SALISBURY, Md. (AP) -- Frank Perdue, who transformed a backyard egg business into one of the nation's largest poultry processors using the folksy commercial slogan, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," has died. He was 84.
He died Thursday after a brief illness, Perdue Farms Inc. said Friday.
At the time of his death, Perdue was chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors of Perdue Farms, based in Salisbury.
His TV commercial persona helped boost sales from $56 million in 1970 to more than $1.2 billion by 1991 when he turned the reins over to his son, Jim.
Until the late 1990s, Perdue was regularly ranked in Forbes' list of 400 richest Americans. In 1997, it ranked him 214th and estimated his net worth at $825 million.
Perdue's father, Arthur W. Perdue, started the family business in 1920, raising chickens for eggs. Perdue and his father switched the business from eggs to chickens in the 1940s and broke into retail sales in 1968.
In building his poultry business, Perdue was the consummate entrepreneur and workaholic, who would put in 18 hours a day and get by on three or four hours' sleep. He had a cot in his office and often spent the night there, even though his home was 50 yards away.
When Perdue took to the airwaves in 1971, the company was credited with being the first to advertise chickens by brand. Perdue said a New York ad man persuaded him to run his own television commercials, but also gave Perdue a warning.
"He said, 'If you do this, you're going to have some heartaches from it. You're going to have people yelling at you or maybe screaming at you or criticizing you, but I think it's the best way to sell a superior chicken, which I think you have,'" Perdue said in a 1991 interview with The Associated Press.
"It was quite a shock to my nervous system because I'd never been in a school play or anything and I'm basically reticent about speaking in public," he said.
Perdue Farms' expansion in the 1970s was rapid, but it also sowed the seeds of worker discontent. The company opened new plants in rural, often poor areas of the South, where labor was cheap. Inevitably, union activism sprung up, which Perdue sought to suppress.
In 1986, Perdue told a presidential commission that he had twice unsuccessfully sought help from a reputed New York crime boss to put down union activities, actions he later said he regretted deeply.
In the late 1980s, reports of repetitive motion injuries rose rapidly in the industry among workers who performed the same handling, sorting and cutting tasks all day.
David Marshall, a 42-year-old Perdue chicken catcher, said he had conflicting feelings about his boss. "I worked for him for 27 years, and he treated me pretty good," Marshall said. "But Salisbury was a tough plant to earn any money from. ... It weren't no picnic, but it was a living."
In 1991, the company agreed to establish a four-year program to reduce injuries, including job rotation, rest and exercise periods and automation equipment.
Perdue also began facing pickets from animal rights activists following his appointment in 1991 to the Board of Regents of the University of Maryland system.
His associates said Perdue never spent much time worrying about his critics, but he was never comfortable with his fame. For years, he refused to advertise in the Baltimore and Washington areas to lower his profile at home.
Perdue was born in Salisbury in 1920, the only child of older parents. He was a shy boy who spent much of his time working on the family egg farm. His dream was to play professional baseball, but he said he "gathered more splinters than hits" on the team at Salisbury State Teachers College, from which he graduated in 1939.
Perdue's loyalty to his hometown remained throughout his life. He was heavily involved in local civic activities and gave an endowment to his alma mater, now named Salisbury University, to establish the Perdue School of Business.
Perdue is survived by his third wife, Mitzi Ayala Perdue, four children, two stepchildren and 12 grandchildren.