Sep 12, 2014

S. Truett Cathy, 1921 - 2014

S. Truett Cathy, a Southern Baptist businessman who founded the fast-food chain Chik-fil-A, has died at 93.

Cathy built a fast-food empire on a simple chicken sandwich and the Bible. He was known for his belief that Christian principles were good for business and business was a good expression of the Christian faith.

"I see no conflict whatsoever between Christianity and good business practices," Cathy said. "People say you can't mix business with religion. I say there's no other way."

Cathy was a life-long Baptist, named for the famous Southern Baptist preacher George W. Truett. Cathy was a member of First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ga., and taught Sunday school there even after becoming a billionaire. As a teen struggling with school, he was also inspired by the New Thought self-help writer, who wrote in his bestseller Think and Grow Rich that personal beliefs played a powerful role in personal success. Cathy wrote his own philosophy of success in a series of books, including It's Easier to Succeed than FailEat Mor Chikin, Inspire More People, and How Did You Do It, Truett?

He opened his first restaurant in Hapeville, Ga., just south of Atlanta, in 1946. The restaurant, which is still in operation, was across the street from a Ford factory and near the Atlanta airport. It was open 24-hours a day, serving people working on all shifts, but closed on Sundays.

The chicken breasts first used to invent the company's famously simple sandwich were breasts rejected by another Atlanta company, Delta, because they were either too big or too small for the airplane food packaging. Cathy spent four years experimenting and perfecting the "boneless, skinless breast of chicken served on a hot butted bun," the sandwich that would become the company's signature. The first Chik-fil-A sandwiches were first sold in Hapeville in 1961.

By 2013, the company had about 1,800 locations in the United States and annual sales of more than $5 million. Before he died, Cathy saw Chik-fil-A became the number one in US chicken-sandwhich sales.

Interviewed by Pat Robertson after being in the restaurant business for 50 years, Cathy said, "I realize it was just a simple idea. That's why I was able to do it. It was just a simple idea."

Besides the sandwich, Cathy attributed his success to his Baptist beliefs. "The Bible tells a lot about how to run a business if we just read it and apply it," he said.

The religious orientation of Chik-fil-A has sometimes caused controversy, as when Cathy's son Dan, the current president of Chik-fil-A, said same-sex marriage would bring God's judgement on America. In the controversy, the chain became a culture-war symbol.

More often, though, the religious aspects of Chik-fil-A could be seen in quieter statements. The company gave away $68 million, over the years, to more than 700 charitable and educational organisations. Cathy also started a foundation that funds 13 foster homes and a summer camp. He funded 20 to 30 student scholarships to Berry College, a Christian liberal arts school in Georgia, in addition to subsidizing numerous employee's furthering education. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Cathy pioneered the model of the charitable business.

The most noted business decision influenced by Cathy's faith was the fact he closed all stores on Sundays.

At Cathy's funeral at the First Baptist Church of Jonesboro, Ga., pastor emeritus Charles Q. Carter said he once asked about that decision.

"Truett, do you mind if I ask you a personal question, because I might need material for your funeral some day?'" Carter recalled asking. "How much money do you leave on the table by being closed on Sundays?'"

"You asked the wrong question," Cathy replied, according to Carter. "That was the best business decision I ever made. By honoring the Lord and respecting employees need for personal time, we maximize six days of business."

Megachurch pastor Rick Warren said in a Time Magazine tribute that "Truett was a man truly who lived his faith, welcoming the homeless into his own home, improving the lives of thousands of disadvantaged kids, and giving them help and hope. Even after becoming a billionaire CEO, Truett continued to teach his weekly Sunday School class for 50 years."

Dan Cathy, who took the charge of the company when his father retired, offered this tribute:

Cathy was buried in Atlanta on Thursday, Sept. 11.