By Virginia Gean
According to QSR magazine’s annual drive-thru report issued in October, Chick-fil-A is not only ranked as our nation’s best fast-food restaurant based on customer satisfaction, but is also considered the most polite restaurant in the country. The recent rankings for Chick-fil-A come after the restaurant generated more revenue per location than any other fast-food chain in the U.S. last year. The chain’s average sales per restaurant reached nearly $4 million. So, what is the explanation for such tremendous success? To understand how this was achieved, one needs to learn about the guiding values and philosophy of its late founder, Truett Cathy.
My husband and I gleaned his values and leadership traits while interviewing him for two hours in 2013 in his office at the corporate headquarters on a woodsy, 80-acre lot southwest of downtown Atlanta.
Three critical principles underlying Cathy’s successful leadership are the golden rule philosophy, a remarkable work ethic and consistent convictions.
Integrating his spiritual principles with business practices that focus on the value of people made Cathy a real-life Horatio Alger story. By applying such biblical principles as honesty, respect for others and fairness, he rose from a boy in a boarding house to a billionaire in the boardroom.
As President Jimmy Carter explained, “His simple philosophy led him to become a mentor and role model to young people, a customer-oriented restaurateur, a community leader and philanthropist.”
One of the Christian principles that permeated his business decision-making is something Jesus taught in his famous Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Matthew in the seventh chapter of his Gospel. Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Every person who visits Chick-fil-A’s corporate headquarters receives a golden ruler as a reminder of this marvelous, spiritual truth.
Gandhi once claimed that the Sermon on the Mount was the apex of sound, moral teaching. Apparently, Cathy shared this view. He applied this principle to employees, customers, vendors, operators, and to the community at large.
I concluded that while his values were based on firm biblical principles, he applied them in a gentle, kind manner. He was tough with ideas, but tender with people. This is a rare balance that allowed him to build relationships of trust and commitment. So, while applying the golden rule by focusing on helping others around him make a success of their lives, he achieved incredible personal and economic success of his own.
Cathy shared his story in a chronological manner beginning with his first attempt as an entrepreneur at the age of 8. He would buy six Cokes from the store at 25 cents and pull them in a little wagon through the community selling them at 5 cents each for a 5-cent profit. When customers told him they could buy six for 25 cents at a store, he changed his business model and built a stand in front of his house and put them on ice and targeted salespeople walking the street. He was a flexible strategist from the very beginning.
One of his sons, Bubba Cathy, provided the following insight when he learned we were writing an article on how his father integrated spiritual values into his business decision-making: “Dad’s love of people is a great motivator. We need to nurture and care for that perspective. Sometimes we allow our egos to get overinflated, and we need to relate back to dad’s mindset — to glorify God, not praise ourselves, and put other people before ourselves.”
The legendary Chick-fil-A founder concluded our interview with the following quotation: “We all know that the scorecard of any business is the profit it produces. Without profit, we cannot take care of our employees, our families, or contribute to the betterment of our communities. The question is how do we balance the pursuit of profit and personal character? For me, I find that balance by applying biblical principles. I see no conflict between biblical principles and good business practice.”
• Virginia Gean is a lecturer in the California Lutheran University School of Management and co-author of the 2014 article “From Boarding House to the Boardroom: A Personal Interview with Truett Cathy” in the Journal of Business and Economics.