Frank Perdue, an Eastern Shore chicken farmer who saw dollars in drumsticks and became the folksy, public face of the poultry industry in the Northeast, died Thursday at his home in Salisbury. His family said he had a brief illness. He was 84.
Perdue, chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors of 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 radio and TV. The industry had always been competitive, with extremely thin profit margins, but Perdue thought he could convince consumers that not all chickens were alike and that one brand was better than another. If successful, he could sell Perdue Farms chickens at a premium price.
In an undated photo, three generations of Perdues, from left, James, his father, Frank, and grandfather, Arthur, handle baby chickens.
(Salisbury Daily Times)
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He went to 46 New York advertising agencies before finding a copywriter named Ed McCabe at Scali, McCabe and Stoves who believed that chickens could indeed be hawked, but he thought that the spots had to be funny. Perdue was skeptical until the results proved that he -- a balding, big-nosed man with a dead-pan expression and a funny-sounding voice who looked a bit like a chicken himself -- could make his brand a household name.
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 answered 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 may have been a country boy, but he also was a shrewd businessman who helped revolutionize the industry.
In one generation, he and a handful of others took what were basically mom-and-pop enterprises and transformed them into highly integrated food-processing operations that control every phase of a chicken's increasingly brief life cycle -- from the feedmills to the hatcheries and "growout houses" to the processing plants and on to the grocery stores. It is now a $16 billion-a-year industry controlled by a few big names, including Perdue Farms, the nation's third largest poultry company.
As the folksy public face of a major agribusiness, Perdue appeared in approximately 200 TV commercials, as well as radio and print ads. When he stepped down as poultry pitchman in 1994 -- he was succeeded by his son, James -- advertising executive Jerry Della Femina called it "a sad day for chickendom."
Franklin Parsons Perdue was born in a farmhouse just outside Salisbury. He was the child of a poultry family -- a family for which the egg came first.
His father, Arthur W. Perdue, was working for the railroad in 1915 when he noticed that farmers bringing in eggs to ship seemed to be more prosperous than their crop-growing counterparts. In 1920, the year his only child, Frank, was born, the elder Perdue, known as "Mr. Arthur," decided 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, Frank Perdue realized that "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," 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 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 $10 to $20 a month from his brood, a lot of money during the Depression. "That experience," he told Fortune, "gave me a taste for the business."
After graduating from high school, he enrolled at what was then State Teachers College at Salisbury in 1937, but after two years he decided he didn't want to grade papers all his life and never make 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, they went into processing. The business took off when Frank Perdue decided to sell his chickens in New York, which also prompted the advertising campaign.