Mitzi Perdue, author and expert in family businesses
Mitzi Perdue is herself the client of two family offices, having been born into the Henderson family behind Sheraton Hotels and having married into the Perdue family of chicken fame. Perdue is also an expert on how to maintain family businesses over generations. An author with understandable expertise in poultry, her most recent book is called Mark Victor Hansen—Relentless: Wisdom Behind the Incomparable Chicken Soup for the Soul.
Born into the Henderson family, married into the Perdue family—that’s a fair amount of luck, isn’t it?
I can’t believe my good luck.
How do you define a successful family?
I’ll instead define a high-functioning family. You enjoy each other. You don’t engage in public family quarrels. You believe you’re a part of something bigger than yourself—namely, the family. Selfishness is discouraged, because you’re stewards, and your job is to hand it over in better shape to the next generation. One value both the Hendersons and Perdues have is that we’re frugal. We just came back from a family vacation, and every member traveled economy class.
And how do you define a successful family office?
There should be tons and tons of communication between the managers and the family members. A high-functioning family office does a lot of educating of the family members, what their role is. They can’t all be little managers. There has to be a chain of command. Years ago, there were seminars that the family office arranged for family members on such things as what decisions have to have consensus, which have to have a simple majority and who gets to vote on what. Some issues might be bloodlines only, but there might be others that everybody gets a say in. It helps for the family to have something like a constitution. If you’ve spelled out ahead of time what the rules are, that does an awful lot to defuse arguments. It’s when you don’t know the rules that quarrels explode.
How would you compare the two family offices you’re a client of?
Each grew to meet the needs of the respective families. I like to compare it to the way the British versus the Americans handle things. The British don’t have everything spelled out in a constitution, but they somehow manage to make decisions and move forward based on precedent. That’s how the Hendersons do it. Just, after 182 years, we have ways of doing things. We’ve been around so long, that culture works for us. The Perdues are 102 years old, so not new at this. But since it has an operating company, it has got to be a whole lot more formal. (Note: The Hendersons sold Sheraton Hotels in the late 1960s, while Perdue remains a family business.)
What’s the latest purposeful investment you’ve made?
The Hendersons tend to be quite high-tech. My nephew Eric [who runs the office] is quite comfortable with all the FAANGs [Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google]. He operates out of Cambridge, Massachusetts; and I don’t know how he did this, but he’s surrounded by the FAANGs, and he hangs out with them. I know that when he gives a report at the next Henderson family reunion next Saturday, he will keep us on the edge of our seats, telling us about the things going on in ultrahigh-tech. The Perdues, on the other hand, are completely different. We get excited about investing in a new grain facility.
Does investing together help keep the family close?
Something that keeps us together over the generations is that we have endowed family vacations. In 1890, John Henderson and his children decided, “Hey, we all like each other, this is fun,” and pulled together money to have a great big blowout dinner once a year. That has grown in the 132 years since to be a weekend instead of a dinner. And with the Perdue family vacations, that has been at least yearly since the 1980s. The way it works right now, there is a marital trust that I get to administer. When I go to my great reward, because of taxes, things get cut in half––but that means everyone wants the matriarch to live a long time!
Speaking of taxes, I read that your first job was at the IRS. Was that a form of youthful rebellion against your family?
Not at all, I was a government major in college, and that was the job I landed. I loved it! If someone from the IRS is reading this: Hey, guys, I love you. It’s such a good thing to be someone from a business background, to realize who is on the other side. They’re human beings and tend to be amazingly likable.
Philanthropy is important to you.
Families whose wealth lasts into the third generation tend to discover philanthropy. Of course, God willing, it helps others, but it might even help the families more. It’s family glue. It makes you feel proud and gives purpose. Being philanthropic is one of the best deals I can think of for a family.
How do you improve communication within a family?
I write a newsletter for the family once a month: who got engaged, who’s got a baby, who had an art exhibit. I also write a children’s newsletter aimed at those aged 4 to 12. Every newsletter has a “treasure chest” that goes with it. So say the newsletter is about communicating the value of being frugal. I’ll tell a story about great-grandma Mummy-Due. After she made her famous biscuits, she would take the crumbs off the aluminum foil and wash it in soap and water and reuse it: because we are a frugal family, an environmental family. And inside the treasure chest are the ingredients for Mummy-Due’s biscuits and a piece of aluminum foil.
Interview by David Zax, a freelance financial reporter whose work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Entrepreneur Magazine, Fast Company and The New York Times.