Chicken King Frank Perdue Dies at 84

Frank Perdue (search), who turned his father's backyard egg business into one of the world's biggest chicken companies by appearing in TV commercials full of down-home charm, has died at 84.

Perdue, who died Thursday at his home in Salisbury, was one of the first CEOs to pitch his own product on television in 1971, delivering his famous line, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken."

He remained the company's public face for the next two decades, creating an empire that now employs 20,000 associates and works with 7,500 independent farm families. Perdue Farms Inc. (search) went from annual sales of $56 million in 1970 to $2.8 billion in 2003.

Until the late 1990s, Perdue was regularly ranked in Forbes' list of 400 richest Americans. In 1997, the magazine ranked him 214th and estimated his net worth at $825 million.

Perdue said he was initially uncertain about whether to take to the airwaves. He said a New York ad man persuaded him to run his own commercials, but also gave Perdue a warning.

"He said, 'If you do this, you're going to have some heartaches from it. You're going to have people yelling at you or maybe screaming at you or criticizing you, but I think it's the best way to sell a superior chicken, which I think you have,"' Perdue said in a 1991 interview with The Associated Press.

"It was quite a shock to my nervous system because I'd never been in a school play or anything and I'm basically reticent about speaking in public," said Perdue, who ultimately did 156 different ads.

Perdue's rise was extraordinary, considering the company's humble beginnings. Perdue's father, Arthur W. Perdue (search), started the family business in 1920, raising chickens for eggs. Perdue and his father switched from eggs to chickens in the 1940s and broke into retail sales in 1968.

"A lot of corporate America could take a lesson from Frank Perdue, a man who started out selling chickens from an ice chest in the back of his truck," said John Boyd (search), president of the National Black Farmers Association, who sold chickens to Perdue for 13 years. "We didn't always agree, but he was a good business man, he was fair, and he was responsive to the needs of his growers."

At the time of his death, Perdue was chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors of Salisbury-based Perdue Farms. He had handed over control of the company to his son in 1991.

In building his poultry business, Perdue was the consummate entrepreneur and workaholic, who would put in 18 hours a day and get by on three or four hours' sleep. He had a cot in his office and often spent the night there, even though his home was 50 yards away.

Perdue Farms' expansion in the 1970s was rapid, but it also sowed the seeds of worker discontent. The company opened new plants in rural, often-poor areas of the South, where labor was cheap. Inevitably, union activism sprang up, which Perdue sought to suppress.

In 1986, Perdue admitted to a presidential commission that he had twice unsuccessfully sought help from New York crime boss Paul Castellano to put down union activities, actions he later said he regretted deeply.

In the late 1980s, reports of repetitive motion injuries rose rapidly in the industry among workers who performed the same handling, sorting and cutting tasks all day. In 1991, the company agreed to establish a four-year program to reduce injuries.

Perdue was born in Salisbury in 1920, the only child of older parents. He was a shy boy who spent much of his time working on the family egg farm. His dream was to play professional baseball, but he said he "gathered more splinters than hits" on the team at Salisbury State Teachers College, from which he graduated in 1939.

Perdue's loyalty to his hometown remained throughout his life. He was heavily involved in civic activities and gave an endowment to his alma mater, now Salisbury University, to establish the Perdue School of Business.

Perdue is survived by his third wife, Mitzi Ayala Perdue, four children, two stepchildren and 12 grandchildren.