In 1967, Georgia businessman S. Truett Cathy founded the very first Chick-fil-A fast-food restaurant in Atlanta's Greenbriar Shopping Center. Famous for its chicken sandwiches -- and for its policy of closing for business on Sundays -- Chick-fil-A has grown into a wildly successful chain of more than 2,100 restaurants in 46 states and the District of Columbia.
Ten years ago, I had the good fortune to interview S. Truett Cathy along with Kansas City business icon Bert Berkley for our book, Giving Back. During the course of our interview, Cathy -- who passed away in 2014 at the age of 93 -- revealed the secrets to his own considerable success in both business and life.
I recently wrote an article about Chick-fil-A and delivery partner DoorDash giving away 200,000 free chicken sandwiches, and I remembered the interview. After digging through my archives for an hour or two, I finally found it.
We change the world, and ourselves, by our response to unexpected opportunities." -S.Truett Cathy-- Chick-fil-A, Inc. (@ChickfilA) July 20, 2018
Here's an edited excerpt from our 2007 interview:
Question: What events took place that helped you decide you wanted to give back?
S. Truett Cathy: I was born in poverty. My mother was the breadwinner, and it was at an early age that she opened a boarding house. We furnished a bed in a room and charged a dollar a day -- $7 a week -- for room and board. And I learned how to shuck corn and shell peas and wash dishes and set the table. I belong to the First Baptist Church of Jonesboro, Georgia. My pastor asked, "What did Jesus say that few people believe?" The answer was simply that it is better to give than to receive. There are very few people who have found this out. It seems to me like the more I give, the more I have.
Question: How old were you when you came to the conclusion that you wanted to give back?
S. Truett Cathy: Throughout my business life. I've been in business for over 61 years -- in 2006, I celebrated my 60th year in the restaurant business at the same location. I don't know of anybody who has been in business anyplace for that length of time. I've been in the restaurant business serving the physical and emotional needs of people, and oftentimes their spiritual needs. I feel like it's a high calling to have that position of furnishing the essentials of life, and not just food, itself...I started out at eight years old buying Cokes, six for a quarter, and selling them for a nickel apiece and recognizing a 5-cent profit. A full case of Coca-Cola was 24 Cokes for 80 cents; you sell 24 Cokes for 5 cents apiece, and you made yourself 40 cents. To me, that was big business. From there, I sold magazines, and I got a paper route. I would tell my people if they would get their paper from me, I would put it by the screen door or put it up on the porch. I would be there rain or shine. I was a pretty good salesman in that period of time. Then I had a gift for buying something wholesale and selling it retail.
Question: What individuals were key to your deciding to give back?
S. Truett Cathy: The most positive were my mom, my wife, and the Sunday school teacher I had when I was a teenager. He was very kind to me and he was a role model for me. He helped me with my papers on Sunday morning. My dad was not the kind of father that I could go to when I had a problem. He was there, and that's about the only contact I had with him. We're still a private company, and I intend to stay that way. We give out a lot of things we couldn't do if we were a public company. We have a scholarship program for our part-time team members, where we give them $1,000 scholarships if they work for us for two years. Our average work schedule is 20 hours a week. We've devoted $40 million toward that, and the other scholarship programs we have. We have a boy's camp and a girl's camp, and I have 12 foster homes where we try to identify those kids who do not have any serious behavior problems, just victims of circumstances.
Question: What's the most significant contribution you have made with your leadership skills?
S. Truett Cathy: The most significant thing I think would be the example I have tried to set for other people, even with our family, that I tried to not dictate, but demonstrate what I'm trying to say and what I'm trying to do. I have a moral and corporate compass to glorify God by being a faithful steward. That means to give back a portion of God's blessings to others, and to help the people we come in contact with.
Question: What corporate executives do you admire most for the contributions they have made to their communities?
S. Truett Cathy: I like J.B. Fuqua -- he has been very generous. He once told me, "Truett, it seems like the more money I give, the more I have." He has given away more than $150 million for various causes. He doesn't seem to get involved in it, but he's done a lot of good things. He was also a great benefactor.
Like every great entrepreneur and leader, S. Truett Cathy had strong values and he lived them every day of the week -- both in his business and in his life. These values served as the North Star that guided him as he built a wildly successful business -- Chick-fil-A -- the WinShape foundation, and a strong family. His life is a testament to the importance of authenticity.