Tough Man, Tender Chicken: Lessons from Frank Perdue

A Visionary Leader

He entered many of our homes via television, winning our hearts with his clever ads about his chicken.  Appearing in hundreds of ads, Frank Perdue turned Perdue chicken into a national brand.  “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” the ads touted.

Frank Perdue was a visionary business leader.  He focused on culture, leadership development, packaging, promotion, and operational excellence perhaps years before others.

Frank and Mitzi Perdue, Used by Permission Frank and Mitzi Perdue, Used by Permission

Recently, his wife, Mitzi Perdue, wrote a biography Tough Man, Tender Chicken: Business and Life Lessons from Frank Perdue.  The book paints the picture of the man, allowing us glimpses into his personal life, but also is full of business and leadership advice.

Mitzi herself holds a BA in government from Harvard, a masters in public administration from George Washington and was for years a syndicated columnist for Capitol News then Scripps Howard.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with her about her late husband.

 

“Find out what the customer wants and then make it better.” –Frank Perdue

 

Take Care of the Customer

There are so many business and life lessons in this book.  Let me just ask about a few areas.

One story you tell was about packaging.  It grabbed my attention because he wanted better packaging, but his team said no.  They said it was too expensive.  I know he was frugal, so his commitment to make it happen speaks volumes.  That little story says so much about his style and determination. Would you help us understand why this was so important to him?

Funny you picked on that story because it happens that I’m (I think) unusually qualified to comment on it.  My master’s thesis from George Washington University was on the importance of packaging.  I felt that the packaging of an idea or a product wasn’t as important as the content, but it was way up high as a consideration.  Frank intuitively understood this concept without having to get a master’s degree!  In the cases of the cartons that chicken was delivered in back in the late 1960s, it was pretty much industry standard to have flimsy boxes that might leave someone’s processing plant looking fine, but by the time they arrived at the distributor’s loading dock in a big city, the box might be crushed and leaking.  Crushed and leaking boxes were a mega-headache for the distributor because it’s hard to handle them on a forklift, and it’s unsanitary.  Frank realized that if he could create boxes that wouldn’t crush or leak, he’d be solving one of the distributors’ major problems.  His attitude was that as long as his goal was to be the best, the price almost didn’t matter, he had to fix the fragile boxes because, “We can’t afford not to.”  It fit in with his motto of, “Take care of the customer,” and the result was that when a distributor wanted chicken, he probably had Perdue on his speed dial. Packaging was an extraordinary competitive edge for us.

Mitzi Perdue, Used by Permission Mitzi Perdue, Used by Permission

“A business that doesn’t change is a business that is going to die.” –Frank Perdue

 

Build A Culture of Disagreement

Take us into the culture of the company.  It tolerated disagreement and strong opinions.  As you say it tolerated “really forceful disagreement.”  How did Frank encourage this?  When did he, as a leader, stop the argument and unify the team?