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Perdue woos consumers with home, sweet home

— The unassuming farmhouse, with long-vacant chicken coops out back, has occupied a rural stretch of two-lane road for decades.

Even now, after a facelift that gave it a fresh white clapboard exterior, bright red shutters and a rebuilt wraparound porch, the house built by Arthur W. Perdue offers no outward clue to its role in the birth of a multibillion-dollar poultry and agribusiness conglomerate. It was there that he started a small egg business in 1920.

The rest is Delmarva history. Today Perdue Inc. has $4.6 billion in annual sales and employs more than 21,000 workers as the third-biggest poultry producer in the nation. And that two-story farmhouse — across Old Ocean City Road from the corporate headquarters — serves as the symbol of the Perdue brand.

Perdue recently announced the restoration of the family farmhouse as part of its 90th anniversary celebration and plans to use it to hold corporate events and training. Executives hope the home conveys a message about corporate values to consumers, customers and employees, said Jim Perdue, chairman and grandson of the founder.

"It's the roots," said Perdue, 60, stepping into the home's living room where black-and-white portraits of his grandparents hang in oval frames on the wall. "You are as strong as your roots are. A lot of companies failed because they didn't know where they came from. We started from humble roots, and we want people to know we really come from a farm family background."

It's also good marketing.

Branding experts say the company is smart to take advantage of its history, which sets it apart from competitors and, to some extent, from faceless corporate America. Family values and nostalgia are proven motivators for consumers to buy, they say. And the reassuring image of down-home simplicity contrasts with the growing industrialization of food, which has led to public concern about the treatment of animals and potential health risks.

"There's no question that there is a lot of mistrust and skepticism of things seen as bureaucratic and corporate, whether it's government or Wall Street or big oil," said Jamie Rice, chief strategy officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, an advertising agency in Baltimore. "So it probably doesn't hurt to remind people [Perdue] is a company that's still owned by the family."

"Not that they don't use all the modern ways of producing high-quality food efficiently," Rice added. "They do, but they're letting people know this isn't a faceless bureaucracy."

Nick Nanton, a partner in the Dicks and Nanton Branding Agency in Orlando, Fla., which specializes in corporate and CEO branding, said consumers "all want to believe the food we eat has been customer-created for us." And, he said, Perdue's use of the farmhouse to convey family values is "a great concept."

"We all want to believe our food comes from a boutique," Nanton said. "What they're doing is taking it down to that level, which is ultimately what we all want to believe in."

The farmhouse was built in 1917 by Arthur W. Perdue, who lived there with his wife, Pearl, and only child, Frank. An accountant who worked as a railway express agent, Perdue was impressed with the business smarts of the Eastern Shore poultry men who shipped their eggs by rail. Five years after starting his own egg operation, he switched from eggs to baby chicks, which he sold to local farmers.

That venture has grown into a corporation that produced more than 3 billion pounds of chicken and turkey in 2009. The company operates hatcheries and a dozen processing plants in 13 states and contracts with nearly 2,000 poultry growers. It produces from 30 percent to 40 percent of all the chickens raised on the Delmarva Peninsula.

A colorful illustration of the farmhouse set amidst a stand of trees has been part of the firm's logo for several years, appearing on packaging, delivery trucks and business cards.

Even after the company began using the image as a marketing tool, executives weren't sure what to do about the house itself. Arthur Perdue lived there until his wife died in the early 1940s. He later remarried and moved elsewhere in Salisbury. No family members have lived in the farmhouse since. Instead, the family rented it to tenants, who used to tend chickens in the backyard coops.

"The Perdue company really hadn't capitalized on the house's potential historic value," said Ray Thompson, a history professor and director of the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University.

But as the company's 90th anniversary approached, company executives considered whether the house could serve a larger purpose. Thompson, who sat on a committee to advise Perdue leaders about a possible restoration, said that at first committee members believed the family would have little interest in such an investment.

But, Thompson said, as they talked about the possibilities, "we realized this could be iconic and serve as a focus for the Perdue company."

The company agreed to invest $200,000 in a two-year restoration and this month held an invitation-only celebration at the site.

As part of the project, contractors removed paneling from the walls and asbestos siding from the exterior. Taking cues from photographs, they replaced front porch railings with replicas of the originals. Much of the trim, as well as the front door and living room mantelpiece, were salvaged, said W. Wirt Wolfe, a contractor who specializes in historic restoration on the Eastern Shore and oversaw the farmhouse project.

The Perdue home was modest for its time, Wolfe said, but solidly built.

"Arthur Perdue was a thrifty fellow and didn't overdo it," Wolfe said. But at nearly 100 years old, the house has held up reasonably well, he added: "Framing was solid."

The restored home showcases the lives of the Perdue founders. Upstairs bedrooms contain photographs, artifacts and other memorabilia that chronicle the history of the family and the company, including an early chicken incubator and framed copies of print advertisements — including one from the 1970s featuring Frank Perdue, Jim's father, bearing the slogan: "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken."

"Certainly it is a home that should be maintained and retained as a museum," Wolfe said. "I think it's extremely significant, and hopefully it would be preserved and used and showcased as much as it can."

Jim Perdue has only begun to discover the farmhouse himself. By the time he was born, his grandfather had already moved out and the home was occupied by tenants. Perdue and his sisters grew up in a house across the street that his grandfather had built for the family. That house is now used by the Perdue company as its environmental sustainability office.

Jim Perdue recalls his grandfather as "frugal," and said that frugality "permeated the whole company."

When Frank Perdue wanted to purchase a grain elevator and silo for a grain operation in the 1950s, he needed a loan co-signed by his father — who signed, reluctantly. "He knew he would go to his grave owing money and that really bothered him," Jim Perdue said of his granddad.

He says that while his grandfather launched the business and kept it strong even through the Depression, his father, who joined the company in 1939, had the entrepreneurial vision to position Perdue for growth into the next century, taking steps to transform the operation into a fully integrated business with hatcheries and feed mills.

Jim Perdue remembers the day an advertising agency representative followed his father around the company's headquarters. Observing Frank Perdue's hands-on involvement, the man told him he was the best person to speak for the firm.

Frank Perdue resisted until the agency representative said, "You'll sell a lot more chickens if you do this," Jim Perdue recalls.

He pointed out a photograph from one of six "transitional" advertisements the father-son team did in the mid-1990s. In one, Frank Perdue delivered bad news for competitors: "It's a little project I've been working on for the past 45 years — the result of decades of intensive development. Meet my son, Jim. He may be even tougher than I am."

Jim Perdue says it wasn't until he made the ads with his father that he realized how difficult the job of company spokesman was — and how well his father filled the role.

"He was a master of it," Perdue said.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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