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Interview With Truett Cathy

Aired July 21, 2002 - 11:39   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: The corporate world can be cutthroat and cunning and disappointing -- just look at Enron and the WorldCom scandals, but there are those businesses who put principles before profits. In the book "Eat Mor Chikin," the founder of the Chick-Fil-A restaurants gives us some of the secret ingredients to his success. One of them is closing up shop on Sundays, and with me this morning is Truett Cathy, who didn't take the Sunday off this time to join us. And I'm glad you did.


WHITFIELD: Thanks very much.

Well, the CEOs of so many corporations hopefully are listening, because one of your recipes is putting principles and people before profits. Are you running a big business in a very small-business kind of family-oriented way? Is that the secret here?

CATHY: Well, it's no secret, but that's the way is it. We're still family operated, we're still a private company. It permits to do a lot of things that we couldn't do if we was a public company, and we concentrate on people rather than profits. And it's important that we make a dollar a year in order to stay in business, but we are more committed to our people, particularly to our customers, to people that work with us, and I have an outstanding crew of staff people and they're totally dedicated to the task, and this has caused Chick-Fil-A to be successful. It's because of the commitment that we see in our people that helps us in our efforts.

WHITFIELD: And you're showing how having that kind of commitment in your employees, you're seeing great returns. By being off on Sundays, you make sure that you want your employees to be spending their Sundays with their families, as you do yourself.

CATHY: That's right. This is a policy...

WHITFIELD: And you're losing millions by doing that.

CATHY: Oh, I think not. We think it's probably the best business decision I ever made, just closing on Sunday. And we started this back in 1946. We have not varied from it yet, and it's been very profitable for us. I think people appreciate to sticking to your convictions, and, as always, my policy goes go to Sunday school and then church. I still teach Sunday school. I didn't get to do it this morning because of you, but I'm here for a purpose...

WHITFIELD: It's my fault.

CATHY: But I'm there every Sunday that I'm in town, and they are motivating me to be at my best, and so I ask the question to my boys, 15-year-old boys, I say, what would you think about me if here we have a lesson on observance of the Lord's day and my cash register jingled. And one boy said, well, I would think of you as a hypocrite. So sometimes you've got be very careful what we say, but more important what we do.

WHITFIELD: Well, let's elaborate on what you do, and how you put into place your recipe for business success. Something you spell out quite specifically in your book. Number one, you say, "embrace unexpected opportunities. Do what's right. Lead by serving. And taking Sundays off," as we talked about.

Embracing unexpected opportunities. What do you mean by that?

CATHY: Well, there are a lot of opportunities out there, tell our people, they're very energetic individuals, and say how it goes. I say rather than saying how it goes, let's take -- be alerted to unexpected opportunities come our way.

And we've had a lot of surprises. Chick-Fil-A itself is kind of an unexpected opportunity where this is a product that originated in my own restaurant, and I realized the potential, and at lunch, and my first shopping center location Greenbay (ph) mall here in Atlanta, which we opened back in 1967.

At that time, developers wouldn't even talk to you about fast food in shopping malls, but soon we realized that people had to eat somewhere, and it was going to take them away from the mall to go outside to eat, you might as well keep them there and keep them spending the money, and get them fed as quickly as possible. And so Chick-Fil-A has been a very prime example of the need for fast food, and they developed shopping malls around the food court.

WHITFIELD: And something that's interesting, you know, we pulled from your book. You said, you know, sometimes you just need to keep it simple. Quote: "What's so special about taking the bone out of a piece of chicken and putting it between two pieces of bread? I was asked. Nothing, I said. That's why I was able to do it, but it's going take the right people to build the business."

So simplicity obviously is key, and when you surround yourself with the right people, what are some of the ingredients you need to see in the right people? What defines the right folks to be surrounded by?

CATHY: Well, I would say a person's character first, before you even consider any other. Even among our young people, part time, it's very important we track a caliber of person that -- that wants to do right. And as we see no conflict, them doing things right and having success at the same time, and so it is very important being in a business that we're consistent in what we do, because you know you can never be disappointed in a restaurant -- after eating there many, many times and then never go back if you just (UNINTELLIGIBLE) one time.

And so we have to be consistent in what we do, and once a customer comes see us, we like that they're going to come back.

WHITFIELD: Now, character you mentioned, that's at the core of the Enron crisis, WorldCom, et cetera. Your book helps provide an impetus for you being invited now on Capitol Hill to testify later on this week to share with congressional leaders about your secret to success, and how character building and how character, you know, the character of the corporate leader has to be the backbone of any corporate success. What will you be telling congressional leaders to convince them about the best way it is to go about reform?

CATHY: Well, I think they're curious to know how is it that you can be successful and do things right? I still believe that it's no conflict business and Biblical principles. Because in the Bible, it tells us many things, how we should treat our customers, how we should be treating our employees, how should you be do the things, and it's all marked out. There's no secret to success. It's just doing things right. If you do things right, then you receive the rewards.

WHITFIELD: Did you worry about a potential conflict of interests of bringing in faith in your business practices? Were you worried that your actions might offend some customers, or offend some employees, or sponsors or supporters in any way?

CATHY: Well I never have found anyone that was offended by that. That people sometimes asks you, do you have to be a Christian to work at Chick-Fil-A. I say, not at all. That's a personal relationship you have between you and the Lord, but we would ask that you base your business decisions on Biblical principles, because they do work. And I've seen no conflicts between Biblical principles and good business practices.

WHITFIELD: Also in your book you talk about, quote, "not many men can claim that more than 150 children can call him grandpa." It is my proudest distinction. You talk about how you bring family into your business. How you brought character, you brought faith, and family being a component. You practice what you preach. And you preach what you practice.

CATHY: Well, the paid dividends. Some things in life you can't buy with dollars and cents, to bring a personal love, a pleasure, and the Bible teaches you it's better to give than to receive, and few people realize that.

It's all a way of give me, give me, give me, and so it's a world that's maybe selfish. And so -- but I do play the role of grandpa for 120 -- 150 children now, and we have 12 foster homes that Chick-Fil-A sponsors. We purchased the land, built the home, hired full-time parents, and we (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that if we can identify kids that do not have any serious behavior problems, just a victim of circumstances. And I tell them they don't have to call me grandpa, but who's calling me grandpa gets more. So it motivates them, calling me grandpa.

WHITFIELD: I'm sure in unison, (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

CATHY: What a thrill it is to drive to one of the homes, to the home, and see all these children peeling out. Grandpa's here! Grandpa's here, and get a hug and sometime a kiss on the cheek. These things, you can't buy with dollars and cents.

WHITFIELD: Well, that's fantastic. Thank you very much, Truett Cathy, for joining us. The book is called "Eat Mor Chikin," the slogan of Chick-Fil-A is "eat mor chikin," and what a clever concept of coming up with the cow, you know, as your mascot encouraging people to eat more chicken. Makes a whole lot of sense.

CATHY: Well, we got a whole lot of people in the marketing department that's very creative and they are coming up with new ideas. Generally for a program like this, take it off when it's at its peak. But we're having a lot of fun with it, and some of the people in the cattle association don't appreciate me sometimes badmouthing the cow, but we are having a lot of fun. I raise cows myself, and I don't think it's a conflict between that and cattle raising, but it's a fun thing. They're poor spellers, but we're teaching them how they can do things better, and, but we get billboards change every three or four months, and something new and fresh. We have calendars that come out every week.


CATHY: Can't wait to buy calendars, see what's next, cows in sports and various other things. We dress them up with football helmets and baseball caps and things like that.

WHITFIELD: All right.

CATHY: Makes a fun thing out of it.

WHITFIELD: Well, later this week, Congress and CEOs around the country will be listening to learn some very valuable lessons that you will be sharing with them on Capitol Hill. Truett Cathy, thank you very much, and nice to meet you. And good luck to your book and your business. Of course, you don't need the luck, but you know.

CATHY: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks a lot.

CATHY: We hope you'll eat more chicken because of my being here.

WHITFIELD: I like chicken. All right, thanks very much. All right.




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