IN A FAST-FOOD WORLD, ONE WHO KEEPS THE FAITH

November 3 2014

Washington Post article
July 4, 1992

In a Fast-Food World, One Who Keeps the Faith

by Carey Kinsolving

The readers of Business Atlanta were asked several months ago to choose their city’s most respected CEO. They bypassed high-profile executives such as Ted Turner and Coca-Cola Chief Executive Roberto C. Goizueta.

Instead, they selected fast-food chicken magnate Truett Cathy, a man who looks like everyone’s grandpa and whose corporate goal doesn’t fit the Fortune 500 prototype.

A plaque with that goal engraved on it greets visitors to Chick-fil-A’s Atlanta headquarters: “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.”

Cathy’s influence extends not only to his customers and peers but also to his employees. They stick with him. Many of his store operators consider him a role model.

In an industry plagued by high employee turnover, Cathy’s company has one of the lowest turnover rates. More than 7,600 students have received $1,000 scholarships by working more than 20 hours a week for two years. His company has enjoyed 24 consecutive increases in annual sales.

In 1964, Cathy hired Chick-fil-A’s first employee. Today, its 265 restaurants – 13 in the Washington area – rank No. 3 nationally in chicken fast-food sales.

Ideas come from God, Cathy says, but “they won’t keep. They have to be acted upon.” And act is what Cathy did when he experimented with pressure-cooking a boneless chicken breast and serving it as a sandwich.

Cathy’s round face, gentle smile and relaxed southern accent depart from the stereotype of the harried executive. But his easy manner should not be mistaken for a lack of determination. Behind it lies a vigorous faith rooted in the belief that succeeding in the fast-food chicken business is God’s mission for his life.

And the mission is succeeding – to the point where Cathy, 71, can do what he likes best: giving. He sponsors four foster homes in the United States and one in Brazil. He established the WinShape Centre Foundation, which supports summer camps for children ages 7 to 16. And he sponsors scholarships worth as much as $10,000 for more than 100 students at Berry College near Rome, Ga.

Cathy finds great joy in giving, “especially to those from whom you don’t expect anything in return. The greatest gift of all is the promise of eternal life. If we are going to be the recipients of eternal life and God’s blessings upon us, we have a duty to give.”

For more than 30 years, Cathy has taught a Sunday school class of 13-year-old boys at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ga. He tells the class that life boils down to the three M’s: Who will be your master? What will be your mission? Who will be your mate?

“If you foul up on any one of those, you will probably be miserable,” Cathy said in a recent Washington interview.

Cathy also teaches them that “we glorify God in our successes rather than in our failures.” In his book, “It’s Easier to Succeed Than to Fail,” he offers several pieces of evidence to support the title’s conclusion:

· Failure exacts a high price because of the time required to repeat a job.
· Success eliminates frustration and a decrease in credibility, things that make it more difficult to succeed a second time.
· Success brings expressions of affirmation.

Cathy confesses to being more popular with his students after class, when he sometimes invites them to go dirt-bike riding at his farm. On the road, Atlanta’s most respected CEO may be seen aboard a Harley-Davidson with young bikers, as well as a band of Baptist old-timers called the Holy Rollers.

But on Sunday, don’t look for Cathy or his employees in a Chick-fil-A restaurant. They’re closed. Harvard Business School probably wouldn’t recommend Cathy’s policy, but he defends it by saying that he attracts the kind of employees who want to attend church on Sunday and spend time with their families.

Cathy has heard all the arguments for staying open seven days a week, but a slight grin can be detected when he says his restaurants usually generate more sales in six days than others do in seven.

Many of his employees think of themselves as being part of an extended family with Cathy serving as a caring patriarch. Les Brown, 27, started working for Chick-fil-A in high school. He attended college using Chick-fil-A scholarship money and continued working part time. Today he operates Cathy’s restaurant in Alexandria’s Landmark Center mall.

“I was raised in the company,” Brown said.

And closing on Sunday? “I think it’s great that there’s a company that will make that kind of human investment,” he said. “I work about six days a week, so I need the break.”

Like his employer, Brown can be found in a Baptist church on Sunday mornings.

Cathy’s reputation allows people who work with him as joint operators to rest easy at night. “He’s a very giving and honorable person,” said Len Gay, operator of Chick-fil-A in Annapolis. “His Christianity functions in business and outside of business.”