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Whatever Works / Lillian Zacky

A Chicken Empire That Was Built on Pluck

July 26, 1999|CANDACE A. WEDLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lillian Zacky, the matriarch of Zacky Farms, has been married to the family business for decades. In 1955, Zacky brothers Bob--now 67--and Al--now 70--established their poultry wholesale business; the first sale was 35 chickens. A year later, after Lillian and Bob eloped to Las Vegas, she went right to work.

She ran a one-woman office in a little room at the original poultry market in South El Monte. She was the receptionist, clerk, order-taker and bookkeeper. She tried to make the company seem bigger, she remembers, by using different voices on the phone.

By 1962, the business was growing and so was her family. Lillian cut back to rear their two sons. Gregg, now 37, and Scott, now 35, work for Zacky Farms, as do her two nephews.

Zacky Farms--which had its start as Sam's Poultry Market in L.A. in 1928--today is one of California's largest producers of poultry, selling 1.5 million chickens a week.

Lillian, 64, continues to work from her Westside home. She's best known for the radio spots--extolling the chickens' freshness to would-be customers--which always end with her distinct voice commenting: "I never did tell them my name."

Question: Let's hear more about how you were handling those phone calls when you first started.

Answer: I would answer "Zacky Farms," and when they asked to speak to the bookkeeper, I'd ask them which one, and then I would change my voice. And we became a big company that way. When I retired from that job, they had to hire two people to take my place. But my heart was in it. I was probably working at least 12 hours a day.

Q: How did you feel about having to work?

A: I loved working there every minute. It was fun . . . you're all talking to one another, and everybody's working together. I think it generates a lot of energy. But when my kids came along, my two boys, I was going to raise them. But I really never stopped working, because the company is a way of life. It isn't a 9 to 5 thing.

Q: Any thoughts about being a working woman in the 1950s?

A: I never thought of it as a problem or as a woman in the workplace--just as a woman working. And I had worked for other people--three CPAs--before I was married. We never thought about--"Gee, I'm a woman. He's a man."

Q: What do you think about women in the workplace today?

A: Today, who knows? I really never gave it a thought. Do the best job you can. Bring out the best quality. And that's it.

Q: Even if the worker doesn't have a vested interest, as you would in a family business?

A: I think it's true whether or not you have an investment in the company.

Q: Any thoughts on the work ethic in those days?

A: I really didn't pay attention to that because I was busy with my husband, growing a business. What we were doing was what we do best--work hard and long hours. I wasn't thinking about work ethics. Just like a farmer, I thought about quality chickens.

Q: So when you stayed home to be with your kids, what kind of work did you take on?

A: I was with my kids in all their growing-up years, but, meanwhile, I was still doing consumer relations and involved with our correspondence.

Q: You were telecommuting and didn't even know it.

A: Then when they were out of high school, I had a "home office." I didn't realize that I was doing that until today when they talk about home offices. And then came the computer and word processor. And then, about 10 years ago, they were looking for a spokesperson.

Q: And how did you land that role?

A: I auditioned with 13 other people. I'd never had any training. When they chose me, they wanted to get a voice coach. But a friend of ours in advertising said, "Oh, no. Let her be herself." In the beginning it was a little nerve-racking. I couldn't have anybody looking at me. I was pretending I was on the telephone talking.

Q: Tell me about your lobbying efforts for fresh-chicken labeling.

A: I was in Washington, with the California Poultry Industry Federation. Actually, I lobbied with Wolfgang Puck for fresh and frozen chicken labels. We bowled with a so-called fresh chicken that was so hard and frozen. We rolled it down the aisle--on a balcony--at the House of Representatives and knocked pins down. And all the congressmen wanted to do that. Everybody took a turn. [A 1997 law specifies that poultry cannot be labeled fresh if it has been held at temperatures below 26 degrees Fahrenheit.]

Q: Do you ever think about retiring?

A: No. No. I think that being busy is wonderful.

Q: Was there ever any question about the next generation going into the family business?

A: It's not just a business. It's a way of life. . . . Our children always thought about going into the business, and our children are in the business.

Whatever Works runs every Monday. Send e-mail to socalliving@latimes.com.

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