The Sky's Not Falling on Frank Perdue; His Chicken Littles Are Fetching a Pretty Henny Penny

updated 08/30/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/30/1982 01:00AM

Some people think Frank Perdue even looks like a chicken. Once, outside Manhattan's "21" Club, someone bawled at him, "Cock-a-doodle-doo." "That kind of thing doesn't happen very often," says Frank. But if it did, it wouldn't ruffle his feathers. Perdue, 62, who took over a small family poultry business in 1950 and built it into the third largest in the country, cackles all the way to the bank. "We've never had an unprofitable year," he notes of Perdue Farms Inc., ranked 45th among FORTUNE'S 50 largest privately held U.S. industrial corporations.

Though the company's earnings are nothing to cluck at, much of its investment is literally chicken feed. Perdue Farms spends $3.5 million a week on the stuff, which is spiced with marigold petals from Mexico. It invests another $750,000 a year in research to produce "fresher, tenderer, tastier, yellower chickens"—and a reported $10 million a year in ads and TV commercials from New England to Virginia, his main selling area, most featuring the fowl-like Perdue.

Actually, Perdue Farms is something of a misnomer. The company, based in Salisbury, Md., owns eight hatcheries, five feed mills, five processing plants and a primary breeding farm. But it doesn't own the farms where the chickens grow up. Like a mother hen, however, it spreads a protective wing over its profitable brood, supplying feed, veterinary services and coop financing to growers.

After the eggs are laid and hand-collected, trucks take them to a Perdue hatchery and their surrogate mothers: tall banks of steel incubators where the temperature is set at a cozy 99 degrees. The eggs are turned by machine every hour for 18 days before spending three days in another incubator. The chicks are then ushered onto an assembly line where a portion of their beaks are burned off to keep them from pecking each other to death.

Like preschoolers, the chicks receive mass inoculations against a tumor-causing disease and respiratory infections before being moved out in school buses to 1,600 growers in four states. For these chicks, biology is indeed destiny. Females become layers, Cornish game hens or broilers; males become broilers or roasters.

The birds' accommodations—single-story, climate-controlled aluminum houses which can hold 25,000 chickens apiece—are checked regularly by Perdue inspectors and are decidedly chic by chick standards. The birds' diet is 60 percent corn, 20 percent soybeans, plus corn gluten, vitamins, minerals and bakery leftovers, which provide calories to fuel rapid growth. Cornish game hens spend five weeks in the houses, broilers eight weeks and roasters 12 weeks before being shipped out for "processing." At Perdue, "slaughter" is a dirty word.

Indecorously strung up clothesline-style, the chickens meet death hanging by their ankles from a conveyor belt. An electric current knocks them senseless, then a knife painlessly slits their throats. Liquid is drained from the carcasses in a "bleed tunnel." Next, the birds are passed through hot water to loosen the feathers, which are removed in a passage of revolving, vibrating rubber fingers. Hairs are singed by blowtorch machines, then heads and feet are severed. At an eviscerating counter, the innards are removed and separated. (The birds are later restuffed with other chickens' gizzards and giblets.) Lungs are sucked out by vacuum cleaners, while the crops and windpipes are pulled out by hand. Along the way, quality control inspectors check for imperfections like bruises, bloody wing tips and unhealthy color. Finally, chickens that are found up to standard pass through another water bath to lower their temperature, then are packed on ice for a truck trip to market. At no point are Perdue chickens frozen, a detail Frank makes much of in his commercials, maintaining that frozen chickens can be distinguished by blackened bones.

Nothing is wasted. Ground feathers and offal, rich in protein, are mixed into chicken feed, while imperfect chickens, minus their flaws, can be reduced to packaged parts. Some of the meat is ground into "chicken product" and sold to fast food outlets, which sometimes add it to hamburger.

For Perdue, the question is not which came first, the chicken or the ads. Young Frank actually dreamed of being a baseball player. "One thing I didn't want to be was a chicken farmer," he says. But after two years at a teacher's college in Salisbury, Frank joined his father's business, A.W. Perdue, in 1939. Five years later the company became A.W. Perdue and Son, and by 1950 Frank was running the expanding operation under the watchful eye of "Mr. Arthur." "As volatile and as aggressive as I am, my father and I never had an argument in all the years we worked together," Frank recalls. Perdue Farms, which had formerly sold its birds to processors, including Armour and Swift, in 1971 built one of the largest broiler-processing plants in the world, capable of handling 34,000 chickens an hour, in nearby Accomac, Va. Perdue's yen for total control has landed him in hot water with the Department of Agriculture. A 1981 federal lawsuit, charging that Perdue threatened to withhold his chickens from retailers who also sold other brands of poultry, is still being litigated.

Perdue, of course, attributes his success not to sharp practice but to "hard work, the willingness to make sacrifices, and attention to detail." He says he has little time for outside interests. (He and ex-wife Madeline divorced in 1978. They have three daughters, Sandra, 39, Anne, 36, and Beverly, 35, and a son, James Arthur, 32.) Perdue, who calls a nine-room house in suburban Salisbury home, does, however, harbor a love of fine restaurants, expensive clothes and the spotlight. Always in a rush, he drives a Mercedes sports coupe, and when on foot often eschews sidewalks for the risks of the street. "I get impatient with everyone going so slow," he says, and such competitive urgency seems wholly in character. As the poultry potentate crows on TV, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken."

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