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?

Learn the Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks

August Turak is a highly successful corporate executive, consultant, entrepreneur and author. His business experience spans from MTV to Raleigh Group International and Elsinore Technologies, a company he founded that won the Fast Fifty Award from KPMG. He is a contributor to Forbes.com and is regularly featured in national media.

Recently, August released a new book, Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks. It is filled with practical business advice, yet infused with a deeper wisdom from centuries-old practices. When you read it, I guarantee it will have practical applications for your organization, and also for you as an individual.

Business Secrets of the Trappist MonksThe subtitle of your book is “One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity.” Tell us more about your search and what led you to a monastery outside of Charleston, South Carolina.

In 1996 I was coaching some college students at Duke University when they talked me into going skydiving with them. I shattered my ankle in the dive, and by forcing me to face my own mortality the accident precipitated a personal crisis. A few months later I discovered that one of my Duke students was spending the summer as a monastic guest at Mepkin Abbey. I wrangled an invitation for a weekend retreat and have been returning ever since, sometimes for weeks and months at a time. Ironically the last thing on my mind on my first trip to Mepkin was Trappist business success or even my own. I was searching for psychological and spiritual solace.

You have distilled numerous business lessons from the Trappist Monks. When you first hear “business secrets” and “Trappist Monks” in the same sentence, it stops you. Tell us more about your journey to uncovering these secrets. What surprised you?P1010266

As a business executive and entrepreneur, I was struck by a simple question: How do a couple dozen aged monks, working only four hours a day and largely in silence, manage to run several highly profitable multi-million dollar enterprises with such frictionless efficiency? At the time I was the CEO of two software start-ups so of course I wondered if and how I and other business people might do the same. I decided that the answer was yes, proved it in my own companies, and have now written a book to share my experience and insights with others.

Selflessness is the shortest path to business, professional, and personal success. -August Turak

Selflessness. It’s one of the attributes the monks are known for. How do you apply selflessness in business?

5 Customer Service Lessons from the Department of Motor Vehicles

 

You can learn from every situation.  Whether it was an incredible service experience that makes you a raving fan or whether it is one where you’re left shaking your head.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to celebrate a milestone with my daughter.  It was time for her to obtain her driver’s permit.  She had finished a weeklong driver’s education course, passed the written test, obtained all of the paperwork, and we had dutifully filled out the forms.

Everything was ready.

Now it was time for us to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), get her picture taken, and obtain the permit.  I knew it would take time.  That’s the nature of the DMV.  I figured an hour to an hour and a half max.

Instead, we quickly realized that getting the permit was going to be about as difficult as Frodo making it safely to Mordor.

All of us have had the same shared, miserable experience at the DMV.  In every state I’ve lived in, it’s the same.  We just forget, don’t we?  We finally get what we need, and then we hope that we never have to go back.

Our experience was even worse than what I recalled from before.  Nearly five hours later, we finally emerged with the permit.  All of the waiting for just five minutes at the counter.

We were exhausted, but we also were laughing.  That’s what we do when we are beyond frustrated.  Jim Rohn used to say, “Learn to turn frustration into fascination.”  When I’m terribly frustrated, I try to heed his advice.

 

Learn to turn frustration into fascination. -Jim Rohn

 

Here’s what I jotted down in my notes during that first hour:

I’m fascinated:

  •             That this operation is so inefficient.
  •             That no one has redone this entire system.
  •             That we blindly put up with it because we feel powerless.
  •             That leaders haven’t emerged to fix it.
  •             That they aren’t listening to suggestions for change.

 

After two hours, I was no longer fascinated.  That’s when I go to my second step.  I look for customer service or leadership lessons.  That worked for the next hour.

What business lessons can we learn from the DMV?

From my notes:

Set expectations.

At the DMV, they don’t give an estimated time until you will be served. Failing to set expectations leads to disappointment.

Lesson:  Whether running a business or serving on a team, it’s important to set expectations—and then keep them.