By Julie Sloane; Frank Perdue

(FORTUNE Small Business) – It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken, but a tougher one to revolutionize an industry. Never before had anyone thought to advertise chicken, but when Frank Perdue launched his famous television ads in 1971, he literally became the face of poultry in the Eastern U.S., where Perdue fresh chickens are sold. His ads emphasized both quality and humor, with slogans like "If you want to eat as good as my chickens, you'll just have to eat my chickens," and, in response to Wendy's "Where's the beef?" campaign, "Who cares where the beef is?" The TV ads made Perdue famous--he would ultimately do more than 150 of them--but his relentless energy and high standards also played a big role in his success. After joining his father's egg-farming business in 1939, Frank spent decades working 15 or 16 hours a day with a cot in his office for naps--even though his house was just across the street. Legend has it that when he called on farmers, he'd jump out of the car before it stopped moving.

Today Perdue Farms has 20,000 employees and sales of $2.5 billion, turning out 52 million pounds of chicken and turkey each week. At 83 and still showing up at the office every day, Frank, like his third-generation family business, keeps on clucking. --JULIE SLOANE

"My father, Arthur Perdue, was working for the railroad in Salisbury, Md., in 1915. Before trucks were in vogue, everything was transported by rail. He decided not to be a farmer because he said that while there was nothing he would rather do than see a plow turn a furrow, you couldn't make any money at it. But he saw that the farmers bringing in eggs to ship seemed to be the most prosperous, and he found that interesting. So he decided to get into the table egg business, producing the eggs that people ate for breakfast. He always said that 1920 was his banner year because it was the year he left the railroad, bought his first car, had his first and only child--me--and, of course, it was the year he started the business.

I always helped my father with the farm, from the time I was so small that I had to hold an egg with two hands. I helped pick up eggs and pack them into crates. We started at 7 A.M. The tractor was rolling at 7, and you were either there or you got left behind. My dad was a very disciplined individual. If we were running the tractor, we'd stop and eat lunch for half an hour at 12:30, and at one o'clock the tractor rolled. Every day. My father taught me a lot. He taught me to be frugal and detail-minded. He would save old shoes to make hinges for the chicken-house doors. He taught me to seek knowledge. And he was a good farmer.

When I was 10, my dad gave me a gift of 50 laying hens for a 4-H project. They were what we call "culls," the least promising of the flock. Not inferior, but just slower to develop. With all the attention I gave them, when they got laying a month later, they laid just as many eggs as the others. I made anywhere from $10 to $20 a month on those 50 chickens. That was a lot of money during the Depression years. I kept records on how much the chickens ate, what I paid for their feed, and how much I earned for the eggs. That experience gave me a taste for the business.

I started at Salisbury State Teachers' College in 1937. At the time it turned out nothing but schoolteachers. Around here schoolteachers were paid so little that they couldn't keep working. I didn't want to spend my life correcting papers, so after two years I went back to work with my father. My dad was in the egg business for 19 years before I joined him in 1939, and when I did, it brought our employee count up to three--my dad, me, and one other person. Our yearly sales were $26,000. There are different parts of the chicken business--hatching the baby chicks, producing the feed for them, and then the processing plants--and when I joined the business, we were still only producing table eggs. We started raising "heavy breeds" (they were seven pounds instead of four), and I soon figured out that we could make a lot more money selling the actual chicks than we could just selling eggs. We'd sell them to farmers who would raise them and have eggs of their own. I was making $40 a week and thought I was really in clover, but by 1943 we were making $1,000 a week. The next year my father changed the name of the company to A.W. Perdue & Son.

After the war ended, we added another business--we became feed dealers. We would go around to farmers in the area and sell them the feed for their chickens. I told my dad he ought to go out and sell, and I'd take care of our chickens. But he said, "No, if there's going to be any selling done, you'll do it." I had always been terribly shy, and I think going out and selling helped me with my personality. I had been selling Beacon brand feed, which was just about the best commercial feed available. In 1951, I started mixing my own. To research it, I went to Arkansas, and I met John Tyson and many people in the chicken business there. Being so far away in Maryland, I was no competitive threat to them, so they weren't reluctant to answer my questions. I also got information on feed formulations from different universities. I was one of the early ones to mix my own feed in this area.

As the '60s went on, it became clear that the processors [who prepare the chickens for market] were the ones who were making the money in the chicken business. They were making a nickel a pound when I was losing a nickel a pound. We had been expanding, getting bigger and bigger. As a result there were too many chickens, and the price per pound had dropped. Our sales were at $35 million, but I was losing a couple of hundred thousand dollars a week. I realized I had to get into processing. In 1967, I bought an old Swift plant in Salisbury, but it was a dog. It was in awful shape. Before we processed any chickens there, I spent ten weeks on the road talking to buyers and trying to figure out what they wanted. What kind of box? What kind of wing tag? What did they want that they were not getting? I had about 20 questions and returned with two thick notebooks full of answers. I used to call on a lot of butcher shops because they've always been quality experts. They had to fight the chain store, so they wanted a superior product.

Based on what I learned, I decided to start selling my chickens in New York. The biggest lobsters are not in Maine; they're in New York. New York is willing to pay for the best. I thought we should advertise, so I sought the advice of the head of advertising for Best Foods. He said, "How much share of the market have you got?" We had about 3%. He said, "Well, then, don't waste your money. You shouldn't advertise until you have 50%." But I thought, How am I going to get there if I don't advertise? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? People didn't think it made any sense to advertise chicken because it was a commodity. But it seemed to me that there was a greater variation in the quality of chickens than in other heavily advertised products, such as detergents or beer.

We started radio commercials in 1968, but I wasn't in the ads then. Because of the advertising, year by year we were getting a little more for our chickens--a quarter-of-a-cent-per-pound premium the first year, a half-cent the second. In the third year I decided to switch ad agencies. I began a ten-week total immersion into the world of advertising. I interviewed 48 agencies, and I got that down to three, and then flew up seven of our people from Salisbury to make the decision. We chose Scali McCabe & Sloves. They came down and spent a lot of time walking around the plant with me, learning about chickens, walking through the feed mills. As we were walking around, if I saw somebody doing something wrong, I would go over and raise hell about it. That's how I operate, but they were shocked. They thought, "This guy is something!" Ed McCabe called me into his office and said that after seeing how fanatical I was about quality, he thought the ads would work better if I was on camera. I absolutely didn't want to appear in the ads. I hated the idea. But if it would sell more chickens, I'd do it.

Ed came up with the slogan "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken." We made the first commercial in the park in Salisbury in 1971. I was sitting on a picnic blanket with a drumstick in my hand. I was supposed to be enthusiastic about the drumstick, but I kept flubbing the lines. I was scared to death. The whole day they were feeding me cold chicken. Finally they gave me one that was warm. I said, "That's really good!" It was just ad lib. The cameras were off at that point, but the sound was on. It was so genuine that they ended up using it in the commercial. Filming those ads never got easier for me. I never liked to do them, but they worked--after two years of radio advertising, our sales went from $50 million to $80 million. After one year of the TV commercials, 51% of New Yorkers recognized the Perdue label. I ultimately did 156 different ads in all.

While advertising was tremendous for us, I believe a gifted product is mightier than a gifted pen. Quality was the key. It had to be. If something's not up to standard, even on 1% of chickens, it's not good enough. The housewife doesn't buy averages, she buys one chicken at a time.

I also found the best way to persuade distributors and supermarket meat managers to buy our chickens was to fly them in and show them our operation. I did as many as 26 charter flights a year. They would tour the plant, have lunch, and watch presentations at the Elks club, and I would go meet everyone. Who's ever done anything for a meat manager? But he was the decision-maker as to what was going to be in the meat case. We also had pretty elaborate daily marketing reports listing what worked and what didn't, what problems we had, how satisfied customers were. I read them every day--even on vacation.

After New York, we expanded to Boston. We waited to go to Baltimore, Washington, and Philadelphia because there was too much competition from southern growers. We first went north. My goals were just to keep going, getting bigger and bigger. One time I had a professor speaking to a bunch of my chicken people. He said, "What is the one common denominator to success?" They were all trying to think what it could be. He said, "One word: drive." That's a necessity. Drive. And we were driven.

We were chasing demand in the '70s and '80s, but that came to a halt in the early '90s. Chicken consumption had enjoyed a 5%-a-year increase, but there's only so much meat the average consumer can eat, and beef and pork were growing also. We had a pretty good share of the markets in the East, so we had to expand farther, to places like Miami, Chicago, and the Midwest. Even today our fresh chicken is mostly sold east of the Mississippi River. We're like the milk business. You want to be within about 500 miles of the market, because the product has a limited shelf life.

My son, Jim, came to work for us in 1983. It was never a question that I would someday hand the business over to him. So in 1991, when I was 71, Jim took over as president, and he now serves as chairman and CEO. I'm not retired--I still come in to meetings, come in to work every day. I spend a lot of time with growers and farmers in the field. I still have a great interest in how the business is doing, what Jim's plans are. I just love the business."