Before Frank Perdue was the consummate salesman of the 1970s, renowned for his turn as “The Chicken Man” in popular TV commercials for his poultry company, Perdue Farms, he was so shy that he could barely look a person in the eye.
This image of Perdue as a timid introvert is strikingly at odds with his legacy as a marketing tycoon who transformed a family-owned business into an empire. Indeed, Perdue Farms is now one of America’s largest privately held companies, generating more than $6 billion in revenue each year.
So how did he do it?
Since Perdue passed away in 2005, his wife, Mitzi, has made it her mission to tell people the inspiring answer to that question. She even chronicled her husband’s unlikely story in her recent book, Tough Man, Tender Chicken: Business and Life Lessons from Frank Perdue.
As it turns out, Frank Perdue’s story is an important model for entrepreneurs and small business owners in any sector, whether poultry, piñatas, or paint. I recently sat down with Mitzi Perdue to discover the three most important takeaways from her husband’s wildly successful career, when it comes to building a business empire today:
1. Know what you sell.
Frank Perdue was shy as a child, shy as a teenager and shy as an adult. In fact, says Mitzi, “to the end of his days, he was basically a shy man.” While his shyness didn’t suddenly disappear, Frank learned to overcome it by continually studying his trade. The more he studied, the more he knew about the products and services he sold.
Ultimately, he made up for his shy nature by impressing prospects with his expert knowledge of what he was selling. “Frank made it his business to know so much about feed corn [the food that chickens eat] that he became his clients’ advisor,” Mitzi explains. “And he was a voracious reader all his life. He’d study how to do sales. He studied it so well that eventually he became the biggest feed dealer in the country.”
2. Think of failure as a chance to learn.
Hard-hitting failures can bring even the most seasoned businesspeople to their knees. But Frank Perdue saw failures as opportunities instead of setbacks. “I don’t think that he processed failure the way anybody else I know does,” says Mitzi. “I never saw him get discouraged if he didn’t reach a business goal. To him, it was just an item of information to be dealt with, almost like a puzzle to solve.”
Perdue’s unique approach to failure led him to actually seek out “bad news” from his sales reps, so that he could get ahead of potential problems. “He really listened to people, and he was very scrupulous about trying to solve the bad news that he would hear,” Mitzi explains. This meant that he often went to great lengths to solve problems that other business owners would have put on the back-burner.
By way of example, Perdue heard in the 1980s that his store-bought chicken packages were sometimes leaky. It turned out that the current standard plastic wrap wasn’t effective for packaging his company’s pioneering brand of cut-up chicken. As a result, he developed an entirely new type of machinery to heat-seal the plastic wrap around chicken. That’s the packaging you see today whenever you buy chicken at a grocery store.
3. Make it personal.
Although he was shy, Frank Perdue recognized the importance of making personal connections with his clients. “He was totally on the side of the person he was selling to,” says Mitzi. “It was as if he was on their research team, but not on their payroll.”
By establishing strong relationships with his clients, Perdue earned their trust and won repeat business. While many business owners are always focused on the next prospect, Perdue valued repeat customers above all others. As a result, he built a name for himself as a trustworthy, honest business partner.
“Frank felt that every time he made a sale, his name was on the line,” Mitzi explains. “His view was that personal relationships really count in sales.”