"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."
After New York, the company expanded to Boston, Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia and then later to Miami, Chicago and the Midwest. Today, most of the company's chicken is sold east of the Mississippi River.
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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Perdue became president of Arthur W. Perdue and Son in 1948. During the 1950s and 1960s, he pioneered crossbreeding methods to improve quality. He also expanded the company's grain merchandising and soybean oil-refining operations.
His energy was legendary. Building the fledgling business, he worked 16-hour days and kept a cot in his office for naps, even though his house was across the street. It was said that when he visited poultry farmers around the Eastern Shore, he would hop out of the car before it stopped moving.
His impatience occasionally got him in trouble. From 1968 through 1989, he received 37 moving violations on Maryland and Virginia roads, most of them for speeding. He paid hundreds of dollars in fines and thousands more to settle claims resulting from two traffic accidents, including a fatal one in 1974 in Pennsylvania.
Perdue retired in 1991, and his son James became chairman and chief executive. Today, Perdue Farms Inc. has 20,000 employees and annual sales of $2.5 billion. It processes 52 million pounds of chicken and turkey each week.
"It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," Perdue regularly told consumers in his TV ads. Over the years, his tough-minded approach to business and alleged strong-arm tactics made him enemies and prompted headlines. In 1981, the Justice Department charged the company with unfair trade practices. Employees in processing plants complained of dangerous working conditions, charges that the company has vigorously denied.
Perdue was vigorously anti-union, and in testimony before the President's Commission on Organized Crime in 1986 he confessed to soliciting assistance from the Gambino crime family in New York. "They have long tentacles, and I just figured they might be able to help," he said.
He also was a frequent target of animal rights activists opposed to factory farming, In 1992, a woman dressed in a chicken suit hurled a cream pie in his face.
In 1995, he was inducted into the Poultry Hall of Fame. He endowed Salisbury University with funding to establish the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business and served for five years on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents. In 1996, he was instrumental in bringing the Class A Delmarva Shorebirds baseball team to Salisbury and building a stadium named in honor of his father.
The Maryland House of Delegates and Senate paid tribute to Perdue before adjourning Thursday evening. "It will be a great loss to the state of Maryland, to the Eastern Shore and to the poultry industry," said Del. D. Page Elmore, an Eastern Shore Republican.
Perdue's first marriage, to Madeline Godfrey Perdue, ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 17 years, Mitzi Ayala Perdue of Salisbury; four children, James Purdue of Salisbury, Sandra Spedden of Cambridge, Md., Anne Oliviero of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and Beverly Jennings of Midlothian, Va., and two stepsons from his second marriage, Jose Ayala of Dallas and Carlos Ayala of Granite Bay, Calif.; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.