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HARDBOUND

Truett’s secret sauce
Chick-fil-A’s Steve Robinson writes what made his boss Truett Cathy standout and his idea of relationship building

My father and Truett Cathy were part of the Greatest Generation, men who were hardworking, persevering, and incredibly loyal. My father treated all his employees with respect and would give you the shirt off his back. If he had any failing, it was that he did that too often. Like lost puppies, people who needed a break were attracted to him.

Truett, too, was incredibly respectful of everyone, no matter their station in life or ethnicity. The first time I walked into his Dwarf House restaurant in 1980, I noticed the diversity of his team: women, men, black, white. And I learned that most of them had been working with Truett for many years, some of them for decades.

To Truett, every customer, every Operator, every staff member, and every team member was important, and the loss of a single one bothered him. He was constantly seeking opportunities for new relationships, often with food and hospitality. He would meet someone and invite them to a meal in his home, calling his wife, Jeannette, at the last minute to say he had a guest, or guests, coming with him. The restaurant business Truett built became an extension of the genuine hospitality that he and Jeannette offered at home. When my wife, Dianne, and I visited Truett and Jeannette just months before he passed away, Truett was in a weakened state-yet he asked us to stay for dinner.

Truett truly had a desire to honor God and be a positive influence on every person he came in contact with. He did not think, How can I create a great brand culture? He simply did what came naturally to him. He made promises that his customers came to trust, and those promises continue to form the foundation of the Chick-fil-A brand.

More than sixty years after Truett started out in the restaurant business, his pastor asked him what advice he would leave for those who manage Chick-fil-A. Truett responded, "Keep on doing business the right way, and always take care of your customers."

No complex architecture. No lists or graphics. The advice came from the Bible. It was essentially, love God and love your neighbor. Do these, and everything else falls into place. By living those words himself, Truett created a culture of love, respect, trust, and grace that has allowed Chick-fil-A to thrive.

Like my father, though, long before Chick-fil-A became the beloved brand it is today, Truett faced a point when he had to reconsider the direction of his business career. For my father, Washington politics killed the hybrid seed corn business in the South with the activation of the Farm Subsidy Bill. For Truett, the death of his brother Ben, a restaurant fire, and colon surgery led him to reconsider his life's purpose.

He had opened his Dwarf Grill in 1946 with his brother Ben. Then in 1948, he married his childhood sweetheart, Jeanette McNeil. The three of them ran the restaurant together until Ben died in an airplane crash in 1949. Though Truett had lost his brother and his business partner, he and Jeanette persevered with a vision of owning a chain of diners. In 1951, he opened his second restaurant but almost immediately regretted the decision. With two restaurants, he couldn't be with his customers all the time. The idea of relationships with customers was real to him, not an abstract notion. He had capable managers at both restaurants, but when managers had problems they couldn't solve, they called Truett, whose time was then split between the two restaurants.

Fire destroyed the second restaurant in February 1960, and Truett was not carrying enough insurance to rebuild it without borrowing money. He took out a loan, but before construction began, his doctor found polyps in his colon and scheduled surgery. Though there was no cancer, Truett had a terrible allergic reaction to the anesthesia and stayed in the hospital for two weeks. Six months later his doctor found more polyps and told Truett that he required a second surgery. This was a pivotal moment for Truett.

"I was thirty-eight years old, and I did not expect to come home alive," he wrote in his book Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People. Though his wife reassured him, "God isn't finished with your life yet. I don't think He's going to take you," the experience changed him.

 

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