Posted by Mary Wimberley on 2008-03-04

Family, faith and leadership have played important roles in the life of Chick-fil-A, Inc., founder and CEO S. Truett Cathy.

The 86-year-old great-grandfather and his three adult children shared their thoughts on the topic Monday evening in a program sponsored by Samford University's Beeson Divinity School.

"My life has been filled with unexpected opportunities, and I've been blessed to be able to serve people with a need. I feel called to the ministry of business," said the elder Cathy, who was joined on the program by sons Dan T. Cathy and Donald M. "Bubba" Cathy, and daughter Trudy Cathy White.

Charles Q. Carter, the family's longtime pastor at First Baptist Church, Jonesboro, Ga., served as moderator of the discussion that was part of a two-day leadership forum, "How Did You Do It, Truett?".

The three siblings all play roles in the Chick-fil-A business enterprise and in a non-profit foundation that supports a variety of ministries.

Each shared memories of growing up in a home where faith and leadership were not just taught, but lived.

"We did not have a lot of rules, but there was a lot of role modeling. We were taught how to exercise faith in the market place," said White, noting that what she most admires about her father is his consistency of character and faith. "He's the same everywhere he goes."

White is director for girls at WinShape Camps in Rome, Ga., and with her husband John White, co-founder of Lifeshape Foundation.

Dan Cathy, a multi-tasker, balances his hobbies of music, horticulture, motorcycles and piloting airplanes with his role as Chick-fil-A president.

"You must learn how to say yes to the right things and build your calendar around the things you're passionate about," he advises.

Bubba Cathy, Chick-fil-A senior vice president and president of Dwarf House, Inc., also oversees WinShape's long term foster home program, wilderness team-building program and a marriage enrichment center. The latter offers facilities for couples simply seeking marriage enrichment or deeper help for a troubled marriage.

"Sometimes couples just need to get away in a different setting, away from the children. Mom and Dad have shown us that you can be successful, not just in business, but in marriage," he said of his parents, Truett and Jeannette, who have been married 60 years.

The Whites' Lifeshape Foundation includes a community transformation after-school program, a retreat center in Fort Payne, Ala., that is available for ministry groups, and Impact 360 program for young adults.

"Many teens just out of high school aren't always grounded in their faith, and find it easy to drift away," said White, adding that the nine-month "gap" program for 18- to 20-year-olds prepares them so that "When they go to college, they can stand firm in their Christian faith."

Truett Cathy is one of the nation's most endearing success stories. Beginning with a small restaurant, The Dwarf Grill, in Hapeville, Ga., in 1946, he opened his first Chick-fil-A restaurant in the early 1960s. The privately-owned corporation is now the second-largest quick service chicken restaurant chain in the U.S., with 1,400 locations and annual sales of $2.6 billion in 2007.

Not one of the locations is open on Sunday, and never will be.

"It was not hard to decide to close on Sunday," said Truett Cathy, who first implemented the policy at The Dwarf Grill, and calls it the best business decision he ever made. "When you work 24 hours, six days a week, you're ready for a break."

The closed on Sunday policy is one of three points of a covenant that the family put in writing some years ago.

"Success is all about succession," said Dan Cathy, explaining a covenant the family formulated to articulate their commitment and values and re-assure store operators that current priorities will be sustained in the future.

The covenant also spells out the company's commitment to never go public, and to always make decisions regarding the business in a consensus format.

Family members may have different perspectives, but it is important that the parents and the three children be together and in harmony in the decisions, said Dan Cathy.

Bubba Cathy underscored the company credo of quality food and customer experience, great people to get the great products across the counter, a vision of where the company should go, basic sales growth, and financial return.

"Dad says that if you don't have a profit, you won't be able to support the ministries that we have," he said.

Supporting it all is a corporate purpose statement that was developed during a planning retreat in 1980: To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.

Dan Cathy has an answer when asked about the frequent description of Chick-fil-A as a Christian company.

"Jesus Christ never died for a company," he says. "He died for individuals, personally." The company, however, does want to operate on Biblical principles and acknowledge the Lord in all ways.

The panelists paid tribute to their wife and mother, Jeannette Cathy, who prefers that they do the public speaking.

The woman who Truett first met when she was eight years old was described as "the rock" of the home during his long work hours, a "Child of the King" whose walk with the Lord has been a blessing to watch, and an always-curious learner who loves to study.

"She was one of the first 80-year-olds I knew with an email address and who could surf the Internet," said Dan Cathy.

The leadership forum continued on Tuesday with another Beeson-sponsored program at which Truett Cathy reflected on his life and career; and a Brock School of Business dean's leadership series featuring Trudy White who shared her experiences with a non-profit enterprise.

Keys to recruiting good leaders are the same for non-profit organizations as for for-profit businesses, she told the audience of business students.

She told them to value character, competency and skill sets, and compatibility-the ability to be a team player and work together.

At a Monday luncheon attended by the Birmingham area business community, Truett Cathy shared his corporate story and his ethical business practices.

He also received the Marvin Mann Ethics-in-Business Award in recognition of professional achievement and personal integrity.

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.