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Frank Perdue
 

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At a time when marketing has suddenly become the hot topic from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, one of the most effective marketers around is a slender, laconic, whiny-voiced, balding, droopy-lidded, long-nosed, 64-year-old company president named Franklin Parsons Perdue. Although scarcely known in most of the country, he is something of a cult figure in the Northeast, where he does most of his selling. More to the point, his name is a household word -- a status he has achieved by personally hawking his product on television almost every day for the past 12 years.

That product, oddly enough, is chicken. Not packaged chicken dishes or fried chicken eateries, but the raw, naked flesh of the plucked bird itself. Indeed, he has taken this quintessential commodity and peddled it so plausibly that he has raised brand recognition of chicken to heretofore undreamed of heights. Not coincidentally, chicken has emerged as the country's fastest-growing meat category during this period, and -- for the 22% of Americans who see his commercials -- Frank Perdue has become to chickens what Calvin Klein is to jeans.

Thanks to such notoriety, Perdue Farms Inc. of Salisbury, Md., sold some 260 million birds last year -- up 525% from 1968, when the company first began marketing fresh chicken. Revenues for fiscal 1984 (ending on March 31) are expected to be well over $500 million, ranking Perdue Farms within the top 50 companies in the United States.

Frank Perdue owns most of that company and is its chairman. Although his father founded it, he is the one who has made it grow, under the banner of one of the great advertising slogans of our time:

"It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken." Clever phrasing aside, the slogan's appeal owes much to Perdue himself, who doesn't come across as tough, so much as smitten -- with chickens, that is. One ad, for example, shows three hens sitting at a dining table impeccably set with piles of feed, complete with a bottle of 1972 Chateau Du-Well wine. Perdue declares: "My chickens eat better than you do. If you want to start eating as good as my chickens, take a tip from me. Eat my chickens."

Such advertising has been undeniably effective. Perdue insists, however, that advertising has not been the key to his company's success. Rather, he says, "the quality of the product is number one; our advertising is number two. . . . In advertising, you have to tell people why [they should buy the product]." That means "you have to have a product that's better than most -- if possible, the best in your field. . . . Too many people take a mediocre product and fail. Eighty percent of all newly advertised products fail. The manufacturer decides the consumer is a fool. That's why it fails. They think advertising is a cure-all. But when you advertise something, you stick it in the consumer's mind that [your product] is better. They expect something a little more."

It is precisely this heartfelt concern for quality that comes through in his ads -- which is, of course, the genius of the whole campaign. Frank Perdue really is smitten with chickens. He is the sort of man who can wax romantic about something like a chicken hot dog, his latest product line. "I love and adore the chicken hot dog," he declares to a visitor. "Why, it's 30% cheaper [than beef or pork hot dogs]. It's got 30% less fat. It's got 17% more protein. It's got it all!"

And he stands by his words. At the age of 63, he still dutifully attends supermarket openings -- "because they ask me to." On one recent Sunday, he went to two such affairs located one hundred miles apart. "My father wouldn't do it, he notes, "but I'll do anything it takes for this business because I consider it more my baby than it was his. I was totally into it without any letup for 20 to 30 years. I've been the principal force in its growth."

You might say that Perdue was born to raise chickens. The year of his birth 1920, was the same year that his father, Arthur W. Perdue, shelled out $5 for his first set of laying hens. By the time Frank was 10, he, too, was in the egg business, earning $20 a week after expenses -- which certainly was not chicken feed back in the early days of the Depression.

In 1937, he headed off to Salisbury State College -- an institution more renowned for its wildfowl museum than for Perdue's matriculation -- but quit after two years and joined his father's business, which was then a two-man operation. Meanwhile, he continued to keep his own flock on the side and, by 1941, had expanded his personal hen holdings to 800. "I probably didn't have to work more than two hours a day," he says. "I remember writing my girlfriend that I was making $40 a week. That impressed me." It also impressed his girlfriend, who married him soon after. (They were divorced in 1974.)

Perdue may not have had to work more than 2 hours a day but he generally put in a good 70 hours a week in earlier days. Like a kind of chicken-hawking Willy Loman, he would rush off to New York or Boston on a lonely selling binge. "In the beginning, we just sold to butcher shops. I'd run my production meeting Monday morning, a sales meeting Monday afternoon, jump on a plane about five o'clock, eat dinner in the Baltimore airport, and go to work the next morning, calling on meat buyers. All of them."

Perdue Farms was not built on hard work alone, however. From the beginning, it has been a tightly run organization, thanks largely to Arthur Perdue. "My dad was a tremendous influence in my life," says Perdue. "He was a man of great integrity and very religious... He taught me to be thrifty, not to waste money." Almost to a fault, one might add. Arthur Perdue made his son wear high-top shoes so that -- when the bottoms wore out -- he could fix them with patches cut from the top leather. "A metal plate wouldn't have cost more than a penny, but he figured he was utilizing something he already owned," explains Perdue.".. . When you grow up around that kind of thing, you can't help but be influenced."

That same spirit carried over into the business. In four decades, Arthur Perdue never borrowed a dime. "He was a checkbook-balance man," says Perdue. "If he had money in the bank and didn't owe any, it didn't bother him how much we lost. But if he owed money, it didn't make any difference if we were making a million a week -- we had to get that paid off before we expanded. Which, of course, is not a proper use of money; I came to understand that slowly."

To a certain extent, the realization was slow because business was good. After the Depression, the company pretty much grew by itself. But the egg business had limited profit potential. So the Perdues decided to phase out of egg production and into an integrated breeding operation, which required hatcheries and feed mills. "I wanted to build a soybean plant," Perdue recalls. "When we finally borrowed money, I was 41 years old, he was 76. Knowing the nature of the individual, I have to be appalled in retrospect that he put his name on a $500,000 note. I guess he decided that he'd seen enough of me to believe that maybe I wasn't crazy. Now we have long-term debt, and we have rarely failed to grow because of lack of money."

Indeed, the company has rarely failed to grow for any other reason, either, and the motivating force has been Perdue. "I wanted to enable the company to grow to the maximum extent possible. I wouldn't be satisfied with number two. I have driven very hard to increase production, because the business was there. But I will spend money on our quality quicker than I will to decrease production cost."

As a case in point, Perdue recently put several hundred thousand dollars into a machine that would increase shelf life by a single day. "One day's shelf life!" he exclaims. "Well that's important to me, because I don't know what happens to my chicken when it gets off my trailer. The woman picks it out of a case which may not be cold enough, because they're trying to save money in the store to keep from going broke. Boy, it's trouble. It was stinking when she got it, let alone when she took it out of the refrigerator three days later. So she writes a letter: 'perdue chicken stinks! I want my money back!' And we give it back. We write her a letter thanking her for her attention to detail. So I've got to get that extra day. I don't waste my time thinking about something like that. It might be the difference between stinking or not stinking." Not all capital expenditures work out so propitiously. Perdue once bought a fleet of live-haul trailers. Each had 30 motors designed to circulate air. It seemed a kind thing to do for a doomed flock. "But," complains Perdue, "you'd have chickens in there packed tight, and suddenly they'd all be dead. The transformer blew out, and the motors quit. It would have taken an MIT graduate to keep the thing running. My God, if you're going to have a hundred [trailers], you'd need a hundred MIT graduates! It was a cool million dollars wasted. I mean, everybody. makes mistakes, but some things are just ludicrous."

Although Perdue claims to possess no particular business genius, it is his undeniable instinct for marketing that is costing more and more roasters and fryers their brief lives (14 weeks and 9 weeks, respectively). "I saw what advertising could do in the third year," says Perdue, referring back to 1968 when the decision to go retail was made. In that third year, the company spent $80,000 on television and another $80,000 on radio, and the premium tripled. "That's when I decided we needed the best advertising company in the business. I knew we already had a superior product in the chicken, but we more than 40 firms, and finally hired Scali, McCabe, Sloves, a small, New York City-based agency that showed the good sense to put the shy, rather shrill but unflaggingly sincere, Perdue on the air.

The rest is history: Perdue has since appeared in over 70 spots, and sales have doubled every two years. Meanwhile, his success has encouraged a number of prominent chief executive officers to flood the airwaves in similar pursuit. Perdue's favorite is Eastern Air Lines Inc.'s Frank Borman, who comes across as "the most real," he says. Chrysler Corp.'s Lee Iacocca, though, is "very tough. I don't think I would say, 'If you can find a better chicken, buy it.' It's not my style. I'll tell you why it's good and how it's better, but I'm not going to challenge you. . . . Well . . ." He pauses. "I might say it with a little smile and take the onus out of the hardness. You've got to have humility in your delivery."

With less than two years to go until the traditional age of retirement, Perdue already forswears quitting. His father came to work every day until his death at age 91, and at least one perdue associate predicts that Frank will, too. Perhaps it is his diet: "I like chicken," he chirps -- quite credibly.

Last updated: Feb 1, 1984




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