Most people today have heard of S. Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, due to the company’s high-profile conflicts over its Christian values, but there was an original chicken billionaire whose chickens are also still around today. Frank Perdue, the longtime CEO of Perdue Farms, passed away in 2005, and his widow Mitzi recently wrote a book about the extraordinary man. She interviewed a staggering 134 people for the book – even some who became crosswise with him – compiling an incredibly accurate portrayal. Mitzi gives away the secrets of what made Frank so successful, making this a must-read for anyone curious about how to make it in life. It is full of wonderful insights that sound intuitive – but most people probably are not aware of.
Mitzi shared some of those secrets of how Frank turned a simple “father and son operation” into a worldwide business, with Steve Doocy and Elisabeth Hasselbeck of Fox & Friends, calling Frank a “teacher.”
The story is also inspiring for those skeptical of the Horatio Alger myth, famously challenged recently by the esteemed author Malcolm Gladwell. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, he studied super achievers, known as “outliers,” and discovered they all had advantages over others early on in life, they did not get there solely through their intelligence and hard work.
Frank did not have any advantages; he came from a humble upbringing, helping his dad on the family farm while growing up as a child. He was shy and didn’t excel at school. He faced many setbacks with his father’s fledgling chicken business. At one point, the family’s entire flock of 10,000 laying hens was wiped out by typhoid fowl fever, forcing them to start again from scratch.
Once Frank figured out in the 1950s that he wanted to take over his father’s chicken business and make it his profession, he went about growing the business in an extraordinarily driven way. His daughter Beverly said he worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day, which she grew up thinking was normal for dads.
Frank was hands-on, unlike most CEOs, and gave many of his employees his personal cell phone number. If there was a complaint, he would get right on the problem and frequently fix it himself. He believed everything was important.
His standards were higher than the government’s. At quarterly pre-marketing and quality control meetings, he would go through stacks of notes he’d compiled, sometimes not finishing the meeting until 12 hours later. A director in packaging once referred to the quarterly marketing meetings as “a medieval torture chamber that Frank personally invented.”
Frank Perdue hired mostly young employees, so he could train them before they were set in their ways, and he often hired siblings, finding that good workers seemed to run in families. He was successful because he knew his product inside and out, but figured out early on that it was better to hire good sales people and then train them about chickens, rather than hire people knowledgeable about chickens to then attempt to train them in sales. He regularly called his senior employees in the middle of the night to get the scoop on what was happening. He held employees up to fairly tough standards, creating and reinforcing a culture of expecting people to know the details. One of his distributors said he was in the field more than his sales reps. A frequent saying of Frank’s was, “Get the maximum out of the minimum.” He ran the company almost a little like the military.
Frank was prudent with money, wisely deciding not to invest $800,000 to modernize the headquarters when the company was young. He knew not to get greedy and charge an inflated price just because he could, fully well knowing it would invite unwanted competition.
With a gift for innovation, Frank used it to outsmart his competitors. He talked to marketing professors at universities and studied marketing himself. He figured out that putting a tag on the wings of his chicken displaying the name “Perdue” would give him an edge on his competitors. He also, insightfully, insisted that Perdue chicken must be the first chicken customers see when entering a grocery store.
In the 1970s, Frank discovered TV commercials as a lucrative new way to market chicken. It hadn’t been done before; the common thought at the time was that pouring money into a commodity like chicken, with its small profit margins, would not work. No one had tried branding a non-packaged good before. His PR and marketing company convinced him to star in the commercials himself, and so the “Tough man, tender chicken” mantra was born. There was something about Frank’s high voice, looks and mannerisms that sort of reminded viewers of a chicken, making the commercials an instant hit. Furthermore, his likeness was something his competitors could not copy. Sure enough, within six months of airing the commercials, 90 percent of people within range of the TV commercials answered Perdue when asked to name a brand of chicken.
As he got older, Frank was not set in his ways and resistant to change. One of the unique traits of his chicken had been that it was sold fresh, not frozen like his competitors. Once he realized there was a market for frozen chicken that he could tap into, he jumped right in.
One of Frank’s vice presidents said some of the best advice he would give young people is to “shut up and listen.” Frank was a one-of-a-kind genius, but he was always listening. He had a “ferocious attention to detail.” The company’s fleet warranty administrator said Frank was the only person he’d ever met who would tell him to meet him somewhere down to the half minute, and he would show up exactly on time.
Despite his tough, hard-driving persona, Frank Perdue was a kind and decent person. “On weekends, when other people might be watching TV or playing golf, Frank would be visiting associates in the hospital,” Mitzi wrote. He referred to his employees as associates, not employees, as part of the way he treated them with a higher level of respect. It made them feel like they were working with Frank, not for him.
Mitzi offers a list of Frank’s 10 highest values, including “Have respect for those who have gone before; learn from their weaknesses and build on their strengths.”
It sounds like Perdue Farms embodies the kind of company with the best corporate culture possible, discussed in the 2008 bestselling book Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization. Its authors detail the five types of companies, and only the companies at the top level, where the management treats everyone with respect, will truly thrive.
Before Frank passed away in 2005, he grew the company into a multi-billion dollar company with over 19,000 associates and sales in over 100 countries. His son Jim Perdue now runs the company. It is the third largest American producer of broilers (chickens for eating), after Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. and Tyson Foods.
Frank is proof one can still become a billionaire in America through sheer hard work and brains. However, the hard work aspect cannot be understated. Frank’s work ethic is more than most people are cut out for. Frank told Mitzi that sales and marketing were his favorite part of the job. Business and its associated sales skills are not for everyone.
Mitzi beautifully remembers her late husband’s memory with “eggscapes,” which are “elaborately decorated eggs that have inspired a book and are exhibited at numerous locations, including the White House.” She told The New York Sun, “Frank Perdue was the chicken man and I thought it would be fun to have a hobby that would make me into the egg lady.” What a lovely way to remember an incredible man, the man who proved that Horatio Alger is not a myth and that America is still the land of opportunity.