Maryland's chicken king

April 03, 2005

THE MAN who turned a small Eastern Shore family egg business into a chicken empire may have been the least likely TV pitchman in history. With his slender build and beak-like nose, Franklin Parsons Perdue was a natural for the poultry business, but his status as an advertising icon was serendipitous. In some 175 television commercials beginning in 1971, he spoke of how it took a tough man to make a tender chicken. East Coast consumers loved it, and the name Perdue soon became synonymous with chicken.

Mr. Perdue, who died Thursday at the age of 84, was one of the most successful businessmen in Maryland's history. Humble but driven, he took Perdue Farms from a company of 40 employees in 1950 to 20,000 today by giving his product a strong brand identity - a revolutionary concept in the industry. Before, chicken was chicken. Thanks to Mr. Perdue, consumers learned to ask for Perdue. His company grew into one of the world's largest poultry producers.

But Mr. Perdue never lost his hometown roots. Despite his success, he lived in Salisbury in a home that was relatively modest by the standards of his wealth. Perdue Farms is still family owned and has its headquarters in that Eastern Shore town, its corporate offices as frugal and unpretentious as its no-nonsense former CEO.

Mr. Perdue's legacy includes endowing the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University and helping establish the Delmarva Shorebirds minor-league baseball team. He was tough, yes, but he never sought the limelight. It was his determination, hard work - and an unexpected talent for marketing - that made him a star.

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