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Saturday, April 2, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Frank Perdue "pitched" chickens on television

The Associated Press

Enlarge this photoDAN MILLER / AP, 1984

Frank Perdue was one of the first CEOs to pitch his product personally on television.

BALTIMORE — To many people, Frank Perdue looked as if he was born to sell chickens. But it wasn't until he put his face on TV commercials that his father's backyard egg business rapidly grew into one of the world's largest chicken companies.

Mr. Perdue, who became famous for his folksy television pitch "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," died Thursday at his home in Salisbury, Md., after a brief illness, his company said. He was 84.

Mr. Perdue in 1971 became one of the first CEOs to pitch his product personally on television. He remained the company's public face for two decades.

With a prominent nose, small dark eyes, thin lips and high-pitched voice, Mr. Perdue reminded many viewers of a chicken. He even took ribbing from his son, who said in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot in 1995 that he hoped he could still lead the company even though he did not resemble his father.

"I don't look like a chicken," Jim Perdue said. "I don't know if that's good or bad."

In Frank Perdue's time at the helm of the company, he helped build an empire that now employs 20,000 associates and partners with 7,500 independent farm families. The company went from annual sales of $56 million in 1970 to $2.8 billion in 2003. The company mostly distributes its products east of the Mississippi River.

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

Mr. Perdue's father, Arthur Perdue, started the family business in 1920, raising chickens for eggs. Mr. 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, president of the National Black Farmers Association, who sold chickens to Perdue Farms 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, Mr. Perdue was chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors of Maryland-based Perdue Farms. He had handed over control of the company to his son, Jim, in 1991.

Mr. Perdue said he initially was uncertain about whether to take to the airwaves. He said a New York ad man persuaded him to run commercials, but also gave Mr. 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 ... but I think it's the best way to sell a superior chicken,... ' " Mr. 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 ads.

Fifteen years later, telephone surveys indicated that 97 percent of people asked to name a brand of chicken came up with Perdue.

Mr. Perdue was born 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.

Mr. 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.

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

The telephone survey was reported by The Washington Post.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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