Interview with Dan T. Cathy, President and Chief Operating Officer of Chick-fil-A, Inc.
What is it like to have a father for a leadership role model?
It is certainly a unique relationship; there are not many businesses that are able to survive a transition from one generation to the next. Dad is 89 and still very active in the business. The generational transition is purposefully slow. We now have three generations involved in the business, including my brother, Bubba, and sister, Trudy, and my sons Andrew, 32 and Ross 30. Bubba’s oldest son, Mark, and Trudy’s oldest son, John, are also already in the business. By working alongside, beside and in front of family members, we share close proximity, providing us with congruence of values, character, hearts and passions. It is a pretty special chemistry. Since it has been a successful model in our family with the second generation, we extended it to the third generation.It works because of our Christian core of respect, listening to elders, and aligning with the undying truth. Without those principles, younger generations may come to the same conclusion but after it is too late—the opportunity has passed. So we listen well, are really close to each other, and are able to bypass foolish living since we follow scripture. That means we see our life experiences as the epitome of faith and live by integrity. We see God’s hand of blessing in everything we do.
What part of your leadership style did you inherit and what part of that style is unique to you?
Well, I apparently inherited my hairline! I continue to learn from my father; even this week, I learned that a lot of my creativity and a bit of my entrepreneurial spirit came from Dad. I am not the consummate entrepreneur he is, but I have learned to always be looking for great new ideas, which has proved to be very helpful vs. maintaining the status quo. My father has a lot of vitality; he engages and is out there interacting with the business and the people. He leads from the valley, not the mountain top.I tend to be more participatory and collaborative in my leadership approach; I go to a lot more meetings than he has stomach for. For everything there is a season, and with this size and scale, we need more process and management of risk. Dad had a strong acumen for business that he went on, making decisions based on his internal compass. Our company is at a point where we are looking for ways to add new meaning and a sense of purpose for what we do. We are not just trying to make payroll, but are being very intentional about how we use this business to impact people’s lives. Just how far can we go in making a difference in the lives of individuals?
What inspired you to create that style of leadership? Were there any leaders historical or current you admired or that influenced you?
I will name just a few. I had the good fortune to meet Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, and attended some of his Saturday manager meetings. He was a powerful mentor with the rare ability to sit on the floor surrounded by associates, leading them in the Wal-Mart cheer one minute, and then put on a coat and tie and go to an analyst meeting in New York to talk about the business’s future and strategy at the 50,000 foot level.Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank, founders of Home Depot, were/are master retailers based in Atlanta. They, too, were able to put on the orange apron, walk aisles with genuine warmth, while understanding the bigger view of the construction industry. They really understood their market.Norm Brinker from Dallas was an industry innovator, creating Steak & Ale, Burger King, Chili’s, Macaroni Grill and several other well-known chains. He really understood the restaurant and hospitality business. I have been fortunate to drink from their experiences.
To what degree do you correlate great leadership with high performance?
Great leaders inspire high performance. We use the word SERVE to describe our basic leadership principles. S-shape the future, E-engage and develop others, R-reinvent continuously, V-value results and relationships, E-embody the values. Great leaders inspire others to high performance and model the behavior themselves. In communication, 80% is what we do, only 20% is what we say.
You are a strong Christian and religious principles are a visible factor in your culture. Please describe how that guides you.
The fundamental laws of nature have never changed, like gravity and basic engineering principles—they are timeless. The same God that built man in his own image, created those principles. At Chick-fil-A, we preserve the same timeless truth and principles. All we need to know about disciplines—those that guide us personally and those that produce success—truth, honesty, the conduct in personal relationships, how merchants and business people treat customers—come from the source of those timeless principles that link to our Creator. He wired us the way we are; the Bible is the manifestation of the very Word of God. These basic disciplines don’t come from business publications like the Wall Street Journal. In fact, we need to stay away from the gravitational pull of self-centeredness. It is important to memorize scripture and look for examples that inspire us, so we don’t become a victim of our own self-centeredness. I have tried to forget living my life my way and ask Jesus to come into my life and rebuild the thought processes that turn me toward others instead of turning me toward myself. That approach produces the type of inspirational leaders we need today. All leaders that embody integrity, whether they acknowledge it or not, are living off principles designed by our Creator.
What brought you to Kansas this weekend?
We held our first ever father-son campout with 185 in attendance. We had a wonderful time. We aren’t sure how many marriages might have been saved last night; hopefully the strength of the memory may save someone from making a short sighted choice, or see them through one more day.
What advice would you give a new CEO/COO that desires to create and/or run a high performance company?
Find a set of really great mentors that embodies who you want to be in 20 years and inspire you to be the kind of leader you want to be.
As president of one of the nation’s largest family owned businesses, Chick-fil-A’s Dan T. Cathy represents the next generation of leadership for the Atlanta-based quick-service chicken restaurant chain founded by his father, S. Truett Cathy. Eager to incorporate his own skills and talents into the business, Dan has taken an unconventional, yet personally and professionally rewarding approach to Chick-fil-A leadership.
Since 2001, Dan has served as the president and chief operating officer of the 1,480-plus unit chain (as of February 2010), but he also has personally challenged himself with upholding Chick-fil-A’s efforts to provide genuine, heartfelt hospitality, and ensuring that customers chain wide have an exceptional dining experience when visiting a Chick-fil-A restaurant. In his quest to provide customers with “second-mile” service (exceeding even the highest expectations of a typical fast-food restaurant), Dan has defined a special role for himself – humbly saying, “I work in customer service.”
Rather than leading from his corporate office in Atlanta, Dan chooses to spend the majority of his time traveling to the chain’s growing family of restaurants and interacting with Chick-fil-A’s committed team of restaurant Operators and team members. His actions stem from a belief that working in the field provides a clearer understanding of the ever-evolving wants and needs of Chick-fil-A customers, and leading from the front line also enables him to personally convey his servant spirit to the chain’s 57,000-plus employees.
The majority of his travels include participating in grand opening ceremonies for new Chick-fil-A restaurants. In yet another example of how he keeps in tune with customers and employees, Dan attended numerous restaurant openings last year, spending the night in restaurant parking lots along with hundreds of customers who were vying for a chance to win free Chick-fil-A food for a year as part of a special customer-focused promotion the chain conducts in conjunction with new restaurant openings. Reflecting on these experiences, Dan notes, “I’m having the most fun I have ever had at Chick-fil-A.”
Several major marketplace awards recently have affirmed the commitment and performance of Chick-fil-A Operators and team members. In early 2008, BusinessWeek and J.D. Power and Associates named Chick-fil-A among the top 25 “Customer Service Champs.” Chick-fil-A ranked 22nd overall, and was one of only two restaurant concepts listed. Also In 2009, Chick-fil-A received Restaurant & Institutions magazine’s “Choice in Chains” award for the 16th time in 16 years, as well as topping QSR magazine’s 2009 Best Drive Thru in America survey for the sixth time in the 12-year history of the study. During 2007, Chick-fil-A was recognized as first in overall service in a survey jointly conducted by Zagat and NBC’s “Today Show.” In 2004, Chick-fil-A was honored with Fast Company magazine’s inaugural “Customer First” award; and was the highest rated quick-service chain in the South in J.D. Power and Associate’s Customer Satisfaction survey.
Dan’s nearly lifelong career at Chick-fil-A began at age 9 as he sang songs for customers and did radio commercials for the chain’s original “Dwarf House” restaurant in Hapeville, Ga.
After receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from Georgia Southern University, Dan returned to Chick-fil-A where he served as director of operations – opening more than 50 new Chick-fil-A restaurants throughout the country.
As Chick-fil-A continued to grow, so did Dan’s responsibilities with the company. He has served as senior director of operations, vice president of operations and executive vice president prior to being named president and chief operating officer.
As dedicated to Chick-fil-A as he is, Dan also finds time to give generously of his time and efforts in the community. Following is just a partial list of his awards, affiliations and associations:
- Member, Board of Trustees, Berry College
- Member, Board of Councilors, The Carter Center
- Member, The New Hope Baptist Church (and trumpet player in the church band)
- Sunday School Teacher, 12th Grade Boys – Youth teacher for 37 years
- Member, Board of Atlanta Metro Chamber of Commerce
- Member, Board of The Malizia Clinic
- Advisory Board, Heritage Preparatory School
- Recipient of the Outstanding American Award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame – 2003
- Honorary Doctorate Degree from the State University of West Georgia, Anderson College and Carver Bible College
- Honorary Doctorate of Humanities Degree from Anderson College – 2005
- Honorary Doctorate from HBCA Entrepreneur Summit
And in his “spare” time, Dan earned his Airline Transport Pilot license and has completed numerous marathons in Atlanta, Orlando, Los Angeles, Boston and New York. Additionally, Dan is a passionate trumpet player, gardener and an avid motorcyclist.
A native of Jonesboro, Ga., Dan has been married to the former Rhonda Palmer (whom he met while in the 1st grade at age 6) for more than 37 years, and has two sons, Andrew and Ross.
His personal passion is to see the fulfillment of the Chick-fil-A Corporate Purpose: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.”