I have been lucky enough to work with some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world. Each of them has been idiosyncratic and quite amazing.
In January 1984, I started working as a consultant with Frank Perdue. I continued working with him and his company for almost twelve years. While my task was to bring the kind of sophisticated business processes that I had learned in fifteen years at Procter & Gamble and Mars, Inc. to Perdue Farms, I also learned a lot from him. Perdue Farms was, at the time, a marketer of raw, refrigerated chicken only. My objective was to develop and launch new added value products and businesses.
Frank Perdue had inherited a modest poultry, primarily egg business from his father, Arthur Perdue. He had the idea of creating differentiation, ensuring the highest quality, maintaining strict quality control, and spending heavily on advertising to successfully build the first poultry brand in the world. Since I had only recently headed up the marketing of Uncle Ben’s Rice, the approach was very familiar to me.
Frank Perdue, Problem Solver
Even though he ran a huge business, Frank was very hands-on. I had a lot of interaction with Frank and Don Mabe, his alter ego in operations. While I have had a great deal of experience with people who had personally built very large businesses —both before and since—Frank Perdue had a lot in common with each of them. However, he also had his own unique spin on them.
I have learned that even when the keys to their success are encapsulated and written down, it can be very difficult to copy them. So, whether it is Steve Jobs or Richard Branson, each has a unique combination of characteristics that make them succeed. Frank’s were very clear and anyone can learn from them:
- He focused intensely on the task at hand. When there was an issue, Frank became determined to fix it immediately. He became personally engaged and followed the solution all the way to the end with total involvement in all the details.
- He listened to people because he was genuinely interested in hearing what they had to say. While he was quite capable of expressing his opinion at length, he also wanted to know all the details. He would not only listen but also ask questions and take notes. This was not only in business, and he took a real interest in people. He wanted to know about them, what they did, how they did it, and how they thought.
- He was passionate about quality. He wanted to make sure that the product was perfect and left it to Don Mabe to make it happen and worry about cost. This is a characteristic I have found in all the successful entrepreneurs I have worked with, whatever the product.
- He genuinely had no patience. Once, when he overshot his exit on the New Jersey Turnpike, he drove his S-class Mercedes Benz over the central divider to go back to it. As far as he was concerned, anything worth doing should be done immediately.
- He had faith in consumers. While he worked with the trade, he believed that they were there to serve the consumer. When a major retailer refused to take his products, he carpet bombed homes close to each of their stores with printed leaflets extolling the benefits of his chicken and high value coupons and increased advertising until the chain took his products.
Working with Frank Perdue was fascinating. He lacked the patience to actively teach but was delighted to help anyone who was interested in learning if they observed, listened, and asked intelligent questions.