Chicken farmer, reluctant pitchman

Company's head known for demanding standards

Frank Parsons Perdue 1920 - 2005

April 02, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Frank Parsons Perdue, the hardworking Eastern Shore native who gained fame and fortune raising plump chickens for dinner tables up and down the Atlantic Coast, died at his Salisbury home Thursday evening after a brief illness. He was 84.

Mr. Perdue became nationally known for uttering one of advertising's most memorable lines - "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" - and was chairman of the executive committee of Perdue Farms Inc. at his death.

"Frank Perdue was a marketing and agribusiness innovator with a worldwide reputation in his field, putting chicken on tables across America," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday in a statement.

"In Maryland, he was an icon, building a family company into an international poultry business through his commitment to quality, family and the community. It has been my pleasure to work with him and his corporate family over the years to the benefit of Maryland farmers," the governor said.

Both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly were adjourned yesterday in Mr. Perdue's honor.

Mr. Perdue was a man of singular determination - a characteristic he freely acknowledged on his way to developing a chicken company that was to become the third largest in the nation.

He was demanding of his lieutenants, associates said, and permitted no shortcuts by his principal customers - the supermarkets.

He was known to demand that the stores buying his chickens maintain strict temperature controls over the birds when they were shipped from his processing plants. He even threatened on one occasion to cut off shipment of his poultry when a supermarket owner in Norwalk, Conn., objected to what he considered Mr. Perdue's high-handed demands.

"There are certain things I have a great fetish for, and they are quality, service and reliability," Mr. Perdue said in an interview with The Evening Sun in 1985. "I shall always have the fetish."

"As long as the name `Perdue' is on the building and I am living, I am not going to let that flag [of quality] get sullied in the dust," he added.

Public face

In the early 1970s, he became the public face for his company's product, and for the next 24 years continued appearing on TV, radio and in print ads intoning his trademark: "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken."

Mr. Perdue entered the field of television commercials reluctantly. "As a young kid I was terribly, terribly shy." he said. "When they told me to do the commercials, I thought it was the most stupid thing I had ever heard of."

A New York ad executive, Alan Pesky, said Mr. Perdue was "very, very scared of not being able to pull this [the TV commercials] off."

However, the chicken man's high-pitched voice and folksy, straightforward manner made him an almost immediate hit.

Perdue Farms' sales soared from $56 million in 1970 to about $3 billion in 2004, according to company officials.

Newspaper columnist James J. Kilpatrick described Mr. Perdue's television image as that of a man with a "brooder house beak" whose "television commercials have become classics."

"The good Lord scored Mr. Perdue's vocal cords for a split-reed oboe and a bass kazoo, and he delivers his TV messages in the mellifluous tones of a rooster caught in a floor fan," the columnist said.

Facing criticism

On the other hand, his celebrity and business success brought him a degree of notoriety he did not relish.

Labor unions began criticizing working conditions at Perdue chicken processing plants, and animal rights advocates charged that farmers who raised chickens for his company kept them in cramped cages, an accusation the firm denied.

Nevertheless, protesters continued their campaign against Mr. Perdue, finding a forum for their charges after he was appointed to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents in 1991.

The activists would sometimes stand in the back of the room at regents' meetings holding signs and chanting "Cluck you, Frank Perdue."

In addition, the President's Commission on Organized Crime reported in 1986 that the Perdue company had been selling poultry for two or three years to a New York meat company, Quarex Industries Inc., with "close ties" to organized crime.

Mr. Perdue told the commission he had met twice with the now dead Mafia figure Paul Castellano Sr., a cousin of Peter Castellano Sr., at a time when the Mr. Perdue was having labor troubles at one of his chicken plants.

He insisted, however, that "no agreements or understandings of any kind" came from the meetings.

In 1989, the company paid $40,000 in fines to workers in two North Carolina processing plants who suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome. Two years later, the company established a program aiming to reduce injuries.

Since 1991, the company has been led by his son, James Perdue of Salisbury.

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