Q & A: Mitzi Perdue

If you want your farm to continue for generations, develop a family culture and teach children your goals and values

As the widow of one of the largest chicken producers in the U.S., Frank Perdue, Mitzi Perdue helps farm families develop and strengthen a culture that supports their deepest goals and values. She draws on the experience of Perdue Farms, a fourth-generation chicken company in business for 100 years, as well as her family, the Hendersons, which started the Sheraton Hotels chain (her father was cofounder).

SF: You speak to farmers about succession planning. What is your basic premise?

MP: Families who last are the ones who consciously teach their children they’re part of something bigger than themselves. It’s not about them; it’s about those who come after them. What they have now is borrowed from the future. Frank put enormous effort into telling family stories to the next generations. They know the history of people who struggled and worked hard to give them what they have now. It’s up to the matriarchs and patriarchs to make sure they instill a family culture. Do not leave that to accident.

SF: How do you deal with farm inheritance issues?

MP: I know a farm family who quarreled over their inheritance. After four law firms got through, they had completely destroyed the farm’s value. Teach your kids that you can’t always be right and you can’t always get your way. You are part of something bigger than yourself, and that’s the farm and the business. If you quarrel too much, you can never put it right.

SF: How was the Perdue family able to continue the family business?

MP: Our family is not perfect, but all the branches are still together. Frank put enormous effort into having family vacations. He left money in his will so we could all get together every 18 months for a family trip. If you don’t spend time together, you don’t know that you value and treasure each other. Four of the fourth generation are in the family business. That’s not typical.

SF: How do you treat children fairly who aren’t a part of the farm?

MP: That’s extraordinarily difficult. Teach kids from a young age that life isn’t fair. I tell my kids not to expect complete equality. I will do my absolute best to be fair, but fair isn’t always equal. 

SF: What are the most common issues you hear about?

MP: Divorce, remarriage, and inheritance are huge. The elders fear what could happen if their children get divorced and what that would do to the farm. When it comes to divorce, boy, does that complicate things. 

SF: Is a prenuptial contract the answer?

MP: I’m passionately in favor of prenups. I don’t think a marriage should take place without one. It’s an unpleasant, difficult conversation, but if an engaged couple can’t handle that conversation, maybe they shouldn’t be getting married. There will be a great many difficult, painful conversations in the future. The prenup is a stress test to see if they’ll be able to handle those. People say it’s unromantic to have a prenup, but the reality is, you can’t be certain that your marriage will last. I sound pessimistic and I am not. I believe in love. But you need the prenups so you don’t destroy the livelihood of other family members involved in the farm.

SF: What else do you hear from farmers?

MP: I come across examples of love and wisdom and caring and stewardship, but I’ve also come across cases where family members won’t speak to each other. That’s so sad! I wish they had developed a culture of recognizing that they’re stewards and part of something bigger than themselves.

SF: What is your bottom line with succession planning?

MP: Start early. To have a successful transition, you need a culture that supports it. Families who’ve gotten along fine up until the passing of the patriarch or matriarch can fall apart if they haven’t been trained in the idea that they are part of something bigger. I’m in favor of having children know ahead of time what’s in the will. My kids have read my will.

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