Business By the Book Pays Off for Chick-Fil-A Founder
Chick-fil-A founder Truet Cathy combined integrity with business sense and cooked up a batch of heavenly success.

By Michael Zigarelli

In 1946, a young and ambitious but cash-poor entrepreneur named Truett Cathy took out a small loan to open a restaurant in Hapeville, Georgia. The Dwarf Grill consisted of a mere 10 counter seats and four tables, but a persistent Cathy steadily grew the business by serving up quality food and friendly service 24 hours a day.

It was in this modest setting that Cathy experimented with faster ways to prepare chicken and creative ways to season it. By 1963, his persistence paid huge dividends as he developed the winning taste combination that would come to be known as the Chick-fil-A sandwich. Business took off and within a few short years, Cathy was pioneering in-mall fast food, peddling his novel sandwich to the rave reviews of hungry shoppers.

But Truett Cathy, for all of his culinary and marketing genius, did have a bit of a quirk. As a devout Christian, Cathy had refused to operate on Sundays ever since he opened the Dwarf Grill. At first, this posed little problem for his new firm. Although the policy occasionally created difficulty securing mall contracts, his recipe was in such demand that the malls simply could not say no. Fifteen years later, Chick-fil-A annual sales would top $100 million.

And then came the economic threat that would audit Cathy?s faith. During the deep recession of 1982, sharply lower demand for dining out caused Chick-fil-A sales to decline for the first time ever. To make matters worse, it was around this time that national burger chains suddenly became direct competitors with Cathy by offering chicken sandwiches as menu mainstays. If this were not enough, chicken prices were soaring and the company was beset with heavy debt (with interest rates hovering around 21 percent) for building a five-story office complex. Financial crisis, it seemed, was imminent. Here at the crossroads lay the specter of what had been non-negotiable for decades: opening on the Sabbath. Another day of operation ? especially a day where mall traffic was so high?would add at least 16 percent to current revenues. A policy change might therefore mean the difference between the mall?s center court and the government?s bankruptcy court.

Profitable solutions?God?s will. Often they intersect, sometimes they do not. And it is in this later tension that the Christian manager?s faith is ultimately tested in the divine crucible. It is here that one must choose whether what he or she learned in business school come first or second. It is here that top management must decide whether the organization?s direction will be charted using God?s compass or a gauge of their own creation.

Truett Cathy was committed to doing things God?s way independent of the cost.

In one respect, this commitment undergirded much of his financial success. He saw first-hand the overlap between profitable solutions and God?s will. There is a common ground, an intersection of the two realms. Operating in that intersection, Cathy was industrious and his work ethic shaped the corporation culture. In that intersection, Cathy cut no more corners to serve the highest quality food he could produce. As he likes to say, "There?s always a market for the best." He cared for his employees, sought to meet their many needs, and reaped the lowest turnover in the industry. All of these actions he saw as honoring God by honoring his employees and customers. Cathy had, in fact, discovered another winning recipe for building repeat business, high-Market share and employee commitment.

However, as a man of principle, Cathy knew that his no-compromise approach to honoring God must also apply to those times when profitability and God?s will seemed mutually exclusive. So in the midst of Chick-fil-A?s 1982 crisis, he went on retreat to strategize with his top managers. It was on this retreat that Truett Cathy rededicated his business to God and, in conjunction with his management team, crafted a new corporate mission statement: "To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A."

Consistent with this vision, Cathy remained resolute in proscribing Sunday work. Regardless of how much revenue could be generated or what capital was required, Cathy?s restaurants would remain closed on the Sabbath. Period. God?s will was paramount. Cathy determined that one day of rest to obey the Fourth Commandment) see Ex. 20:8-11) and let his employees attend worship if they desired would honor God. If God wanted this six-day-a-week operation to shut down, then that?s what could and should happen, Cathy concluded.

Significantly, this story has a happy ending. Cathy?s company navigated through the crises for a year until the economy recovered and interest rates and chicken prices declined. With the addition of innovative new menu items, sales accelerated throughout the 1980s and ?90s and today, Chick-fil-A boasts more than 750 locations internationally with over a half-billion dollars in annual revenue. So stable is his market position that Cathy cheerfully claims to even be helping the competitions, noting that "some of our competitors in the malls tell me that they wouldn?t have made it if we didn?t close on Sundays!"

Saying yes to God on the job does not always precipitate financial or career success.

Applying our faith invites both triumph and trial. For those who genuinely devote their work to God, though, the challenge is to recognize that God is at work regardless the outcome. Our God is the real Boss, the inerrant consultant for every decision, and the immovable anchorman in this daily tug-of-war. And he promises us success (in His eyes) when we unalterably stand by our commitment to Him.


Taken from Management by Proverbs by Michael A. Zigarelli. Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Moody Press. Used by permission.