Intelligent fanatic Frank Perdue (May 9, 1920 – March 31, 2005), took Perdue Farms, a small local company his father started, and grew it into a multi-billion-dollar business and one of the largest chicken –producing companies in the world.
In Tough Man, Tender Chicken, Mitzi Perdue tells this amazing story about her late husband:
Frank had a tremendous head for figures. He liked numbers, and on top of that, quantitative thinking simply appealed to him. He treated numbers the way a doctor would treat an MRI: numbers enabled him to see and understand what was going on deep inside the business, plus numbers were a very quick way of detecting if something was going wrong.
There was a reason for Frank’s comfort level with numbers, but to explain it I need to share something that happened when Frank was 85, maybe half a year before his passing. We were visiting Massachusetts General Hospital to assess how he was handling the Parkinson’s disease that was soon to take him.
I remember the situation well. We were seated in deep leather chairs in the doctor’s book-lined office, and you could see the Charles River through the office window.
The session began with the doctor showing us some disheartening images taken earlier that day, disheartening because they revealed the extent that Frank’s brain had been impacted by Parkinson’s. Frank accepted the dismal information stoically. He nodded his head, showing that he understood, but there wasn’t any word of complaint or shock. It was as if this was simply a piece of data to be dealt with.
And now came the part we were there for, tracking how much impairment the Parkinson’s had actually caused. The first question the doctor asked Frank was to count backwards from 100 by sevens. Frank did that as fluently as I would have if I were counting forward by twos. No hesitation. And remember, this was a seriously ill person who was only months away from going to his reward.
The next questions were harder, such as listening to a string of numbers and then being asked not only to remember them, but also to repeat the same string backwards. I was expecting to follow along doing the problems in my head myself.
The trouble was that by the fourth problem, it had gotten too difficult. The questions had become so complicated that I couldn’t remember the questions, let alone answer them, and that’s in spite of my being a Harvard graduate who likes math. Frank went on for about 20 rounds after I had to drop out.
I was stunned. My jaw was gaping. I couldn’t believe anybody could do what I was witnessing Frank do. And to top this all off, he seemed to be answering these totally impossible questions without struggle or even hesitation. True, his voice was weak and slightly raspy from the Parkinson’s, but the answers were in every case rapid and fluid.
At the end of the test, I took the doctor aside, out of Frank’s hearing and told him, “Doctor, you’ve been testing the wrong person. I must be the one who’s ill because I dropped out after the first few rounds.”
The doctor answered that my stopping early was what he’d expect from anyone, and that Frank, in spite of being seriously impaired from the Parkinson’s, was performing at an Olympic level. He said Frank’s performance was so astounding that he (the doctor) would have given five years of his life to see what Frank was like before he was impaired.
Which brings me to a quick side thought about Frank. He must have had a phenomenal IQ, but you’d never know it because he absolutely, totally never flaunted it. He would talk with everyone at his or her level. He was also one of the more successful men in America, but again, you’d never know it from his house, his clothes, his possessions or any visible status symbol. He was also charitable on a phenomenal scale, not only with his money but also with his time, but did everything he could to keep it secret. I find it interesting that a man with so much to boast about never, ever boasted.
After we wrote this post, Mitzi Perdue contacted us wanting to write a case study for us on her father Ernest Henderson, co-founder of Sheraton Hotels. Members can access this case study [HERE].