Celebration Corner: Perdue at 100

By Scott Chase

It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken, and a whole company to ring in 100 years of family business.

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With 21,000 associates across 18 states, Perdue Foods operations include a dozen harvest facilities and eight cooking operations: seven for food, one for pet food and another further-processing facility dedicated to specialty meats. The corporate headquarters and the firm’s Innovation Center are located in Salisbury, Md., and there is another corporate office in Denver. Perdue AgriBusiness is an international agricultural products and services company operating more than a dozen feed mills. Annual sales exceed $7 billion.

That’s Perdue today! Roll back a century, and 1920 was a banner year for railway express agent Arthur Perdue and his wife, Pearl. Son Franklin Parsons Perdue arrived on Earth shortly after his parents founded a poultry company in Salisbury, selling table eggs to neighbors and locals. Arthur gave up his career with the railroad and bought a Model-T Ford to accelerate sales. And as soon as young Frank could hold an egg in his hands, according to family lore, he started helping with the family business.

In 1925 Arthur expanded, offering baby chicks to farmers in the neighborhood. The business survived the stock market crash of 1929 and weathered the Depression years. Meanwhile, it turned out that young Frank was quite the baseball player, but by 1939 he realized there was no future in collegiate sports, and he left school to join his parents as the company’s third full-time employee.

 A poultry disease that hammered the Perdues’ flocks almost destroyed the business in the 1940s. Arthur reverted to selling layer chicks instead of meat-bird chicks, a move that positioned the company well with the emerging broiler industry. In 1950, Frank took the helm and the company soon thereafter was incorporated as A.W. Perdue & Son. Diversification into grain receiving and soybean processing expanded the business and secured critical pipelines for feed ingredients. It’s just no good to starve a chicken.

By the 1970s, mass media – especially television – factored into the success or failure of many businesses, and Frank scored bigtime onscreen, becoming one of the first serving CEOs to launch and star in a successful television branding campaign. His slogan, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” catapulted Perdue into the consciousness of consumers across the nation. A few years later, Perdue’s chicken experts introduced the Perdue Oven Stuffer Roaster in 1974, and Perdue became the only poultry company in America with its own proprietary breed.

Chickens, Frank would agree, can do a lot, but they can’t do it all. Over time, the company branched out into turkey, fully cooked prepared meats, and foodservice. During this period, Frank’s son, Jim, a marine biologist with a Ph.D. in fisheries, became an entry-level management trainee at Frank’s invitation and began his climb through the ranks at Perdue. Jim was named chairman in 1991 and three years later took over Dad’s fun role as chief advertising spokesperson.

The past two decades have seen countless adaptations in supply chain, streamlined production, and state-of-the-art equipment as well as the establishment of an Innovation Center dedicated to food service science and animal welfare. Frank died in 2005, but the relentless march of innovation rolled on, with Perdue leading the industry in organic chicken and no-antibiotics-ever chicken, turkey and pork.

“The business has changed a lot over the last 100 years, but our values have not,” says Jim Perdue, third-generation chairman. “We’re a fourth-generation, family-run company built on the values of quality, integrity, teamwork and stewardship. I believe the most important thing is for us to continue to put our people first.”

As its second century commences, Jim says the company “remains committed to listening to consumers, continues to look forward, innovate, and respond to consumer demand. Two recent examples are the launch of our Perdue Chicken Plus product line and the launch of our new ecommerce website.” 

 

The Family:

In 2017 the family made a bit more advertising history when it introduced Chris and Ryan Perdue, fourth-generation spokespersons carrying on the traditions of their father and grandfather. The following year the family and the company celebrated the 50th anniversary of incorporation of the Perdue brand, a precursor to a century as a family business. In 2019 Perdue Farms was honored by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for Diversity.”

In addition to Chris, director of ecommerce, and Ryan, vice president and general manager of the Pet Treats division, three other fourth-generation family members contribute to the business: Carlos Ayala, vice president, new business ventures, for the Foods Division; Chris Oliviero, vice president and general manager, Niman Ranch; and Rick Lloyd, business development manager for Perdue AgriBusiness.

Today, working with more than 2,000 American farms, Perdue is well-positioned to begin its second century as a family business.

The Celebration:

Back in 2017 the company created an internal Centennial Committee to begin planning for the 100th anniversary. Like businesses everywhere, the company had to alter its plans because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some elements of the celebration, such as ongoing tours of Perdue Farms, have been suspended.

The Centennial Committee turned to the Guinness Book of World Records with a fun idea, a planned attempt to set the global record for the largest serving ever of smoked chicken using Pearl Perdue’s “sweet ’n’ smokey” chicken recipe. As with most of the centennial events that involved people gathering to celebrate, the effort was canceled. On the community relations front, the company launched a campaign to help alleviate food insecurity, “Delivering Hope to Our Neighbors,” an effort to donate $1 million to 10 of its @FeedingAmerica-affilitaed food bank partners. 

Perdue Farms CEO Randy Day notes, “With one in nine Americans struggling with food insecurity, hunger knows no boundaries. As a food company, we’re committed to fighting hunger in the communities we call home and beyond. We’ll continue to use this initiative to elevate awareness of hunger, continue our decades-long support through donations of nutritious protein, associate volunteerism and financial support, and work with stakeholders to make meaningful change.”

Closer to home, the Centennial Committee put together several programs for all its stakeholders, internal and external, such as creating #100Years100Stories to chronicle 100 moments that really mattered to the company.

“Our planning committee included more than a dozen associates across the organization,” Jim recounts. “Each member of the committee brought dedication and passion to the project and took tremendous pride in planning ways to honor and celebrate this company we’re all so proud to work for. These celebration plans were years in the making. Nothing is more important than keeping people safe, so while we were saddened to cancel many of these events, we know it was the right thing to do.”

The Response:

The family was thrilled with all the planning but fully understood and supported the decision to avoid bringing people together in groups during the pandemic, Jim says. “We received positive response from the local community when we opened the farmhouse for tours. We hadn’t broadly announced the other celebratory events before deciding to cancel them due to the pandemic.”

Several other events were planned last year to celebrate the firm’s 100th anniversary and honor its associates, but then were changed to keep people safe.

 

“Even though we weren’t able to celebrate exactly the way we wanted to, our 100th year was not without celebration and accomplishment,” Jim says. “Just to name a few, we received multiple safety awards in our facilities, launched our first-ever ecommerce website, reached an important milestone of raising 25% of all our chickens with outdoor access, hosted our first company-wide Day of Understanding and were recognized by Forbes as a leader in Diversity & Inclusion for the second year in a row. We donated $1 million and more than 2 million pounds of protein to food banks in our service areas to help keep our neighbors fed. Recently, we humbly accepted two industry awards recognizing our response to COVID-19 and the extensive measures we put in place to help keep our associates healthy. That is and always will be our Number 1 priority.”

The Advice:

Start planning early but expect that you will need to be adaptable. Planning big events can be stressful; be sure to keep in mind what the celebrations should really be about – the people who worked so hard over the years so that you have something worth celebrating at the end of the day[MOU6] .

“As it turned out,” Jim says, “2020 was an unprecedented year for everyone, and we’ve all had to adapt to a lot. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new happens to make you realize that you haven’t. So much has changed in the last century, and our 100th year was certainly one of the more interesting years in our history. But one thing that hasn’t changed is our values – Quality, Integrity, Teamwork and Stewardship – the principles that we live every day, and a large part of what makes us successful.

“I am constantly impressed with the compassion and dedication our associates continuously demonstrate for each other and our local communities. I am especially proud of how everyone stepped up to implement extensive safety measures to ensure the health and safety of our colleagues, farmers and other partners during this unprecedented time.

“We owe our success to so many people,” Jim notes. “Thank you to our associates who have been part of this history and who will contribute to our future success. Thank you to our farm families, many of whom have been with us for generations, for doing things the right way. Thank you to our customers for choosing us as your partner. And thank you to our consumers, who continue to put their trust in us. I promise you we will continue to earn it.

“Our path forward is about getting better, not bigger,” Jim concludes. “Our second hundred years will be even more exciting than the first. We do not have plans to reschedule the centennial celebration events. We’ve now entered our second century in business and are excited for what’s to come.”

Issue: 
March/April 2021

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