In mid-1929, as America’s economy hurtled towards its rendezvous with the “Black Monday” crash that would plunge the nation into years of depression, S. Truett Cathy was marching to the beat of a different drummer: he was opening a business that would one day become a billion-dollar empire.

Granted, it was just a Coca-Cola® stand in his front yard. After all, Cathy was only eight. Still, one thing led to another, and today Chick-fil-A® is one of the largest privately-owned restaurant chains in the nation, with more than 1200 restaurants around the country and nearly $2 billion in annual sales.

Credited as the “father of the chicken sandwich,” Cathy has also established an uncompromising legacy of radical business principles from which he has consistently refused to deviate. For example, he insists on giving all his employees Sundays off (generating more sales in six days than most national chains do in seven); and he rigorously screens all job applicants, even part-timers—then offers them a wealth of benefits they could never find elsewhere.

From the start, Cathy has also been steadfast in pouring the gains of his business into one philanthropic outlet after another. Through his WinShape Foundation (featured in our “Heart of Business,” May/June 2005), Cathy and company have put millions of dollars toward helping to turn around the lives of thousands of troubled youths. His numerous awards include the Norman Vincent & Ruth Stafford Peale Humanitarian Award (2003), the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award (2000) and Horatio Alger Award (1989). He is author of Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People (2002), It’s Easier to Succeed Than to Fail (1989) and It’s Better to Build Boys Than Mend Men (2004) and coauthor with Ken Blanchard of The Generosity Factor (2002).

And listen to this: his annual turnover rate? Three and a half percent! Clearly, this is a man from whom we have much to learn. — JDM

You’ve said that every child who overcomes long odds can point to an adult who stepped into his life as a friend, mentor and guide. Who was that for you?

My mom had the greatest influence on me. My father was a victim of the Depression; he never recovered from that experience, so it was really up to my mother to bring an income into the household. We took in boarders, and she taught me how to shuck corn, shell peas, set the table, go shopping.

I also had a Sunday school teacher who was a great role model for me. He had a son my age who had a paper route; I also had a paper route, and Mr. Abbey would help me with my papers every Sunday morning—which my dad would never do.

Two things impressed me about Mr. Abbey: his faith in the Lord, and the fact that one year he was able to buy his family a brand new automobile. I thought, “I hope there’ll come a day when I can do the same for my family.”

Today, Art Linkletter’s my role model, because he’s nine years older than I am, yet he still travels by himself, he doesn’t wear a hearing aid or eyeglasses, and he goes skiing and surfing in Hawaii. I told him, when I grow up I want to be like him.

My wife Jeannette has also played a major part in developing me, and so have my children. They’re more in tune with the Lord than I am. I think I’ve become a better person because of their direction and influence.

The way you built your business, following the principles you do, sounds like it was quite different from what everyone around you was doing.

It’s even different from what everyone else is doing today. In fact, if anything, it’s more different today than it was when I started.

We teach our people that courtesy is very cheap, but it pays great dividends. We urge our employees not to do only what’s expected, but also to go the second mile: grasp every opportunity to please that customer, because that customer is who keeps your doors open.

It’s simple: we tell our people, “Just treat your customers the way you’d like to be treated when you go out to eat.” Why not treat every customer as though they’re the most important person in the world? They are! They’re very special to us.

We’re very careful with our people. If you take care of the people, the profit will be there. You can ignore the profit.

Why is “closed on Sundays” one of your core principles?

It’s our way of honoring God and pointing out that there are things more important than business. And as it turns out, it’s good business, too!

The fact that we’re closed on Sundays has helped us to attract a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t work for us. Everyone appreciates having Sunday off, whether or not they go to worship. Your friends are going places and you want to go with them. So it’s been to our distinct advantage.

You cut your hours by 14 percent—and get ahead!

It’s true. Our competitors will not make that move to close on Sunday, so we’re ahead of our competition. I’m very proud to say that with more than 500 staff people and more than 1200 units, we have a turnover of only three and a half percent.

That’s unbelievable!

Well, we could do better than that, if it weren’t for the fact that ladies sometimes get pregnant.

No, you can’t stop that…

But here’s what we can do: we have a nursery with accommodations for 50 children, so employees can drop their children off when they come to work, and we take good care of them.

How do you get your business principles across to a few thousand people?

Well, a lot of the character and qualities we’re looking for, they bring with them.

I asked one of my competitors how he goes about getting new help. He said, “I put out a sign, Help Wanted, and first one shows up gets the job.”

That’s not how we do business! We screen our people very, very closely—even our part-time and temporary people. We look at people’s history, accomplishments, at who they are, not just what they can do. We’re not just looking for someone who can hand a customer a sandwich; we’re looking for leadership. We can compete with the stiffest of competition out in the marketplace because of the quality of people we’ve been able to attract.

We also offer our people a lot of benefits. We have a scholarship program for our young people; if they work with us for two years, averaging 20 hours a week, we give them a $1000 scholarship to the school of their choice. We recently awarded our twenty-thousandth recipient, for a total of $20 million so far.

A few years ago we interviewed Fred Reichheld, author of The Loyalty Effect. I notice you cite his work in your business principles.

That’s right: our people are the cornerstone of everything we do, so we take care of them. And once you start working here, you’re not likely to be persuaded to go somewhere else.

Through another program we’ve given 125 students college scholarships of as much as $32,000 each. There are no strings attached, yet about half of them show up later in life running a Chick-fil-A. About 40 percent of our people have grown up with Chick-fil-A, working here since they were teenagers; some of them formed goals early on to some day run a Chick-fil-A of their own.

We know our people, and they know us. They’re very dedicated, and we have a wonderful relationship. We teach the principle of team effort, everyone working together.

Why don’t more businesses copy what you do and do the same kinds of things?

Every business has a personality, and it starts at the top. You can’t just dictate it, you have to demonstrate it. You can’t just tell employees you want a clean restroom, you have to go in there and clean the restroom, show them what you mean.

Some of our competitors sometimes act as though it would be a very good place to work—if it weren’t for those customers always showing up and interfering with their good time!

A few years ago, in the wake of Enron and WorldCom, you were invited to testify before the House Ways & Means Committee on “business ethics.” What was that experience like?

It was very well received. They asked me how you could be successful and honest at the same time. My statement was that I saw no conflict between Biblical principles and good business practice. For instance, we follow the Golden Rule: treat everyone else exactly the way you’d like to be treated. If everyone would just remember that, that would solve a lot of problems.

I also told them that there’s no such thing as “business ethics.” It’s all personal ethics. You hear about this business succeeding or that business failing—but a business does not succeed or fail. It’s people who make things happen, people who cause the success or the failure.

When you see CEOs cashing in their chips and going elsewhere, when they should be taking care of the people who’ve put their faith and trust in them, that’s a lapse of personal ethics. People often ask me, “Why don’t you go public and cash in your chips?” I say, “Why would I sell something I enjoy doing?” Besides, when you go public, you lose control of your operation.

We’ve kept our credit record clean, and while there are banks anxious to lend us money, we’re faring quite well, enjoying what we’re doing.

Can you cite another example of what you describe as a Biblical principle being good business practice?

When I was in grammar school, it was required that you bring a Bible to school Monday morning, and the homeroom teacher would select a Bible verse for the week. One time my mom had helped me write out Proverbs 22:1, and that was the selected verse to go up on the bulletin board. It made me very proud. The text goes like this:

“A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.”

Ever since, that’s been ingrained in my mind.

I’ve been teaching Sunday school to 13-year-olds for more than 50 years. Not long ago, I asked them, “How many of you would like to have a million dollars?” All their hands went up. I said, “Let me tell you about something better than a million dollars.” Of course, they were all curious to know what it is. And I said, “Simply this: a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.”

One of the boys said, “Well, how do you get a good reputation?” I said, “It’s not something you can buy: you have to earn it again fresh, every day.”

You have to be very careful of the things you do and the things you say. I’ve been very mindful of this over the years.

You say, we should be less concerned that our children don’t listen, and more concerned that they see everything we do. This is equally true of employees, isn’t it?

Very true—but you have more control over your employees than you do over your family members! Your family might ignore what you say, and you might get depressed about this, but remember that they observe everything you do, which is far more indelible that what you say.

How did the WinShape Foundation come about?

Years ago, a young man came to my Sunday School class; he was 13. His mother and dad were divorced when he was four and he had then lived with his mom, till one day a State Patrolman came to find him on a Boy Scout trip to tell him that his mother had been killed. He was uprooted from his friends, came to live with his aunt and uncle and shared a room with his cousin. Somebody brought him to Sunday school class.

I gave him a lot of my time. Eventually he moved in with us; at the time, all three of our children had left home for college. He finished the University of Georgia with high honors, went to Harvard and got an MBA.

Now, one day when he was still 13, he said, “Mr. Cathy, when I grow up, I want to come to work for Chick-fil-A—but I don’t think I want to operate one of those Chick-fil-A units, I’d like to have a desk and a secretary like you have!”

Now he’s all grown up and married; I was best man at his wedding. He has three adorable children and a wonderful home life—and he has a desk and a secretary!

He’s not only achieved his goals, he’s also proven that young people can do anything if they really want to—and if they don’t have the want-to, nothing else works.

And that was the starting point for the foundation?

It was. He motivated me; I realized there were so many kids out there who’d never done anything wrong, but who were just victims of circumstances. So I’ve tried to give attention to those children.

Today, we have 135 foster children in 13 different homes. Over the last two years, 17 of our kids finished high school, and all but one’s in college. We’re really proud of them and helping to continue their educational process. We’ve had a few disappointments, and a lot of rewards.

We also have a camp for boys and girls; last year we had close to 2000 children for a two-week camp experience. And we recently took over a dairy farm to develop into a family enrichment program.

There are so many things you can do that bring you rewards you just can’t buy with dollars and cents.


Seven Reminders For Building Children

Although Truett Cathy offers the following principles for raising healthy children, the savvy network marketer will notice that with a little imagination, they can be as aptly applied to the people in our networks! — JDM

1) Every child I know who overcame long odds and grew into a responsible adult can point to an adult who stepped into his or her life as a friend, mentor and guide.  
2) Don’t be too concerned that your children don’t listen to you. But be very concerned that they see everything you do.
3) Be so consistent in your discipline that you’re boring. 
4) Stop arguing in front of your children. 
5) You may think children have outgrown the desire to be rocked to sleep at night. They haven’t.
6) Children will never believe in the covenant of marriage unless they see you living it with their own eyes.
7) How do you know if a child needs encouragement? If he or she is breathing.

— From It’s Better to Build Boys Than Mend Men (2004) by S. Truett Cathy