separated in 1976 and divorced two years later. Perdue married Mitzi Ayala in 1987, legally adopting her two children. Several sources State that Mitzi was Perdue’s third wife, but if that was the case, nothing was known of his second marriage. Perdue contracted Parkinson’s disease during the last years of his life. He died at home in Salisbury after what family members described as “a short illness,” and was buried in Parsonsburg, Maryland. At the time of his death, the company he built was one of the largest poultry producers in the world, processing more than 52 million pounds of chicken and turkey products weekly for sale in the United States and forty other countries.
There are no full-length biographies of Perdue. For a profile of Perdue written after his death, see Joseph Nocera, “Chicken Hawker,” New York Times Magazine (25 Dec. 2005). His role as the spokesperson for Perdue Farms is reviewed in Thomas Whiteside, “CEO TV: Frank Perdue’s Television Commercials,” New Yorker (6 July 1987). For a discussion of the Animal Rights Coalition’s ad campaign versus Perdue Farms, see Alan Farnham, “Skewering Perdue,” Fortune (24
Feb. 1992). Obituaries are in the Washington Post (1 Apr. 2005) and New York Times (2 Apr. 2005).