When it comes to biblical business values, Truett Cathy is no chicken
Chick-fil-a founder reaps rewards as third generation emerges

By Lori Arnold

SAN MARCOS, Calif. — The man of poultry—not paltry—means stood on the asphalt assessing the tent city that had emerged quite impressively over the previous few hours. He cracked a slight smile.

• The Truett fingerprint — Truett Cathy’s philosophy and approach is multi-faced
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By the looks of it, the octogenarian must have been a former rock star.

Dozens of tents were pitched in the parking lot, some boasting Christmas lights. One overnighter spent his idle time working out on a stationary bike. Others huddled near propane heaters and card tables. Nearby inflatable mattresses offered tempting respite from the chilly winter breeze.

One fan traveled by air, another by rented car. Some drove more than 500 miles. Others had made similar treks—more than a dozen times before. Undaunted by all the fuss, their hero autographed books and baseballs. And posed for pictures.

Looking slick in a navy blue blazer, red vest and an American flag emblazoned on his left lapel, 85-year-old Truett Cathy appeared picture perfect. He had done this before. He was in his element, even if his fans were enduring an overnight temperature of 39 degrees and everyone was crying fowl, especially a two-footed adult ensconced in a Holstein costume.

What better compliment for an entrepreneur who made his mark selling chicken sandwiches for four decades?

Cathy, the Georgia native who founded Chick-fil-A in 1946 with his late brother, Ben, launched an ambitious expansion plan into the Western United States in 2003, adding four restaurants in Southern California. In early December, Cathy traveled to traveled to San Marcos in North San Diego County to help dedicate the chain’s latest stand-alone restaurant, this one to be operated by his grandson, Mark. The chain now has more than 20 restaurants in Southern California, with more planned for this year.

Serving is key
Mark and his wife, Amy, were joined by about two dozen corporate leaders from the Atlanta-based company, as they prepared for the Dec. 6 opening. Mark Cathy joined his cousin, Andrew, in being the first among the family’s third generation to join the paternal business. Mark’s dad, Don “Bubba” is vice president of the company. Andrew’s father, Dan is president. But with this company, titles are a general formality to distinguish the decision makers. When it comes to serving sodas and fries, both Bubba and Dan eagerly jump into action. A polite thank-you, prompts the Cathy family and their employees to offer a chorus of “It’s my pleasure.”

“It’s been a God-calling ministry to me to serve the people,” he said.

The approach, well modeled by its founder, has become a signature of the southern influenced fast-food chain.

“‘You’re welcome’ means nothing,” the family patriarch said in a interview prior to the opening.

The difference between the two phrases might seem more of an exercise in semantics for some, but for Truett Cathy it symbolizes much, much more. It reflects a lifetime of putting his Maker and people first. His approach to life and business are steeped in a brand of Christianity that is more about modeling than speaking.

As a result, he has garnered respect across the country and has been profiled in some of the nation’s most prestigious publications. His expertise on business and ethics landed him an invitation to speak before a 2002 congressional hearing on “Oath Taking, Truth Telling and Remedies in the Business World,” which was scheduled in the wake of the Enron scandal that wiped out the retirement earnings of thousands of stockholders.

“I believe no amount (of) business school training or work experience can teach what is ultimately a matter of personal character,” he told the panel in a prepared a statement. “Businesses are not dishonest or selfish, people are. Thus, a business, successful or not, is merely a reflection of the character of its leadership.

“I’m deeply disturbed as you are, by the lack of character I see in the marketplace. In order to satisfy the increased pressure for greater profits, some business leaders are making bad choices, which ultimately hurt thousands of employees, stockholders, and the economy.”

Cathy is also not shy in sharing what he believes is essential for a business built on integrity. With sales expected to top $2 billion this year, it appears a successful formula.

“There’s really no difference between biblical principles and business principles,” Cathy said during the recent restaurant opening, echoing similar comments he gave before Congress. “The Bible, which is a road map, tells a lot about how to operate a restaurant.”

He has shared the same message at sixth-grade and seminary graduations, with MBA students, and in several of his books, including “Eat Mor Chikin, Inspire More People: Doing Business the Chick-fil-A Way.” The Eat Mor Chikin slogan, featuring biased cows, has been a popular advertising campaign for the chain since 1995.

Putting the Lord first
With nearly 1,300 restaurants in 37 states, Cathy is known not so much for what’s he done as a businessman, but for what he hasn’t done: Opened up shop on Sundays.

Once a mainstay of American retail, the Sunday-off concept has gone the way of the condor. Even national Christian bookstore chains are open on Sundays. Mention of the practice often invokes a confused, “huh?”

Especially since research cited by Cathy has shown that 20 percent of all fast-food revenue comes on Sundays.

“I think the most important decision I ever made was to stay closed on Sunday,” he said. “We all need a day off. We feel we’ve created the caliber of people who understand that.”

As he’s done his entire career, Cathy blends his faith and business without a seam, using his no-Sunday stand as an advertising advantage.

“People get tired of eating at the same restaurant every day. We give them the privilege of eating somewhere else on Sunday,” he pronounced in his best salesman delivery, his blue eyes twinkling.

In the early days, when he was growing his business from the tiny 24-hour Dwarf Grill he opened in 1946, Sundays off was also a practical matter for a single man who often worked three-shift days for six days a week.

“I needed the rest, the equipment needed the rest,” he said.

Spiritually, Cathy—who has taught a boy’s Bible study on Sunday mornings for 51 years and now serves as an assistant teacher— acknowledged the Bible’s call for meditation.

It gives the Lord an opportunity to speak through you in many ways,” he said.

“People can spend all the money they’ve got in six days, they don’t need seven,” he said.

A consistent benefit to the practice has been to model the importance of family, in both quality and stability, to the thousands of young people who have worn the Chick-fil-A uniform over the years.

“We are losing that,” he said of society.

Carrying on
Grandson Mark Cathy, who like his cousins tasted his first Chick-fil-A while still in diapers, is vowing to do his part to reverse the trend. His mother, Cindy, often reminds him that as a young child his first “when-grow-up” dream was to be a Chick-fil-A operator. But the choice has always been his.

“They realize that everyone is unique,” the 24-year-old said. “They encouraged us to pursue whatever we were excited about. They were careful not to pressure us to be involved with the business.”

After earning a business degree and spending several years working outside the Truett enterprise, including guest services experience at the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, Cathy was convinced he was destined to realize his childhood dream.

He realizes his stepping into big shoes. At 85, his grandfather still goes into work daily.

“Work is a form of worship and he still takes it seriously,” his grandson said. “He can run circles around me.”

But, after feasting on two generations of biblical influence, Mark Cathy said he’s confident and committed to the legacy launched decades ago in Georgia. Although multi-faceted, the legacy has been condensed into a brief mission statement for the company: "to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A."

“Those two sentences don’t say anything about selling chicken,” he said. “It’s about influence to glorify God.

Published, January 2007

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