An Inside Look at Chick-fil-A
Steve Robinson, former executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Chick-fil-A, reflects on his long-time history with the company and the core values of the Cathy family that have kept the family business thriving.
About the Guest
Steve Robinson reflects on his long-time history with Chick-fil-A, and the core values of the Cathy family that have kept the family business thriving. Find out what distinguishes Chick-fil-A from all the other fast food restaurants.
An Inside Look at Chick-fil-A
Bob: When Truett Cathy decided to expand his restaurant business from a single location to now opening multiple locations, he was committed to principles of good stewardship. One of those principles was to be careful in how you stewarded your reputation. Here's Steve Robinson:
Steve: His favorite bible verse was Proverbs 22:1: A good name is to be more valued than gold or silver. And for him, I think part of this was natural byproduct of the generation that he grew up in; the “Greatest Generation” that came out of World War II, came out of the depression. He didn't need any contracts, he didn't need any lawyers. His word was his bond, much like my own dad. So reputation was everything.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, July 23. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson, and I'm Bob Lepine. Today we'll find out what was behind the birth of one of the most successful family-owned businesses in America today. We'll hear the story of Chick-fil-A®. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. So, this is a nominee for tweet of the year:
Dave: Oh, really?
Bob: Yeah, it's one of my nominees. It's from my friend, Betsy Gomez, who works with Revive Our Hearts, Nancy Wolgemuth's ministry. She was teaching a group of Sunday school kids about the bible and the importance of the bible. And she was talking about how the bible describes itself as our food. But she hadn't really gotten to that point yet. She was talking about how Christians need to grow spiritually, and she said, “Kids, if Christians are going to grow spiritually, they need spiritual food. So, what is the Christian's food?” One little boy raised his hand and said, “It's Chick-fil-A”. [Laughter]
Ann: Smart kid.
Dave: Wow. That is a good tweet.
Bob: It is a great tweet and it really reflects how a lot of people feel about a chicken restaurant all around the country.
Bob: We have joining us today—I'm going to give him his most important title. We have with us today the President of the Board of Directors for Family Life.
Dave: There you go.
Bob: Who in addition, just happened to be the Vice President of Marketing for
Chick-fil-A for 34 years. Steve Robinson joins us on Family Life Today. Welcome, Steve.
Steve: Thank you, Bob.
Bob: When you started at Chick-fil-A—how many restaurants? How big was the company?
Steve: Just a little over 100 stores. All in malls. This was back in 1981.
Bob: Did you look at 1981 mall stores serving chicken and say, “This is going to be something really big someday.”?
Steve: I did think Chick-fil-A had the potential to be a really good brand. The fact that it was privately owned and had a great menu. It had a unique local operator model. I thought it had the underpinnings of being something really special. I never dreamed that it would become what Chick-fil-A has become.
Bob: From a hundred stores when you started, to—what is it today?
Steve: Well, when I left it was about 2150, and today it's over 2400 stores.
Ann: I can remember hearing about Chick-fil-A and we would go by one, but then . . .
Dave: Well, we didn't get to go because we were in Michigan . . .
Bob: There were no Chick-fil-A's in Michigan.
Ann: But we would go down south and we would see Chick-fil-A's, but then, at some point, it exploded. We were like, “What has happened? What is this place? What do we need to know?” So, you had a large part of that.
Steve: I had a role in it. And I had the opportunity to work with an unbelievable team. Really, teams. I got to work with Truett and the executive team. But I also had my own team in marketing. Probably the greatest team of all was the operators who run the restaurants. And as you read in the book, really are the primary marketing agents of the business.
Bob: And the book you're talking about is a book you've just written called, Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand. And I know that some of our listeners are thinking—so, we're going to talk about chicken? Well, secondarily we're going to talk about chicken. [Laughter]
We're really going to talk about values. We're going to talk about what's important, and how that built a company—as much as what was on the menu or as much as strategic decision making on the senior leadership team. It's the culture and the values that have made Chick-fil-A what it is today.
Steve: That's correct.
Dave: And as I read the book, I found it's about a lot more than just faith, cows, and chicken.
Steve: It is.
Dave: It's about leadership and character and how to lead a family. I mean, I'm learning things about being a husband and dad as I read a book about a restaurant. So talk about when you first sat down and got interviewed and started pursuing a job there. Why you decided to say, “I'm going to do this.”
Steve: Well, people ask me a lot, Dave, “What are some of the milestones of your Chick-fil-A experience?” And I tell them that one of them, one of the most significant was before I was even working there. It was during the interview process.
I was director of marketing for Six Flags over Georgiaand I got a call one summer evening in 1980 from Jimmy Collins who was the chief operating officer for Truett. I had met him before. I had a great job with Six Flags, loved what I was doing.
But Truett and Jimmy were looking for a marketing director to actually build their first marketing department. And Jimmy called me and told me that. He said, “Your name keeps coming up. Would you have an interest in talking to us?” And inside I was laughing because, first of all—they had turned me down on a deal to do a restaurant in the park, and I'm thinking, “If you had a marketing department, you would have done that deal with me.” [Laughter] So, knew he didn't have a marketing department.
The other reason I was laughing is because Diane and I had just gone through a major spiritual, at least an epiphany, for me, based on Malachi 3:8-12, where I had a complete paradigm shift about who owns what. And giving, and having loose hands, as opposed to tight hands. And we had made a significant commitment to our church to help build a new facility. We turned that pledge in two days before I got that call from Jimmy.
So I'm in the back of my mind also thinking, “This would be very unique if God moved this way this quick.” And I don't intend to over-spiritualize it, but that's what I was thinking about—those two things.
Steve: So, I told Jimmy, “Sure, let's talk.” I mean, I got my job with Six Flags after one full day of interviews. So I figured, what's two or three days of interviews? [Laughter] So, let me fast forward. It's now December, 1980—I'm still interviewing.
Bob: This is going on for months.
Steve: It's going on over 4 months. And I'm doing it still and it's getting a little cumbersome. I do like the work I'm doing at Six Flags and the last thing I need is for Spurgeon Richardson, my boss, to tell me, “You don't like working here?” [Laughter]
So, I'm in Truett's office, and this story is really foundational to what I learned Chick-fil-A was all about. About an hour into the conversation I asked Truett, “What are you looking for in the ideal marketing candidate? This conversation stealth is getting a little cumbersome for me. What are you looking for in the ideal candidate?” There's this long pause, and he puts down his Chick-fil-A sandwich. [Laughter]
He is totally stoic. And he says, “I have absolutely no idea—all I know is—whatever it is, I don't want to do it.” Long pause, and he's not smiling. But he says, “What I really care about is, can we enjoy each other's company? Can we have fun together? And can I trust you? Because if you come here, my intention is that you're never going to go anywhere else.” Then there was another pause. And he said that the most important decision we make here is who we invite into the business.
Now, I kind of had to push my jaw back up, because I'd never heard an answer like that in any interview process. And basically what he was telling me—and he did say, “I'm trusting Jimmy and others to figure out if you can do the work. I'm more interested in who you are.” That's what he was telling me. But he was also telling me that if you can do the work and if I can trust your character, you ain't going anywhere.
Ann: Meaning you wouldn't want to go anywhere.
Steve: You wouldn't want to go anywhere and I wouldn't want you to go anywhere. Here's the ultimate reflection of what that meant to my career—the number of times that Truett called me to his office to say, “You screwed up” or “I think you made a major mistake here” or “I do not understand what you're doing” was zero. Now, did I make any mistakes? You bet I did. And I talk about some of them in the book. So to answer your question, before they offered me the job, which, by the way, was still two weeks after that . . .
Steve: I knew this was a different kind of company, different kind of leader, a culture that reflected what his values were, and because it was privately owned, and because he was thinking long-term, not short-term, it had the potential makings of a great place to be a marketer and to build a brand.
Now that's all I knew, but what unfolded was an amazing marketing career, an amazing environment where he allowed me to attract the kind of talent. I tried to attract the talent with the same barometers that he was using. And empower them the same way he empowered me, and get out of the way.
Ann: So when you had someone you were hiring, did you tell them those same things? I hope we can have fun together . . .
Steve: I absolutely did.
Steve: I absolutely did. And one of my missions for the marketing department was for it to be one of the greatest places in the business to work, because people would have fun. They'd have freedom for innovation. They'd have freedom to move around; because if you can't move people around and match them with their giftedness and their passions (and those can change over time), then you run a higher risk of people leaving. We had an incredible team and we had people who loved what they did and loved working together.
Bob: In the business world, a company, a business may have a mission statement, they may have articulated—this is our culture, these are our values. To get that from a boardroom where a senior leadership team sits around and comes up with those things and puts them on paper—to get that into the fabric of a diffused company, where you're hiring high school and college kids to serve chicken sandwiches to people, but they need to represent those values? I don't know how somebody does that. So tell us how somebody does that.
Steve: Bob, you're actually asking the most important question about Chick-fil-A. And in my book, I suggest it's the most important question any leader ought to be asking about their organization: Why do we exist? And more importantly, does everybody in the organization know why we exist? Because ultimately, you want the same question being asked by themselves. Why do I exist? And does it connect with the mission of this organization?
Now the story of Chick-fil-A getting to clarity about that was at a point of crisis in 1982, when the price of money hit double digits—17,18 percent. Retail shopping went down. Malls just quit coming up out of the ground. My two million dollar promotional mistake hit the balance sheet and we had a serious cash flow problem.
Truett comes to the executive committee and says, “Okay guys, what are you going to do about this problem?” Well, the net of it was that we went off-site for two days and we did work on the plan. We tweaked it. We cut some expenses. We cut way back on the number of stores we were going to open. We froze any new hires for the year. But you know by the time a half day was over, that work was pretty well done.
And yet we knew that the other key issue in the business was that we had a young staff and a young group of operators. At that point, there might have been 50 staff members. There was an element of fear and concern because people had hitched their wagons to a pretty small, young business.
Dan Cathy was at one of the meetings and he said, “You know, I think we might need to turn the topic to how to help people understand what's most important here.” And we raised the question of why do we exist?
We spent the next day and a half literally (you alluded to this, Bob) writing words on paper, throwing it up on the wall, phrases, and the net of that day and a half was the first documented corporate purpose statement for Chick-fil-A: To glorify God, to remain a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us, and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.
Bob: Which says nothing about chicken.
Steve: Nothing about chicken. Here's how you permeate the boardroom, and ultimately the guest experience. Basically three ideas in that statement. Glorify and honor God. Positive influence, but it hinges on being a good steward, a faithful steward. That part of the statement was the most important part to Truett. He felt like if we were great stewards of people, talent, money, resources—those opportunities to glorify God and have influence on others would be a natural by-product of the business. And he was all about great stewardship.
Dave: Yes. So, I'd love to know—what does good stewardship look like in Chick-fil-A? What did that mean? How did you do that?
Steve: It's the big buckets you would think of. How you maximize good stewardship of the people you attract to the business. Don't just use people for what they can do for the business . . . what can the business do for those people? How can you help them become more effective? Not just professionals, but human beings? How do you use money? How do you prioritize the use of money? How much of it is focused on the home office and serving staff, and even for that matter, serving operators versus how much of it is prioritized to the guest experience?
You might jump to the conclusion, which would be correct, we came to the conclusion very early. If customer is king, then customer and the use of cash is going to be king. People, cash, and the other big stewardship issue for Truett was reputation. His favorite bible verse was Proverbs 22:1: A good name is to be more valued than riches, you know, gold or silver.
And for him, I think part of this was just the byproduct of the generation that he grew up in; the “Greatest Generation” that came out of World War II, came out of the depression. He didn't need any contracts, he didn't need any lawyers. His word was his bond, much like my own dad. So reputation was everything. That filtered into everything-relationships with operators, suppliers, staff, and ultimately all the way down to every team member the operators attract and hire. Because the operators understand that the team members are the face of the Chick-Fila-A reputation.
Dave: I know that when I drive through the Chick-fil-A in Parker, Colorado—I don't know if you've ever been there, but that's where my son lives, and so that's grandkids. And you know what the grandkids want every day for lunch is Chick-fil-A. [Laughter]
And again, really, we didn't have any in Michigan, so . . . I didn't know this until I read your book, but I drive through and I say to Ann, “This is remarkable—the way we are treated, the way I feel so valued by high school kids standing outside, taking our order from our window, and then through the experience of when we go in there. Then I read in the book that that's a word—remarkable and grace that's part of the culture.
Ann: Even how do you get the operator, as you call them, how do you cast that vision to that level?
Steve: Well you start by who you select as an operator. Chick-fil-A does not discriminate in any way—let me just say that right up front. But when you have perfected a recruiting and selection process as thorough as they have, on both the staff and operator side . . . And as I've testified, sometimes it takes months—and in the case of operators, it may take years to become an operator. They are thoroughly vetted, principally around two things: Do they have a passion to run a business? To lead a business? They don't have to have the money for it. But do they have the passion to lead and run a business?
And number two, can they attract, develop, and keep great people? You spend enough time with somebody and you will sense—it isn't so much what's on the resume—you will sense whether they can do those two things or not. And ultimately it's the second one that determines the first one. If they can attract, develop, and keep great people, they will be effective in running a great business.
Truett figured out that the Chick-fil-A operator was a way to replicate himself. That's one of the reasons he's so generous. So that's the first thing—who you select as a Chick-fil-A operator. Quality attracts quality.
Number two—you have to be diligent about the language you use. Purpose matters. Mission—to be remarkable. That was the mission of the business. You've not only got to use the word, but then you've got to illustrate and give behavior that reflects the word, and communicates that we're serious about this. Which also in turn affects the kind of people they attract, and they attract people actually, that are remarkable, naturally. Not forced.
Third, you have to have great communications. And the bigger it gets, the more complicated that is. But you have to have communication systems which includes training, development, as well as ongoing strategic tactical communications, where people not only know what's going on, but they can get it on demand. All the time, 24/7.
Bob: I want to go back to the power of that mission statement that you developed. And I want to ask you guys, because I know that there was a Wilson family mission statement—you guys developed one; right?
Dave: Yes, we did. And what really hit me, Steve, as you were talking was that remarkable word. I can remember the year—you know we had the mission of we wanted our family to glorify God, and we wanted to raise (we had three sons) warriors that we were sending into battle—spiritual battle. And so that's the goal and so we have a strategy to do that. But the word remarkable was something I applied, because everything Steve is saying applies to beyond leading a business or a restaurant. It's a family, it's a man, it's a woman . . .
Bob: In a church.
Ann: In a marriage.
Dave: So I often had this perspective and it really hurt our marriage, and me as a dad. I wanted our church to be remarkable. I had that. You know I'm a leader of a church, so I want this same thing that you're saying about Chick-fil-A. I want every person that walks in there-the people we hire to be remarkable. And I wasn't bringing that passion to my marriage and my family.
Until Ann sort of said, “Do you realize what's going on here?” And I'm thinking . . .
Why wouldn't I want my family, which is more important in the long scope of eternity? So I had to make a shift to say, “I want to be a remarkable husband and dad.” And I would say to every husband, dad, mom, wife listening—that's worth your life. Be remarkable at the most important things.
Bob: And to answer the question as a family. Why do we exist? Just to have that conversation around the dinner table. Why do you think God made us a family? What's our purpose? What are we here for?
Ann: I think that's a good question. If we aim at nothing, we will hit it.
Ann: Most of us in family and marriages—we don't have a purpose statement, a mission statement. Every business does. Why wouldn't we have that in a family, which is even more important in God's kingdom?
Dave: If a husband and wife have that discussion today, and a mom and a dad had that discussion today, it would change the future.
Bob: Which is why reading a book about covert cows and how faith and cows and chicken built an iconic brand—you might think that would be fun. It is—it's a fun book to read.
Ann: It's fascinating.
Bob: Anybody who likes Chick-fil-A—you're fascinated with the story. But when you start to go—what are the principles here and how do these apply in my marriage and in my family? You'll find they're transferable. These do apply, and this can revolutionize who your family is, in the same way it revolutionized the Dwarf House, and turned it into 2400 restaurants across the country. [Laughter]
Dave: I would add this—it's inspiring.
Bob: It is that.
Dave: That is what I felt when I read the book.
Bob: We've got copies of Steve's book, which is called Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand in our FamilyLife TodayResource Center. And let me just say, because there may be somebody listening with kind of a cynical, jaded, “Oh, this sounds just like a commercial for Chick-fil-A. I wonder how much they paid Family Life to air this.”
No, we love the principles behind this business and whether you're a church leader, a business owner, or as I said, a mom or dad building a culture in your family, there are principles here that are transferable. That's why we wanted to bring Steve on and talk about this today. Get a copy of his book, Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A . . . it's a fun book to read.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order your copy or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, our website is FamilyLIfeToday.com or you can call 1-800-358-6329. That's 1-800-”F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
A quick reminder about something special that we've got going on here this summer at FamilyLife. We are encouraging married couples to get stronger this summer and we've put together a workout plan to help you do that. I'm not talking about building your quads and your abs and your glutes; I'm talking about building your love and your relationship in marriage.
We've put together a workout guide; we call it the “StrongerForever” Workout Guide for Couples. It's free. And you can download it from us here at FamilyLife and a lot of couples have been downloading this and starting to do some of these exercises. And I have to tell you that one of the big reasons couples are doing this is because one of the couples that downloads the workout guide is going with us as our guests, all expenses paid, on the 2020 Love Like You Mean It® marriage cruise.
So, there's some additional incentive to be doing some workouts in your marriage because you might win roundtrip airfare, a night in the hotel before the cruise sets sail, and then passage on the Love Like You Mean It marriage cruise Valentine's week of 2020. The cruise is almost sold out, but we saved one cabin for you, and if you go to FamilyLifeToday.com to download the “StrongerForever” workout guide, you are automatically eligible—you're entered in the contest to win the cruise.
There is no purchase necessary to enter. The contest began on July 1—it's going to wrap up on August 30th. Official rules can be found at FamilyLife.com/strongerforever So, we hope you'll build a stronger marriage this summer and look forward to meeting one happy couple joining us on the 2020 Love Like You Mean It marriage cruise.
We hope you can join us back again tomorrow. Steve Robinson will be with us again and we're going to hear about what was a transformational spiritual moment in his life that was connected to his work at Chick-fil-A. I hope you can be here with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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