Samuel was born March 14, 1921 in Eatonton, Georgia. He was the sixth of what soon would total seven children for Joseph and Lilla. Though Samuel was his given name, he was called by his middle name – Truett. When Truett was still a toddler, his father lost his job so the family moved to Atlanta. There, they bought a small house and took in boarders to earn extra money. Joseph struggled to handle this new situation – becoming disgruntled and growing distant from the family. Because of that, Truett became closer to his mother, working with her in the kitchen and tagging along when she would go out to buy groceries.
For his part, Truett recognized an opportunity to make money. He would buy packs of Coca-Cola and resell individual bottles in his neighborhood. His entrepreneurial drive soon led him to selling magazines and newspapers for home delivery. He discovered that he was not only a good salesman – but that he also had a strong grasp of customer service. Truett delivered his papers to places most convenient for his customers – but not so easy for their dog. That might mean setting the paper on their porch chair or inside of the screen door. He would stay in the newspaper business until his late teens.
When he was twelve, Truett met Theo Abby, an adult mentor, who partially filled the void left by his father. At Theo’s suggestion, he began Sunday School and it was there he developed his strong Christian faith and his love for Jesus Christ. His faith reached to his core – to his very soul – and would guide him for the rest of his life.
After their service to the U.S. Army during World War II, Truett and his brother Ben decided to open a restaurant. They came up with $10,000 and bought a restaurant that was so small it was named the Dwarf Grill. The brothers learned a great deal about running a restaurant – business was good as it was across from the Atlanta Ford Motor plant.
Then tragedy struck – twice. First, Truett’s brother and partner, Ben, died in a plane crash. In order to deal with his loss, Truett opened a second restaurant – changing the name to Dwarf House. That location was also successful until the second tragedy – it burned to the ground in 1960. He rebuilt with a new concept which failed. Truett was feeling a bit lost by the mid 1960’s – but his faith bolstered him.
He knew the restaurant business. He knew how to run a successful business. Suddenly he knew his opportunity. Chicken. He’d heard that Kentucky Fried Chicken was planning to move into the Atlanta market. Deciding to focus on boneless chicken breast sandwiches, Truett came up with a unique blend of seasonings in his home kitchen. He would name his new fast food restaurant concept after its hero – the chicken fillet (pronounced fill-A in America). With that Chick-fil-A was launched.
A great product and operational know-how wasn’t enough for Truett. He determined to build his business based on the basis of placing principles and people ahead of profits. His personal mantra, derived from Proverbs, was to pursue a good name before great riches. His character and integrity were all-important to him – as were his customers. His commitment was to always offer heartfelt hospitality in his stores, be kind to his employees and remain closed on Sundays as a day of rest. Eventually, he would engage cows to encourage the public to ‘Eat mor chikin’.
Could a business built on those criteria survive? Well, after 50 years, Chick-fil-A has over 2,000 stores in 43 states. It’s the second largest chicken based fast-food restaurant in the world with 2016 sales estimated at $4.374 billion. Most importantly, the guiding principles established by Truett back in 1967, hold firm today. Chick-fil-A’s success is directly attributable to the fact that S. Truett Cathy is a fearless brand.
Fearless brands are built on integrity, principles and faith
Mr. Cathy died in 2014 at the age of 93. He was able to direct and savor the success of his company. However, making a difference in people’s lives was much more important to him than business success. In business, he was committed to making every customer feel special and appreciated. The employees share his principles, and are often are seen going to extraordinary ends to serve their customers. The standard response to any ‘thank you’ is ‘My pleasure!’ – a simple yet powerful phrase (read why here). During disasters, local Chick-fil-A stores provide food and drink for first-responders and those affected by the situation. The examples of customer service and caring for the public are too many to list.
Mr. Cathy is widely acknowledged for his philanthropic and humanitarian efforts. He’s provided $1,000 college scholarships to employees – totaling nearly $25,000,000. Through his WinShape Foundation he has provided over $18 million for foster homes, summer camps and education for youth in need.
Chick-fil-A, and the WinShape Foundation are not without controversy. In 2011 and 2012 Truett’s son, Dan Cathy, then COO, took a very public stance against gay marriage. That position drew immediate and intense protests by gay rights supporters, resulting in a significant impact to Chick-fil-A’s business and image. In June of 2012, Chick-fil-A released this statement – “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”
Truett Cathy is a fearless brand who built a company which itself is a fearless brand. That means there’s a great deal to learn from the man and his company.
Build your brand based on principles – Truett Cathy built his business based on his Christian faith. His company’s standards are a direct reflection of his life’s principles. There was no compromise – nor should there be. His philosophy is simply “Be Kind”, treat people well, do your best.
Employees are a critical brand element – The single most overlooked facet of a company brand is its employees. Truett Cathy knew their importance. The company hires people who share the corporate values – people that are extensions of the company brand. A shared and consistent brand message is the single biggest strength of a fearless brand. Hire and train employees who reflect your brand.
Character of leadership is essential – In the words of Mr. Cathy – “A business, successful or not, is merely a reflection of the character of its leadership.” Leaders with questionable character will achieve questionable results. The opposite is also true – character and integrity count!
Learn from controversy – Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A may not have changed their views on many social issues, however, they have learned to be cautious about mixing those beliefs with business. Truett’s belief was to treat all customers with respect and kindness. That principle represents the basis of his faith as well as sound business strategy.
Get involved – Another quote from Truett Cathy – “We should be about more than just selling chicken. We should be a part of our customers’ lives and the communities in which we serve.” Chick-fil-A stores are as involved in their communities as any business, anywhere. That involvement creates and grows the company’s relevance with its customer base and the public in general. Be relevant.
Truett Cathy developed into a fearless brand by combining his purpose (touching lives) and his skills (sales, business, leadership) and delivering that value proposition in a relevant way (great food, customer service, philanthropy). Fearless branding is a very simple concept. It’s not, however, an easy concept to execute. It takes commitment, effort, and determination. Building a fearless brand can create extraordinary results. Take the time to build and hone your fearless brand. Who knows, you may hire cows as spokespersons one of these days.