Frank Perdue, an Eastern Shore farm boy who saw dollars in drumsticks and whose TV persona become the folksy, public face of the poultry industry in the Northeast, died March 31 at his home in Salisbury of what the family described as a brief illness. He was 84.
Mr. Perdue, chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors of the Salisbury-based Perdue Farms Inc., had been in the poultry business for years when, in 1971, he hit upon the idea of selling brand-name chicken on TV. The business had always been competitive, with extremely thin profit margins, but Mr. Perdue decided he could convince consumers that not all chickens were alike, that one brand was better than another. If successful, he could sell Perdue Farms chickens at a premium price.
Frank Perdue, 84, died after a brief illness.
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He went to 46 New York advertising agencies before finding a copywriter at Scali, McCabe and Stoves named Ed McCabe, who believed that chickens could indeed be hawked, but the spots had to be funny. Mr. Perdue was skeptical until the results proved that a man with a dead-pan expression and a funny-sounding voice, a balding, big-nosed man who looked a bit like a chicken himself, could indeed make his brand a household name.
Mr. Perdue became a star. Fifteen years after the ad campaign began, telephone surveys indicated that 97 percent of people asked to name a brand of chicken came up with Perdue. Sales soared from $56 million in 1970 to more than $1.2 billion by 1991.
He built a poultry empire by putting his name on chickens and standing behind them. He also helped revolutionize the industry. In one generation he and a handful of others in the industry took what was basically a mom-and-pop enterprise and transformed it into a highly integrated food-processing operation that controls every phase of a chicken's increasingly brief life cycle -- from the feed mills to the hatcheries and "growout houses" to the processing plants and on to the grocery stores. It's now a $16-billion-a-year industry controlled by a few big names, including Perdue Farms, the nation's third largest.
As the folksy public face of a major agribusiness, Mr. Perdue appeared in approximately 200 TV commercials, in addition to radio and print ads. When he stepped down as poultry pitchman in 1994, advertising guru Jerry Della Femina called it "a sad day for chickendom."
Franklin Parsons Perdue was born in a farmhouse just outside Salisbury, into a poultry family -- a family for whom the egg came first.
His father, Arthur Perdue, was working for the railroad in 1915, when he noticed that farmers bringing in eggs to ship seemed to be the most prosperous. In 1920, the elder Perdue, known as "Mr. Arthur," had his one and only child, Frank, and decided that same year to go into the table egg business, producing the eggs that people ate for breakfast.
His son dreamed of being a major-league baseball player until he realized that he was "average-field, no-hit." Although he never lost his love of baseball, he realized "the egg business wasn't as bad as I thought."
"I always helped my father with the farm, from the time I was so small that I had to hold an egg with two hands," Mr. Perdue told Fortune Magazine in 2003. "I helped pick up eggs and pack them into crates."
When he was 10, his father gave him 50 laying hens for a 4-H club project. They were "culls," rejects, but the youngster gave them tender, loving care and they matched their more promising sisters in egg production. He made between $10 and $20 a month on his 50-chicken brood, a lot of money during the Depression. "That experience," he told Fortune, "gave me a taste for the business."
Following graduation from high school, he enrolled at what was then Salisbury State Teachers' College (now Salisbury State University) in 1937, but after two years decided he didn't want to grade papers all his life and never make any money. He went back to work for his father.
The Perdues switched from selling eggs to selling chickens to farmers in the early 1940s. After the war, they began selling chicken feed, and in 1968 went into processing. The business took off when Frank Perdue decided to sell his chickens in New York, a decision that prompted the advertising campaign.
"It seemed to me," he told Fortune, "that there was a greater variation in the quality of chickens than in other heavily advertised products, such as detergents or beer."