Bo Pilgrim statue

Legendary Pilgrim’s Pride co-founder ‘Bo’ Pilgrim passes

Icon known for his influence on evolving U.S. poultry industry.

Pilgrim’s Pride co-founder Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim, 89, of Pittsburg, Texas, passed away July 21, 2017, surrounded by his family at his home.

During his lifetime, Pilgrim served in the U.S. Army but was most notably known for co-founding poultry giant Pilgrim’s Pride, where he served for many years as longtime chairman and chief executive officer.

According to his obituary, “Bo was respected and known for his love for Christ, his tenacity in the business world, his generosity and his philanthropic work.”

Pilgrim’s Pride was founded in 1946, when Aubrey Pilgrim and his partner, Pat Johns, purchased a feed and seed store for $3,500 from W.W. Weems in Pittsburg, Texas. Soon after forming the partnership, Aubrey asked brother Bo to join them.

According to the company’s website, in the early days, the Pilgrims would sell 100 baby chicks and a sack of feed to local farmers, who would take the chicks home and raise them, keeping some for family needs and bringing back the remaining birds when they were grown.

“Selling baby chicks to drive feed sales was one of several innovative ideas that would later lead to the ‘vertical integration’ model of poultry production used by nearly every major poultry company today,” the company stated.

Like any new business, however, the partners saw their share of challenges.

"There was nothing remotely close to a long-range plan, a strategic plan or a business plan associated with Farmer's Feed & Seed," Bo Pilgrim was quoted as saying on the company’s website. "I doubt if there was even very much time for daydreaming about a future. We were working long hours, sometimes hauling a load of peas over to the Cass County Canning Co. in Atlanta, Texas, not getting home until three o'clock in the morning, then getting to the store to open it at seven o'clock. The fact is, it was all about survival. Survival meant meeting a customer's expectations so the customer would become a return customer."

As the company grew, opportunities came in the form of acquisitions and capital improvements. The first major expansion came in the 1950s, when the Pilgrim brothers purchased the Hudson Cotton Gin and a hatchery in Mt. Pleasant, Texas. In 1960, they leased their first chicken processing plant in Mt. Pleasant.

In 1986, Pilgrim's Pride Corp. became a publicly owned company listed on the New York Stock Exchange and, one year later, expanded into Mexico.

Despite the continued expansion, the chicken market changed drastically, and in 2008, record-high corn prices, an oversupply of chicken and financial constraints forced Pilgrim's Pride to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company brought in a new CEO, who revamped the company through a 13-month reorganization. In December 2009, Pilgrim's emerged from its reorganization as a stronger, more competitive company. According to the company, Pilgrim's also achieved an incredibly rare feat for companies in Chapter 11: It repaid all creditors in full and preserved significant value for existing shareholders.

JBS USA, a unit of JBS S.A. in Brazil, acquired 64% of Pilgrim's Pride stock in December 2009 and today controls 78.5% of the stock.

While the company is now headquartered in Greeley, Colo., a huge bust of Bo Pilgrim's head remains at the former company headquarters in Pittsburg, Texas. 

Current CEO Bill Lovette said of Bo Pilgrim’s passing, “On behalf of the Pilgrim’s team, 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.”

TAGS: Business
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