Book offers business wisdom from Frank Perdue

What was it like to work for Frank Perdue? New book offers a glimpse

Mitzi Perdue spent much of her marriage to chicken magnate Frank Perdue scribbling notes.

At social gatherings, dinners and countless other occasions, the man who through TV commercials became the country's only famous chicken producer would talk and his wife would jot it down. For years Mitzi Perdue, who has worked as a syndicated columnist and written several books, transcribed the notes from scraps of paper to diaries, and then much of the material from diaries to computer files.

How could she not? she said.

"If you're a writer and you hear someone say something quotable, the temptation to write it down was irresistible," Perdue said in an interview in Baltimore.

And Frank Perdue was often quotable.

"This man spoke in aphorisms," said Mitzi Perdue, who was married to the Eastern Shore businessman for 17 years, until he died at 84 in the spring of 2005. Now 73 and living in Salisbury, she has drawn on her notes and 134 interviews for a book she recently published: "Tough Man, Tender Chicken: Business & Life Lessons from Frank Perdue" — part of a genre of advice literature by and about well-known business figures, including such personalities as Warren Buffett, Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg.

A hybrid biography and how-to-succeed-in-business manual, the book unfolds in 22 chapters, each focused on an aspect of the development of Perdue Farms from a family business in Salisbury to a global poultry and agricultural products company with 19,300 employees — about 1,580 in Maryland — and $3.62 billion in chicken sales in 2013. The company was fourth that year among U.S. broiler chicken producers at 56.2 million pounds.

The book includes a chapter on Perdue Farms' shift from small business to large, as well as chapters on marketing, packaging, advertising and quality control.

All the chapters but the last one — "What Was Frank Really Like" — end with nuggets of wisdom sifted from Frank Perdue's experience: "You don't need to start out as a genius." "Business isn't just about dollars and cents." "Take risks and give credit to those who earn it."

J. Gerald Suarez, a professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said books based on the life experiences of successful business people can be valuable for students as part of a reading list that includes theoretical or researched material.

Books like this "offer valuable insight to the student in a business school who has no clear insight on what it really takes to be an entrepreneur," said Suarez, who was not familiar with the Perdue book. "The narrative of a success story can really prepare a student who needs a little inspiration."

This is Mitzi Perdue's second book on Perdue, arriving 25 years after the first: "Frank Perdue: Fifty Years of Building on a Solid Foundation." Published in 1989 to mark the 50th anniversary of the company's founding by Frank Perdue's father, Arthur W. Perdue, that book was strictly about business.

The new book mixes business advice with personal glimpses of the man known variously as brilliant in marketing, modest about his achievements, diligent in pursuit of excellence and, as one longtime business associate said to Frank Perdue himself, "a pain in the ass."

Those were the words of Ed McCabe, the New York advertising executive who wrote the TV commercials in the 1970s that made Frank Perdue a celebrity. According to the book, McCabe's experience dealing with his brusque, demanding client inspired the famous advertising tag line: "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken."

It was McCabe's idea to have Perdue appear as company pitchman, in part because he "looked a little like a chicken himself, and he sounded like one, and he squawked a lot."

Mostly, though, according to the book, McCabe thought that while other poultry companies might copy many aspects of Perdue chicken, they couldn't copy Frank Perdue. It was a bold move at the time, as it was not common for corporate executives to appear in advertisements as the face of the company.

Perdue, a shy man, was not crazy about the idea. He agreed reluctantly and complained about how much the first commercial cost to produce, but the campaign was a hit. Advertising Age magazine ranked the first commercial in 1971 one of the year's best campaigns.

Much is made in the book of Perdue's hard-driving style, as a number of business associates and employees say that while he was fair-minded, he could be difficult to work for. He needed little sleep, ignored boundaries between his work and private life, and was not inclined to honor those limits for his employees. If he was up in the middle of the night thinking about a business problem, executives might well be awakened by a phone call.

That's as far as Mitzi Perdue goes into the darker side of Perdue or the company. There's nothing in the book about his dealings with animal welfare advocates who alleged abuses by farmers raising chickens under contract with Perdue. There's no mention of what Perdue thought about the criticism, or how he reacted to being hit with a pie by an activist dressed as a chicken in 1992 during a meeting of the University of Maryland Board of Regents, of which he was a member.

As she recalled, he joked about the pie-throwing, but otherwise didn't talk about it, or about the charge — made in full-page ads in The New York Times in the late 1980s — that he was misleading the public with advertisements suggesting that the chickens were treated well.

There's also no mention of criticisms the company faced during Perdue's life over the environmental impact of chicken waste disposal, or Perdue's reaction. These aspects of Perdue's experience did not fit her concept of the book, Mitzi Perdue said.

"This isn't a biography," said Perdue, who for years wrote a weekly environmental column syndicated first by Capitol News in California, then nationally by Scripps Howard. "I was focusing on lessons, business lessons. What did Frank do that a business person could learn from?"

She said she envisions an audience for the book made up of business people and students of business. Perhaps also those who for years saw the TV commercials featuring the chicken guy with his big bald head, sad eyes, beak nose and Maryland accent and wondered who he was and what he was like.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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