Jim Perdue lays out a vision for his family’s company

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Jim Perdue has been Chairman and CEO of Perdue Farms for the past 23 years.

Founded by Arthur Perdue in 1920, the company saw phenomenal growth and expansion in the 1970s and ’80s under the leadership of Frank Perdue, a man internationally regarded as a business, production and marketing genius.

When Jim Perdue took the helm at just 42 years of age in 1991, there were more questions than answers concerning the future of Salisbury’s top company. How the company would fare under a third Perdue generation was widely debated.

Jim Perdue was making a career as a marine biologist in Washington State. Running a poultry conglomerate didn’t seem to be in his future. But, since becoming chairman, Jim Perdue has not only grown the company, he has presided over the creation of innovative product lines that have made the company even more powerful in the consumer-spending landscape.

With $6.8 billion in annual sales, 21,000 employees and 15 plants nationwide, Perdue is the nation’s 12th largest meat producer. It is estimated that Perdue Farms a $100 million annual economic impact on the Lower Shore, and Sussex and Accomack counties.

The next generation of family member — internally referred to as “G4”, for Generation 4 — has entered the business and presumably vying to succeed Frank Perdue’s only son. Yet, at age 64, Jim Perdue shows no inclination to step aside. Frank Perdue retired at age 71.

Jim Perdue sat down with Greg Bassett and Salisbury Independent for a wide-ranging interview in April. The topics included his family’s business, its future, state politics and what it was like growing up in Salisbury.

Q. You could live anywhere. You could run your business from almost anywhere. Why have you chosen to make your home — both personally and professionally — on the Eastern Shore?

A. I do believe that you can find something special anywhere that you live, but for me it’s a family business that we’re running and I have to be as close as I can to that business. Being here is a critical part in having a family business.

I grew up on the Shore, so I like the water. Most of my activities involve the ocean or the bay, fishing, being on a boat. It’s what I love. I don’t think I could live in a city. I remember my Dad, one thing he used to do, he really loved New York, especially when he first got into the advertising part of the business — and selling, he loved selling in New York. But he always said he really enjoyed coming home. That was a highlight for him, as it is for me.

 Q. How do you protect that family business culture from people you might hire with a corporate culture mentality?

A. People who come to work here tell me they love the family business culture, especially if they’ve worked for a big company somewhere else. To me, different business cultures are neither good nor bad. They’re like personalities. Every company has its own culture.

Ours has been shaped — not by me — but by the founders and it resides in their values, but it’s something that I think is important to carry over from generation to generation. The values were established by Arthur Perdue — not even Frank Perdue, but Arthur Perdue  — and they don’t change. We may change our vision, our mission, our goals — but not our values, they stay the same. And I think people notice that.

It can be seen quite well, for example, when something happens to a family (of an employee). They are immediately surrounded by associates (whom they work with) and are helped, because they’re part of a family.

 Q. Tell me about the Downtown Salisbury processing plant. It’s sort of a Salisbury institution. What role do you see it playing in the community?

A. It’s like a family there, especially. Many people there have been working there 30, 40 years. You’ve got people retiring now who have been there since it opened — they’ve been there 40-plus years. It’s the kind of plant where everybody knows everybody. It’s the kind of plant that, in some ways, it’s easy to run, because you can be a plant manager and walk away for a week and know that nothing (bad) is going to happen, because the people there are so good.

Recently, when we opened a new plant (in another state) it took a year, year-and-a-half to get things working right because the people didn’t know what they were doing. Down at the Salisbury plant, people are so good at doing what they do that they just shine. It’s important to keep stuff out of there way and let them do what they do.

Q. A big step in your Perdue career was when you worked at that plant and later became the plant’s manager. What did that experience teach you?

A. I learned how important people are in any success. My Dad never worked in a (processing) plant — when you run a plant, you really begin to appreciate people. I have great memories of my time there.

Q. I understand your son works there now. What does he do?

A.  He (Chris Perdue, age 30) started up in Georgetown working night shifts and now he’s a manager in the Salisbury plant. We have four family members in various aspects of the business. My Dad always wanted to keep the business in the family — which was tough, because I was the only son, and I wasn’t in the business, but I came back (from Washington State).

I think it would be good to have (Perdue Farms) continue on in the family. So we have an active process with them gaining experience. The management of the company will always have to match the skill-level needed, but over time it would be good to have family in place.

Q. There is lots of concern about poultry’s effects on the environment. What do you say to those who contend poultry is a harmful enterprise?

A. We as a poultry industry, as agriculture, have a responsibility — everybody has a responsibility — especially in this area, where there’s a sensitivity to the Chesapeake Bay.

We have to do everything we can, but you can quickly get into a difference of opinion about whether you’re doing enough. In my view, we certainly are doing a lot, but we don’t maybe tell enough about what we’re doing. I’ve always said that, unfortunately, the farmer is one of the least represented constituents in Annapolis. They’re an easy prey for environmental groups or legislators who don’t understand agriculture.

What’s going on here in Maryland is unique. We (Perdue Farms) operate in 13 states. Maryland is way, way ahead of the rest of the country in seeking environmental protections. Because of the sensitivity, we’re doing things that no one else is doing. The farmers are following Best Practices with vegetative buffer strips and cover crops. It’s amazing the number of cover crops being planted. In the winter, the farm fields used to be just dirt — now they’re green with cover crops, which are sucking the nitrogen out of the soil before it gets into the water. Money from the Flush Tax (under then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich) helps pay for that — that was money well spent, because it sucks up nitrogen.

Legislation has to be based on facts, not on models. Scientific models depend on what information you’re inserting in the model. That’s the biggest concern of farmers right now — a lot of rules and regulations are being promulgated based on a model that they don’t feel is representative.

We’re doing a lot (to protect the environment) and we’ll continue doing a lot, and I think the rest of the country will benefit from what we’re doing and learning here.

Q. How has the business changed since your grandfather’s days as boss? How has it changed since the days in which your dad transformed it?

A. What’s changed most about the business is the consumer. People today are time starved. With some millennials, it’s like in 20 minutes “I need to have a dinner.” Our generation spent a lot longer preparing meals. But it has to be a decent dinner. It has to be time efficient.

For example, our Shortcuts product can be used on salads or in meals — that’s why it took off quickly — it solved a problem for consumers. Perfect Portions is sliced so it can thaw out and cook in 12 minutes. The Oven Roaster comes in a bag, it’s easy, you don’t have to touch it — you just put it in there and it cooks and you take it out, and it’s elegant — it’s an elegant dinner, there in the middle of the table and everybody likes it. Our Chicken Nuggets for kids at lunch is a staple.

Dad was a leader in convincing consumers that chicken is not a commodity. The packaging and product were innovative. We have an Innovation Center here in Salisbury, and we have 35 food scientists there. It’s their job to make our products as innovative as possible to match consumers’ expectations.

As an example, we’ve taken all animal byproducts our of our products. Instead of using animal fat, we’ve gone to corn oil or soybean oil in our (chicken) feed. We did that because it tastes better, it’s healthier. An animal is what it eats.

Now, we are the largest antibiotics-free chicken producer in the U.S. We are also the largest producer of organic chicken in the U.S.

Our family culture helps us. We engage in long-term thinking. Publicly owned companies are always focused on their quarterly number because they have to satisfy shareholders. We are able to make decisions that are about the long term.

 Q. What changes could be made in Maryland’s political culture to improve the plight of Eastern Shore business and agronomics?

A. What we’ve always wanted in the state of Maryland was a seat at the table. That’s all we’ve ever asked for. If you’re going to make rules and regulations, give us a seat at the table — and we’ve never had that seat. In Delaware and Virginia, we have a seat, they invite us in, they want different views.

You need different views to get good legislation. If you have just one view — and the state of Maryland does — then you don’t get the best solution to the issue that you’re talking about. The big one right now is the phosphorus index — they’re not getting that the farming industry has to be involved to get a true public consensus.

Q. Everyone knows about your love of marine biology. Do you get to practice that through a hobby? Is that a reason you like living on the Shore?

 (Jim Perdue becomes so animated and passionate when discussing marine biology that we’re saving his comments for a future package on our local waterways. — Editor.)

Q. When you moved away from Salisbury for college, a lot of people thought you’d never come back and have a leadership role in Perdue.

A. I didn’t come back to run the company, though I was interested that it continue on in the family. I think sometimes it lucky that we’ve evolved. When my Dad came in to the company, there were just two employees, and that included my grandfather. The guy who lived across the street (from us) became employee No. 3.

When I came in (as chairman), there were 12,000 people and $1 billion (to) $1.2 billion in sales. So, that’s an awful lot of change. Now there’s $7 billion in sales and 21,000 employees. That’s quite a mountain for anyone to take on.

 Q. How are you different than Frank?

A. You can’t walk in footsteps. Dad and I had different ways of doing things. It’s interesting, I’ve noticed that in the G4s, they each have their strengths and weaknesses. My dad was a real entrepreneur, a risk taker.

I wouldn’t say I’m so much of an entrepreneur or a risk taker, but I have my own interests. I think I might be more focused on the people side. He was 100 percent focused on the quality side, nothing else really mattered. That doesn’t mean he didn’t care about the people, he did. He awarded (company) stock to the workers — forget about the family — he made sure to reward the people who worked to ensure the quality.

Marketing mattered to him a lot later on. Everything had high standards to him.

I still follow the Three P’s — people, product, profit. It begins with people — take care of your people and they’ll give you a good product, which guarantees profitability.

Q. Are you a wing man, a breast man, a leg man or a thigh man?

A. When I was a kid, we used to have fried chicken every Sunday. Back then my mother would kill 20 to 25 chickens in the back yard, clean them, dress them and freeze them. When the fried chicken would be passed around the table, all that was left when it came to me was drumsticks and thighs. I’ve always eaten those, they have the most flavor.

The thigh is my favorite. And as my Dad used to say, they’re the pieces that have a little handle to make them easy to eat.

Q. It seems like, all of a sudden, every restaurant in the world now serves chicken wings, which in the old days, no one would eat.

A. When I was still working in sales in 1989, wings were 12 cents a pound. Now they’re up to $2 a pound. It’s a great finger food.

Q. Do people in public often recognize you from your popular TV commercials?

A. I’m not recognized nearly as much as my Dad was. Back then there were only three networks, and he was on all three all of the time. The media is diluted now. I’m more recognized (here at home) from my charitable activities and the local commercials, such as (Salvation Army) bell-ringing, and the United Way.

I like the new commercials because they’re cartoons. When you get my age, makeup doesn’t help anymore, Cartoons work pretty well.

Q. What is your favorite memory of growing up in Salisbury?

A. Back when I was growing up (on Old Ocean City Road, east of Salisbury) we probably had 100 or 200 people working for the company and we had a softball field behind the office (across the street from the Perdue home). My dad loved baseball and he’d be out there playing at lunchtime, and everyone had so much fun.

Every summer we would have a huge picnic and invite every grower who raised chickens for us. We would have them over to the Zion Church Road facility. As a kid, I would have to work three or four days before that to get it set up.

It was always barbecue chicken that we served and my job was to hand out the ice cream sandwiches. Those were really fun, great times.

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