Champion of chicken: Frank Perdue lays it on the line

In 1920, Arthur Perdue bought 50 Leghorn chickens for $5, built a chicken coop, and entered the table-egg business.

Today his son Frank, born that same year, jets up and down the East Coast juggling the $430 million broiler business as a quick-change artist. He dons hard hat and smock to spot-check five (going on six) Perdue plants that process 5 million birds a week. He slips into anything from butcher's apron to tuxedo to hustle his Cornish hens, fryers/broilers, oven-stuffer roasters, and chicken parts in his TV commercials. He dresses down for chats with market managers in seven selling districts. And he sports Gucci shoes and pin stripes to call on whoever will listen to the story that has made Mr. Perdue for over a decade the country's fastest-growing purveyor of poultry and champion of chicken.

The chairman of the board of Perdue Inc., Salisbury, Md., has been called the most important figure in the history of chickens. He attributes his success to the business creed he remembers from when he was young enough to hold an egg in two hands: quality.

''I think the consumer is a very smart lady or man, and I just don't think you fool 'em,'' says the tanned Marylander in a homespun, high-pitched nasal twang.

In the 20 years that have seen national consumption of chicken double, Perdue's growth has been four times that of the industry.

''My father didn't want a business of any size because he wanted to watch everything that moved to make sure that it was perfect,'' Perdue says. ''All I've done is take his philosophies of thoroughness, quality, fiscal responsiblity and conservatism matched with aggressiveness, and blown it up into the integrated broiler business that it is today.''

A 10-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week pace keeps Perdue moving faster than a carhop on roller skates. He markets only from Richmond, Va., to Boston. Yet rated nationally, his is the nation's No. 4 chicken operation out of 110. His share of his own market is just under a third - roughly the same as the largest market share in the business, Foster Farms in California. The figure is more significant when you hear that his competition is lower-priced (by 10 cents a pound on average) and numbers about 12 firms.

The chicken industry has grown into a 4 billion-bird, $11 billion-a-year business. Inflation and rising prices for red meat have sent both consumers and fast-food chains like McDonald's flocking to the cheaper, more versatile fowl. The country now consumes a whopping 12 billion pounds of chicken a year, or 51.8 pounds per capita (up from 27.8 in 1960).

Perdue's meteoric rise is a corporate model the entire industry would like to emulate. Rising to the top of the list of poultry firms from Chesapeake Bay's Delmarva Peninsula - long a chicken-producing capital - has meant outlasting or knocking out some of the best in the business. Some had larger corporate names behind them: Ralston Purina (once No. 1 in the country), Quaker Oats, General Mills, Pillsbury, Maine's Pure One.

Advertising is a big part of the story.

By the mid-'50s, Perdue's well-bred chickens were winning top prices at auctions. So he flew the coop of anonymous commodity marketing and put his name on his product. He has long since surpassed the chicken world's first million-dollar budget for advertising on his way to more than 90 TV commercials and hundreds of print ads that are already legend in the advertising industry.

He professes no concern about the companies that have followed suit: ''Nothing puts a bad product out of business faster than good advertising,'' he says.

He lugs a beat-up leather briefcase chock-full of annual reports, daily quality-control reports, and even the plastic devices he uses to measure chicken breasts. By his own admission he is ''all farmer.'' Because of his large, beaked nose and just a hint of droop beneath sad eyes, even Perdue's friends remark on his resemblance to a chicken. They know he won't mind.

He knows he has capitalized on the comparison. Yet in person he is almost diametrically opposite to the wry, tongue-in-cheek adman portrayed in his television commercials and magazine ads. ''It takes a tough man to produce a tender chicken,'' one ad says. And your first-to-last impressions of this off-the-screen incarnation tell you to capitalize the 'T' in tough - and throw away the question you had: ''Do you write your own ads?'' The answer is obviously no.

In person, he is all business. There's not a hint of the whimsy that produced such slogans as ''My chickens eat better than you do,'' ''Ladies, please squeeze the chicken,'' and ''Freeze my chickens? I'd rather eat beef.'' Those are the award-winning slogans of the New York ad agency that delivered him from obscurity in 1971: Scali, McCabe, Sloves Inc.

Perdue himself seems more interested in spelling out the 58 quality-control factors that add up to what he calls ''the best chicken in the world.''

''There are just oodles and oodles of factors,'' Perdue says with a countrified earnestness that doesn't seem to know the meaning of the word ''huckster.'' Having grown up on the farm - cleaning out cesspools and building chicken coops - may have left its bumpkin mark on his Delmarva drawl, but not on his business savvy. ''Every week I have my people go out and buy cases of my competitors' birds. We put them through the same rigid inspection that our own Perdue chickens have to go through. It costs me a lot of money. But it's worth it. It's the only way I have of knowing that I'm ahead of these guys.''

He lobs the slow pitch from behind uncompromisingly sober brows. He edges forward and raises both hands to punctuate the salient points - no pressure of course, just chawin' the bacon with a country cousin.

Perdue has a lot of admirers in the industry - even among competitors. Early in the race for widespread market recognition, the national marketing manager for Holly Farms in Wilkesboro, N.C. (the nation's No. 2 chicken producer), said: ''Perdue has performed a valuable service. He has created a brand-value concept in the consumer's mind about chickens. We take our hats off to him.''

And there's even Otis Esham, whose Buddy Boy chicken Perdue knocked out of New England in a much-ballyhooed chicken war. Esham carried ads that said in part: '' . . . he's probably done more for the chicken business than any other guy we know.''

Recently he received his second honorary doctorate - in business - from Johnson & Wales College in Providence, R.I., principally known for its culinary school. His first one was from Salisbury State College, the Maryland school he attended for two years before returning to his father's chicken business.

He seems to have ruffled a few feathers on the way to the top. An alphabet's worth of organizations from the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and the AFL-CIO to the United Mine Workers (UMW) and the National Organization of Women (NOW) support an 18-month-old boycott against Perdue. Flyers distributed from Virginia to Maine are headed in red: ''Don't Buy Perdue Chickens.''

Saying Perdue runs his plants like a plantation owner, the flyers allege Perdue has fired over 400 workers in one plant in a two-year period. They say Perdue was found guilty of polluting a waterway in Virginia (across from his Accomac plant) and say his workers are among the lowest paid in the United States.

Perdue has also been charged by the US Department of Justice, at the request of the Department of Agriculture, with violating the Packers and Stockyards Act by directly and indirectly threatening customers who refuse to stop buying poultry from a Perdue competitor. Perdue will not comment on either boycott or litigation.

Still, no other company has been credited so unabashedly by the industry - wholesalers, distributors, retailers, restaurateurs, and even the competition - with as many innovations or quality checks as Perdue. ''You'll be hard pressed to find an argument on this,'' says one major Boston wholesaler. ''Frank really is unsurpassed.''

Perdue says his chickens are more carefully plucked and more uniformly sized (important to restaurants that want equal-sized portions), and arrive in sturdier boxes, than his competition's. They are also better trimmed and have fewer bruises, he says.

And he touts more poultry veterinarians and nutritionists and quality-control personnel. ''The average production plant in America - a plant that will kill 600,000 a week - has probably got one quality-control agent,'' Perdue says. ''In our plant that processes 1.2 million a week, we have 26 full-time quality-control people. We have a scale man - most plants this is included in the QC job - in my plant. That's his full job. I see that the scales are checked every hour so that they cannot be wrong more than an hour maximum.''

So much for quality control. What about taste? Research, it seems, however unscientific, says the two don't necessarily go hand in claw.

In the spring of last year, at the height of New York City's three-way tussle among Perdue, Cookin' Good, and Paramount, a Manhattan cooking-school teacher tried to set the record straight.

The teacher, Mary Beth Clark, tested 21 chickens of various weights and brands in the New York Cooking Center kitchens. Another day, 13 were tested at the New York Times. The winner: none of the above. A nonleading brand, Bell & Evans, took first place.

In the spring of 1977, the Boston Globe had done a similar test during advertising wars between now-defunct Pure One and Perdue. Comparing these with two house brands produced unanimous decisions on all counts: the winner, Pure One. They never ran the story. When word leaked to Perdue, he argued his case convincingly enough for the Globe to concede he had a point. His rebuttal to both tests?

''Research is very sensitive. Those tests were not proper.''

To be sure, taste is the most subjective thing in rating a chicken. Call not retailers or wholesalers, but a handful of restaurants and the reasons become clear. While one cook likes the layer of fat on a Perdue because it keeps the breast more moist, another dislikes spooning away the excess fat while cooking or in stocks.

How does the Perdue chicken compare with the barnyard-pampered, world-famous French bird, poulet de Bresse?

''I hope running around eating dirt and worms and stones and grass is nobody's idea of a balanced diet,'' Perdue says. ''I compare that to the average human drinking and eating chocolate mousse. We feed the chicken as balanced a diet as computerized science can devise.''

''My birds eat better than you do,'' he adds. ''I will guarantee you that our chickens are superior to those. They are not better. They cannot be better.''

Mr. Perdue confesses he never had a poulet de Bresse, although he's visited France a couple of times. But in all his years of business, he has never had a losing year.

''Yeah,'' he says, ''and economists in universities have been saying every year since 1930 that the country was saturated with chicken.''

He spends his winters in Salisbury, Md., summers in Ocean City 25 miles away. He takes ''forced'' vacations in the Caribbean, ''for the sun, not the water'' and reportedly plays a plucky game of tennis.

Does he have plans to diversify?

''That is the most dangerous word in the English language,'' he says, hinting he might someday add turkeys to his corporate covey. ''Andrew Carnegie got sold on the proposition of resurfacing rails for trains. He lost 25 million bucks.

''And that's when he said, 'Put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket.' ''

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