Pilgrim’s Pride co-founder Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim died Friday surrounded by his family at home. He was 89.
As indicated by the 37-foot-tall, head-and-shoulders bust of his likeness donning a pilgrim-style hat that still stands over the company's former headquarters between Pittsburg and Mount Pleasant, Texas, Bo was an industry icon.
"Few, if any, poultry pioneers have marked the industry with such a lasting and unique impact as did Mr. Pilgrim,” National Chicken Council President Mike Brown said in a statement. “His passion and devotion to his business, his faith, and the National Chicken Council continues to inspire many. Mr. Pilgrim's passing encourages us to reflect on a life well-lived. Bo and his family are in our thoughts and prayers."
Pilgrim’s Pride’s origins go back to Oct. 2, 1946, when his brother, Aubrey Pilgrim’s, and his partner, Pat Johns, bought a feed and seed store for $3,500 from W.W. Weems in Pittsburg. Bo would join them soon thereafter, according to the company’s website.
The fledgling company would sell 100 baby chicks and a sack of feed to local farmers who would raise the chicks in their back yards, keeping some for their families and returning the remainder when they were grown. The idea of selling baby chicks to generate feed sales would lead to the “vertical integration” model now widely used by major poultry companies.
Bo is credited with honing the company’s automation capabilities at the company’s first warehouse, which was equipped with a loading ramp, unloading pit, an elevator to carry feed to the bagging machine and an electric sewing machine for feed sacks. The process cut wasted grain, which used to literally fall through the cracks of the feed store’s floor.
With that, the company began to grow in earnest, and acquisitions in the ensuing decades would accelerate that growth. But in 1966, tragedy struck. Aubrey Pilgrim died of a heart attack, an event that Bo called “a shock.” He decided, however, to continue the Pilgrim’s legacy as the company’s leader.
Over the years his recurring appearances in ads with the pilgrim hat helped make Pilgrim’s Pride a recognizable brand to millions of U.S. consumers. The company would grow to become the nation’s largest poultry producer, and would boast that claim for some time.
Acquired by Brazil’s JBS S.A. in 2009, and headquartered now in Greeley, Colo., Pilgrim’s Pride remains a giant of the chicken industry, second only to Tyson Foods, that accounts for one in every five chickens produced in the country, employs nearly 40,000 people and has annual revenues of about $8 billion.
JBS issued this statement: "On behalf of the PIlgrim's and JBS teams, we offer our sincere condolences to the friends and family of Lonnie 'Bo' Pilgrim. Today's poultry industry was built on the foundation of men like Mr. Pilgrim. He was a true icon, and his loss will resonate throughout our company and our industry."
View Bo Pilgrim’s obituary, including memorial service details, here.