I am rarely affected by the deaths of our culture’s celebrities. But, since I heard about Mr. Truett Cathy’s decline and then death, today, I have been saddened more than I expected. His life and example loom large in mine. Chick-fil-A, the company he started, guided, and ultimately bestowed upon his family has had a huge influence on my life.
At age 15, I took my first permanent job at the Chick-fil-A mall store at Orlando Fashion Square. At 16, my Operator, Henry Dixon, saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He promoted me to Assistant Manager with the responsibility of closing the store three nights per week. I learned so much about managing people and customer service during those years. And I worked with a fantastic team. I was even selected to help with a Grand Opening at another Florida store. Henry is still a family friend after over two decades that I have been gone. It was the best job I ever had, and I was there almost 4 years until I went away to Berry College. (btw – I know how everything is made — or was — and I still pay to eat there often. They do things the right way.)
I received both the $1,000 Chick-fil-A Scholarship and the $10,000 WinShape Scholarship (sponsored by Chick-fil-A). I was one of about 100 WinShape students at Berry. We had our meeting at 10 pm on Monday nights (oh, those wacky college schedules). Truett came and spoke to us several times in my years there. He was always funny, told rambling stories, and personable. He was more like a grandfather than a big company CEO. He encapsulated Biblical wisdom into his own unique phrase-ology. For example, he told us that one of his secrets was that if he “gave everyone what they wanted, he would get what he wanted.” That’s servant-leadership, homespun. Its also the perfect model for customer service – something for which I have been rewarded at many jobs after Chick-fil-A. It was through Berry, Chick-fil-A, and WinShape that God challenged my faith and called back into a relationship with Him. I briefly worked at the CFA at Cumberland Mall in Atlanta and met Stephen Kendrick (one of the movie brothers). Our faith conversations were instrumental in moving me back toward church. Another co-worker, Rodney Long, invited me to his church, which got me connected to my future wife (another long story), and — WOW, God really did use Chick-fil-A to change my life.
My mom and sister both worked at Chick-fil-A. (And, yes, I was their boss, but those are stories for another day.) I met my wife at Berry College, and she eventually worked as an accountant for the Chick-fil-A Home Office. She still does contracting work for Chick-fil-A. With her, I had the opportunity to attend several Operator Seminars. One in particular stands out, and I think was a watershed moment for Chick-fil-A. Dan Cathy (Truett’s son) had not yet ascended to his current position as President (and now, CEO). I think he was a VP. However, he spoke about servant leadership and pointed to Jesus’ example of washing the disciples’ feet. He then updated the application by providing everyone in the room with shoe polishing brushes. He proceeded to shine the shoes of his dad and President Jimmy Collins (and probably many others). Soon the whole auditorium was down polishing shoes. I don’t know all the company lore, but I think this was the beginning of what he now calls “second mile service” — all based on the example of Jesus. Truett and Jeanette raised their children right. Their daughter, Trudy, was a foster parent and helped grow their system of family-based foster care (it was about 9 homes back then).
I have heard Truett speak on several occasions. I have met him and shook his hand and said, “thank you.” He wouldn’t remember me, but I will never forget the impact he has made on me. He is the one I think about from Jesus’ parable of the talents. Some servants receive a huge responsibility, but they prove themselves faithful. That was Truett. The news stories focus on how much he had (describing him first as a billionaire). I think about how much he gave away. I don’t have access to any financial figures, but I know that he just kept on giving. One example is Southwest Christian Care. It is a hospice, senior care facility, and a respite center for medically fragile children. My daughter has received free weekends there over the last several years, giving us invaluable respite. All the hospice care is also free. I went to their fund raising dinner last year. Truett Cathy was the chairman of their board (I think) and was a long-time donor. Foster homes, Camp WinShape, scholarships, helping deserving folks start their own Chick-fil-A units, and so much more. These are the legacy of Mr. Cathy (outside his family, of course).
And even more, I think about his commitment to the most important things. Family – he always spoke glowingly of his wife, Jeanette. He challenged his children to work hard and not just expect to inherit the business. Faithful service – as long as I knew about him, he taught 13 year olds boys Sunday School. Worship – he would never compromise on stores being closed on Sunday. (The media seems to find this fascinating. At my store, we made more money in six days than all the other restaurants did in 7. There is an important “secret” here: Chick-fil-A has better employees. Simply put, those who want Sundays off are more likely Christians. And those Christians who value Sunday worship are more likely to be better, more faithful employees. And better rested, too! I’m sure that will enrage some, but visit any Chick-fil-A and compare the quality of employee with any McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s or any other quick service restaurant. Chick-fil-A is easily the best. Consider this: in an industry that averaged 200% annual turnover, I had basically the same crew of teens working with me 3 nights per week for over 2 years.) No matter what challenge, success, or controversy, Truett kept his focus on the non-negotiables.
Chick-fil-A’s corporate purpose is “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” I can think of no greater example of this than Mr. S. Truett Cathy. He was a faithful steward of what God entrusted to him and he was MUCH more than just a positive influence on me. Thank you, Mr. Cathy, for all that you did for me and my family. We will never be the same. And, somehow, I am sure that he is teaching the angels his favorite chant: “Is everybody happy? H-A-P-P-Y!”