Thursday, September 25, 2014

An Example Worth Emulating

S. Truett Cathy, one who "practiced what
he preached," leaves a strong legacy.

The old saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” is perhaps never more valid than when comparing what leaders say with what they do. Too often – whether they are politicians, executives in business, or cultural icons – leaders espouse high-sounding values, only to have behavior betray their supposed convictions.

A couple of weeks ago S. Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A, passed away at the age of 93. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who would be members of the “do as I say, not as I do” camp, he was a man who lived, worked, and served his fellow man in a manner consistent with principles and ideals he expressed. I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Cathy for a magazine article years ago, and found him to be a humble, non-pretentious, genuine individual devoted to helping to make the world around him a better place.

At the time he was phasing out his involvement in day-to-day operations of the fast-food franchise he started in 1946 in Hapeville, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, with a single little restaurant then called the “Dwarf Grill.” His sons, Dan and Bubba, were already taking the lead.

One of the most notable aspects of Chick-fil-A has been its steadfast resolve to close on Sundays, even in shopping malls where all other stores are required to open seven days a week. Before committing to place one of their restaurants in a mall, the Cathys always sign a contract exempting their business from that requirement.

I interviewed Mr. Cathy years
ago for a magazine article.
It’s often reported this practice is due to Mr. Cathy’s and his family’s “religious” beliefs. To an extent that’s true, but he always felt it gave their employees a day to rest and spend time with family, whether that included attending a worship service on Sunday or not. In fact, when I asked him about the store’s Sunday closing tradition, he quipped that in his business’s early days, “after six days of operation round the clock, the reason we closed was not we were all that religious, but because we are all that tired.”

Throughout his tenure as head of the privately held, family-owned company, Mr. Cathy and his sons operated according to two guiding principles:  
      - 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.

The latter principle, of course, would be hotly debated by those who viewed personal, pro-traditional family statements by son Dan as “intolerant” and “homophobic.” However, there has never been evidence of the Cathys or their company discriminating against employees, suppliers or customers on any basis, including sexual orientation.

Throughout his business career, Mr. Cathy was known for his generosity, including sponsorship of foster homes, college scholarships for restaurant employees demonstrating leadership and community service, a summer camp for young people, and various charity events, as well as his personal contributions to many worthwhile causes. Chick-fil-A also has long been recognized for having unusually low management turnover rates in the quick-service restaurant industry.

More than 30 years ago I was hired to serve as editor, and then director of publications, for CBMC (then known as Christian Business Men’s Committee). A running joke was when someone claimed to be a “Christian businessman,” the response would be something like, “Make up your mind – are you a Christian, or a businessman?” The implication being you couldn’t be both at the same time.

Thankfully, over the 20 years I served as a member of the CBMC staff I had the opportunity to meet hundreds of business people – top executives, middle managers and professional people – who daily demonstrated you could indeed pursue a career in the worlds of commerce and industry and still be a faithful, consistent follower of Christ. Mr. Cathy was one of them, an example truly worth emulating.

Proverbs 20:6 asks the question, Many claim to have unfailing love, but a faithful person who can find?” One could always be found in the person of S. Truett Cathy, who understood, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), and lived accordingly.

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