Mitzi Perdue’s story is summed up in the title of her website: ‘Insider secrets from wildly successful families’. She’s the daughter of Ernest Henderson, the founder of Sheraton Hotels, and was married to the poultry magnate, Frank Perdue.
Between them, the Henderson and Perdue families have 222 years of experience in managing successful businesses, and Mitzi is an impressive entrepreneur in her own right. Though back in the 1940s, when she was a girl, that looked like the last thing she was likely to become.
“My father made it pretty clear that I was never going to be in the family firm – I don’t think it even crossed his mind that one of his daughters would have an interest in the business. And it wasn’t just that no-one expected me to do it, it was actively discouraged.”
As it turned out, it was the moment of transition between the generations that opened up an opportunity for Mitzi – when her father died in 1968 she still didn’t get the chance to work in the hotels business, but she did inherit enough money to start up a venture of her own.
“The Henderson family decided to sell Sheraton company, but it was only the men who got to have a vote – the women had just as strong views, and we were stockholders, but we didn’t get a say. Soon after that I started a business growing rice in California, and I think I must have learned a lot from my father about the importance of picking the right site, because I deliberately chose an area where I thought the land might have future development potential.”
The site was indeed eventually sold for an enormous profit, but in the meantime Mitzi spent 15 years growing a really profitable rice business, and had a great deal of fun as one of only eight women out of the five thousand rice growers in the US: “the other seven inherited their firms; I made mine.”
Mitzi learned the value of visibility as a woman in a male-dominated sector, and became a leading light in the industry, helping to prevent legislation that would have decimated rice growing in the area, and becoming President of American Agri-Women.
Though she admits, “It was easier being a pioneer then than it is for many women today.” She puts her success down to a willingness to do her homework and work hard. Not being afraid of failure is important too, in fact she says she “failed her way to success”. This ability to take a long view is a characteristic family businesses like her late husband’s also share.
Perdue Farms is one of the largest producers of organic chicken in the world, with a promise that no antibiotics are ever used. But getting to that position – and making it profitable – was a long eleven-year haul. “My husband worked out that the only way to get a better price for selling chicken was by offering a premium quality. So we had to learn how to deliver that quality and still make money. We learned about the importance of scrupulous hygiene to keep disease levels down, and how to use probiotics and herbs to keep the chickens healthier. It was a huge innovation at the time, and it’s really successful now, but if we hadn’t been a family firm I doubt we could have done it. We wouldn’t have been able to take such a long view.”
But family firms have big challenges too: “I have a theory of life that one of the biggest causes of either happiness or misery in life is the family, so if you want to be happy you have to work really hard at your family. That’s even more true if you all work together.”
The Henderson family have pioneered a number of really interesting ideas, as a way to keep the family united, and bridge the gap between the generations. One is the ‘service to the family award’, which is judged each year by all the previous winners. “On the Perdue side, we have regular newsletters, one of which is specifically designed for our youngest family members, with stories about the family, and what it did in the past, so they know where they come from, and feel part of something big and special. Because it is: if you’re part of a business that’s been going for four generations, that’s a big deal. And it’s very special.”
This feature forms part of the PwC Global Family Business Survey 2016. It has been reproduced with permission of PwC.