Pilgrim, Lonnie Alfred [Bo] (1928–2017)


By: Israel Perez

Type: Biography

Published: March 2, 2022

Updated: March 2, 2022


Lonnie Alfred “Bo” Pilgrim, chicken magnate and philanthropist, the son of Alonzo Monroe Pilgrim and Nettie Gertrude (Gunn) Pilgrim, was born on May 8, 1928, in Pine, Texas, a small community in Camp County and just south of the county seat of Pittsburg. He was the fourth of seven children who survived infancy. His father owned one of the two stores in Pine but died suddenly in 1939. His mother took over the store, which was later passed on to Pilgrim’s oldest brother, Harold. Young Lonnie Pilgrim, who always went by the nickname Bo, had a religious conversion about this time and became a devout Southern Baptist for the rest of his life. He later described his sense of betrayal when his mother remarried three years after his father’s death, and he elected to live with his grandmother, Ada, despite the poverty he experienced working on her farm. There, he had his first experience raising chickens. For a time, beset by financial woes, Pilgrim drove a truck that carried supplies for moonshiners.

In 1946 Pilgrim’s older brother Aubrey and a partner, Pat Johns, purchased the feed store of Johns’s uncle in nearby Pittsburg and began what eventually evolved into Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation. The enterprise began as a small, overly leveraged, general service, agricultural supplies shop. Concerned about the debt, Johns sold out his $500-portion of the business within the first year, and Aubrey brought on his brother Bo. Aubrey Pilgrim, hauled gravel for the business, minded the store, and often worked sixteen-hour days. The ideas of younger brother Bo, however, soon began to drive the business. His suggestions and alacrity as a low-cost builder led to the construction of a warehouse, a loading ramp, an unloading pit, and an elevator to carry feed to a bagging machine. A Pittsburg dentist, L. H. Pitts, provided some needed capital to build a new feed mill. 

The business expanded rapidly in the late 1940s, but the Korean War and military draft pulled Bo Pilgrim into the United States Army from 1951 to 1953. Pilgrim spent this time teaching in an army leadership school in California and observing what he could of agribusiness on the West Coast. When he returned, the grain milling capacity of the business advanced. His first step was to buy three large grain tanks and a bulk feed truck. By the mid-1950s the Pilgrim business could chop corn, crimp oats, crack milo, and add a dash of homemade molasses to the feed. The brothers also made the crucial innovation of giving young chicks to feed buyers for free. In 1958 their attitude towards these handouts changed, and the Pilgrim company began to retain title to the now-loaned chickens. They purchased a hatchery in nearby Mount Pleasant and moved it to their feed store. This opened the way for chicken processing (see POULTRY PRODUCTION), and in 1960 they bought a processing plant which operated as Pilgrim Poultry Company by late 1961.

Heart issues plagued both brothers. Aubrey died of a heart attack in 1966, and Bo Pilgrim became head of the company. (He later had open-heart surgery in 1975.) The younger brother, however, not only survived his operations, but gained an early awareness that leaner, whiter chicken meat would become attractive to buyers. In 1979 the company produced more than one million chickens per week. Pilgrim pioneered innovations such as the marketing of a “boneless chicken” that garnered widespread attention (but not long-term consumer interest) and the sale of nutritionally-enhanced eggs. In 1986 investors for the first time traded shares of Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation on the New York Stock Exchange.

By the late 1980s Pilgrim initiated a plan to overtake chief competitor Tyson’s Foods of Arkansas as the number one poultry producer in the United States and cited Texas workers’ compensation laws as a major obstacle to curtailing company profits. But to handle this feat, he tried to control the Texas legislature in a way he believed Tyson’s controlled Arkansas. The result was “Chickengate” in 1989, when Pilgrim handed out  $10,000 checks to Texas state senators in an effort to stop a workers’ compensation bill. The effort was not illegal, but Pilgrim entered the public eye as an increasingly controversial figure. He subsequently readily received the Bonehead of the Year Award from the Bonehead Club of Dallas for the questionable checks that he regarded as “campaign contributions.” His company, through the years, also faced considerable fines for environmental violations.

Pilgrim’s movement into Mexico in 1987 and encouragement of immigration to his chicken plants increased the likelihood he could outflank Tyson’s with a more reliable work force. When accosted by a Mount Pleasant businessman for flooding the schools with Spanish-speaking children, Pilgrim replied that he hoped he could become a “Moses” figure to Mexican Americans and lead them to the promised land, while he helped them get settled and supported their churches with philanthropic donations.

Pilgrim expanded his operations drastically in his effort to surpass Tyson’s, employ an economy of scale, and dodge the volatility of the poultry market. He initiated a network of Pilgrim banks in 1997. In 2003 Pilgrim’s Pride purchased the poultry division of ConAgra, the second largest domestic food business in the United States. That year the company earned Wendy’s Quality Supplier of the Year Award. In 2005 Pilgrim’s Pride had more than 40,000 employees, processed six billion pounds of dressed chicken and turkey annually, and exported to more than seventy countries. In 2006, after a protracted and controversial negotiation, Pilgrim’s Pride bought Golden Kist to become the number one poultry producing company in the world. In advertising his products, Bo Pilgrim served as his own spokesman and used his distinctive surname to marketing advantage by appearing as a pilgrim sporting a large buckled hat.

His victory, however, was fleeting. Within two years of his position of number one producer, chicken prices plummeted, feed prices dramatically soared, and the economy stagnated, leaving Pilgrim's Pride in debt. In December 2008 the corporation declared bankruptcy, and the succeeding year, JBS SA of Brazil acquired majority control of Pilgrim's company, which he had spent more than six decades establishing. Bo Pilgrim retired in 2010. Pilgrim’s Pride, under new control, moved its headquarters to Greeley, Colorado.

Despite his rise and downfall in the corporate realm, Pilgrim's philanthropic endeavors underpinned the element of his legacy to which he genuinely pledged his fortunes—his effort to contribute to rural East Texas. His devout Christian beliefs drove him in both business and philanthropy. The Patty and Bo Pilgrim Cancer Center at Texas Oncology in Mount Pleasant, the Patty and Bo Pilgrim Chapel at Dallas Baptist University, and the Witness Park and Prayer Tower in Pittsburg, Texas, are several examples of his generosity made possible by his success in business. Of these donations, the biggest contributions were made to the Pilgrim Chapel at Dallas Baptist University, an institution for which Pilgrim had sat on the board of trustees in the 1980s, was honored with its Russell H. Perry Free Enterprise Award in 1995, and received an honorary doctorate in 2002. Patty and Bo Pilgrim made the main donation of $8 million in 2006, and many other benefactors, teachers, and employees contributed to the chapel's building expenditures.

Pilgrim married Patricia Redding on July 21, 1956. They had two sons and one daughter. He was a member of First Baptist Church in Pittsburg and professed a strong devotion to his religion and its influence throughout his business career. He died at his Pittsburg home on July 21, 2017. He was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Pittsburg, Texas.

“Bo Pilgrim—Pilgrim’s Pride,” Giants for God (http://www.giantsforgod.com/bo-pilgrim-pilgrims-pride/), accessed August 30, 2020. Ken Camp, “Obituary: Bo Pilgrim,” Baptist Standard, August 1, 2017 (https://www.baptiststandard.com/news/obituaries/obituary-bo-pilgrim/), accessed February 19, 2022. New York Times, July 25, 2017. Bo Pilgrim, One Pilgrim’s Progress: How to Build a World Class Company and Who to Credit (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005). Art Scharlach, Interview by Israel Perez, August 4, 18, 2020, Northeast Texas Community College, Mount Pleasant, Texas. Tyler Morning Telegraph, July 22, 2017. Washington Post, July 25, 2017. Dick White, Pilgrim’s Progress: The First Fifty Years (Dallas: Brown, 1996).

Categories:
  • Agriculture
  • Products (Animal)
  • Business
  • Food Related
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
Places:
  • East Texas
  • Northeast Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Israel Perez, “Pilgrim, Lonnie Alfred [Bo],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 24, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/pilgrim-lonnie-alfred-bo.

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March 2, 2022
March 2, 2022