There are 2 ways to view the founder of Chick-fil-A, S. Truett Cathy, who died last night at the age of 93.
(1) As an old southern religious fundamentalist who opposed LGBT lifestyles, a common and unremarkable member of his demographic group. And (2) as a builder from scratch of one of the largest family owned, non public restaurant companies.
In addition to the food at his restaurants, most people not in the restaurant business probably know him more for (1), his family’s controversial (and in my view incorrect) desire to limit the freedoms of LGBT Americans. But no one would be discussing this if it were not for (2), the unique restaurant empire he built, which indisputably places Cathy as someone to learn from for everyone in the F&B business.
Cathy built a single restaurant into an 1800 unit chain that exceeds KFC in US sales – and blows them away along with most other chicken chains in customer perception of quality. Unlike most large chains, Chick-fil-A never went public, building a giant group of restaurants as a privately held family business. This is extremely rare and difficult.
Cathy opened his first small diner in 1946 and by 1967 had founded and opened his first Chick-fil-A Inc. restaurant in Atlanta, based on the boneless chicken “filets” he is credited with inventing. Cathy and his family grew Chick-Fil-A to more than 1,800 outlets in 39 states and DC. In 2013, the company says on its website, annual sales topped $5 billion. The company has reported it has had 46 consecutive years of positive sales growth.
Cathy has attributed his hardworking nature — even as a little boy he made money by selling six bottles of Coca-Cola for a quarter — to growing up poor.
“I’ve experienced poverty and plenty and there’s a lesson to be learned when you’re brought up in poverty,” he said in 2007. “I had to create some good work habits and attitude.”
Cathy’s 2007 book “How Did You Do It, Truett?” outlined his strategy for success, including setting priorities, being courteous, not being burdened with debt, and expanding carefully.
“There’s really no secret for success,” he said then. “I hope it will open eyes for people. They don’t have to follow my recipe but this is what works for me.”
It strikes me that Cathy is on a different level from the Papa John’s of the world, making political statements about Obamacare which will increase their costs, and adding upcharges to guest checks. Chick-fil-A walked the walk of their fundamentalist beliefs by closing every Sunday, leaving money on the table, and their controversial statements were made with the knowledge it could hurt their sales. I am not endorsing those beliefs, but I am saying there is a difference between self-interested social/political statements and beliefs that one sticks to even when they cost you money.
We don’t have to agree with the beliefs to appreciate that aspect, and to respect the self made empire S. Truett Cathy built.