Contrary to how most businesses operate, Truett uses the Bible as his business guide in running his restaurant. The employees are trained to respond to “Thank you” with “My pleasure.” Their mission statement is also something unique to them: "To glorify God by being a faithful steward to all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A." Apparently, there’s more to Chick-fil-A than their slew of mouth-watering dishes. The man behind it is not slowing down in spite of his age. As long as he is breathing, he is determined to make the most out of his remaining days.
Like Paul of the New Testament, Truett knew what it’s like to live in poverty and to live abundantly. The sixth of a couple’s seven children, Truett was born in Eatonton, Georgia on 14 March 1921. Their family later on moved to Atlanta, Georgia after his father lost his job. His mother eventually became the family’s breadwinner. They bought a small house which they opened to boarders just to get by.
Truett often helped his mother in the kitchen. That’s when he learned how to set the table, wash the dishes, cook, and run a business. His father grew distant and bitter because of his failure to provide for his family. Unfortunately, this led to a strained relationship between him and Truett. Needless to say, he grew up closer to his mom who was a very hardworking woman. She’s working seven days a week but despite her busy schedule, she still finds time to get her kids ready for Sunday service.
Going to church has become a way of life for Truett but he admits that he became a Christian only when he was 12 years old. Nonetheless, he grew up surrounded by people of all kinds. Although life was hard, the people around him made it seem like a great adventure. Jeanette McNeal is one of the people he loved being with. The young girl reminded him of Shirley Temple—she has blue eyes like Shirley and could also carry a tune. Little did he know that the blue-eyed girl would later on become a big part of his life.
Getting into Business at Eight Years Old
Truett’s mother would often bring the young boy with her when she buys groceries. It came to a point when she left that chore to Truett who was more than eager to help out. One day while he was in the grocery store doing an errand, he noticed that he could make money by peddling Coca-Cola to her neighbors. It became a hit and soon he found himself buying carts of soft-drinks to keep up with the demand.
At times when it gets cold and people don’t want to drink Coke, he sold magazines and newspapers. It’s easy to see that Truett has a natural flair for business. He was into the newspaper business from 12 years old until he turned 19. What he only wanted at first was to help out in their day to day needs but he soon figured that he’s quite a good salesman. He was also quite competitive for a young boy. As he recounts in an interview with Susan Hoffman:
"I didn’t mind waking people up at eleven thirty or twelve o’clock at night. Needed one more star to win a trip to Jacksonville Beach. They would start the paper, I’d put the paper behind the screen door, up on the rocking chair, to protect it from the dog and I’d be there rain or shine."
Becoming a Christian
His father’s bitterness towards life did not help their father-and-son relationship. If anything, it made the chasm between them bigger until he became a stranger to Truett. During his formative years, he was fortunate to have a Godly mentor in Theo Abby. The man recognized his need for a father figure and had him help with inviting kids around their neighborhood to attend Sunday School. It was also through Theo that Truett was led to Jesus Christ.
At 12 years old, Truett has become active in Sunday School. It kept his mind off the estrangement between him and his father. It was also at that age when Truett adapted Proverbs 22:1 as his life verse: "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” His mother helped him find a suitable verse and he felt a strong affinity towards that Biblical tenet from Solomon so much so that it ruled his entire life. In fact, he passed it over to his children when he became a father. His son Dan writes a touching article for Truett’s 92nd birthday that read:
"Growing up, He encouraged his three kids to find a verse in the Bible that we could claim as our own and share openly with others. When He was about 8 years old, he fell in love with the words of Solomon in Proverbs 22:1, "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” Now, 84 years later, he still lives by that verse and testifies to it every day. I know it is not by coincidence that he chose this verse, or rather that it was chosen for him... because I cannot think of a single day in my own life when I haven’t seem him live it out.
As leaders, we are called to be an example. It is by our actions, not our words, that others are changed and led to action, and that’s how my Dad has always chosen to encourage and inspire others… whether it be his business, family or Sunday school class.
He is a man of great character; a hard worker; a man of great vision and courage; with a sense of humility around everyone he meets. He learned a long time ago that true leadership comes with great opportunity and great responsibility, and he taught me that we all have unique opportunities every day to impact and inspire other people. He is still leading that way today. That said, there is no better example of "leading well" than Jesus, and Dad made sure to lead me to a personal relationship with Him above all else." (Source: The Cathy Family)
Joining the Army
Truett was a mediocre student in school. He excelled in business but struggled to get a C in class. One reason he found it hard to cope was his involvement in their family business which did not give him enough time to study. While his classmates could already read very quickly, it was hard for him to match their skills and even harder to compete academically.
For the longest time, he harbored insecurities thinking that he wasn’t as smart as his peers. But as he matured in life, he figured that success is not all about the grades you make in school. He even went as far as saying that those who succeed are usually people who are used to getting a C in school because they live their whole life striving to become better.
When Truett became of age, he was drafted in the military along with his brother Ben. However, they both had to be discharged because they developed rashes as soon as they were exposed to the sun. They got a sum of money out their short stint in the military and they decided to get into business using that as capital. Truett applied for a loan until they were able to pool 10,600 dollars which was all invested in their first restaurant called Dwarf Grill.
Dwarf Grill and Chick-fil-A
In 1946, Ben and Truett became restaurateurs in their own right. Dwarf Grill was such a hit because of its location. They were close to the Ford plant and the old Atlanta Airport which made it a lot easier for Truett to get regular customers. Since the beginning, he had wanted to put in only six days of work in his restaurant. A couple of years later, Truett married Jeanette, the blue-eyed girl who reminded her of Shirley Temple and they became parents to three kids: Dan, Trudy, and Bubba.
Although he was busy with business, he never set his family aside. His kids remained his priority. If there’s something he doesn’t want to happen it is repeating history by becoming estranged to his kids like how he was to his own father. He made time for them and his Sundays remained to be devoted to the Lord. He attended church and taught 13-year-old boys at Sunday School.
When he could not be with his kids, he would bring them to the restaurant where they would dress as dwarfs and sing for the customers. When they grew older, they were given odd jobs like washing the dishes or manning the registry. Truett raised his kids without making them feel entitled to his money. If they want something, they had to work for it.
Just as everything was going well with Dwarf Grill, he lost his two brothers, one of them Ben, to a plane crash. It was such a big blow to Truett who was very close to Ben in particular. They were partners in everything and it was difficult for him to accept that Ben was no longer coming back to help him with the business. To keep his grief in check, he spent his time growing the business until they had enough capital for a second restaurant.
The second Dwarf Grill was established in the early 1950s and was doing quite well until another tragedy took place in 1960. His second restaurant burned to the ground and he had to take a loan in order to come back up. Through it all, he trusted in the Lord’s goodness and claimed the verse “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
When he has enough capital to rebuild his second restaurant, he used the same location but changed it into a self-serving restaurant. Unfortunately, it did not pick up customers because they did not like the concept. For three months, Truett was at a loss. Ted Davis spoke to him and told him that they have plans of bringing KFC to Atlanta. He took this as a sign to travel and left everything up to God.
After taking a break, he came up with a fillet recipe. He figured that tenderizing deboned chicken took half the time so he decided to concentrate on boneless chicken breast. For the seasoning, he combined around 20 ingredients, just everything he had in his pantry so it would be hard to counterfeit. That led to the now famous Chick-fil-A recipe which soon became a hit. It became so big that restaurants want it. The Chick-fil-A recipe became known nationwide when they sold it at the Houston Astrodome. Thing is, Truett was concerned about maintaining the quality of the food. What’s admirable about Truett is that he knows where to go at times when he doesn’t know what to do. He never forgets to pray and he always gets answers. When the advent of malls started in the US, Chick-fil-A restaurant opened seven stores in The Greenbrier Mall. It was the beginning of their legendary rise.
In 1982, Truett and his top managers started to re-align their values to make sure that they don’t lose sight of their mission. They had a brainstorming session, which gave birth to the current mission statement of the company: "To glorify God by being a faithful steward to all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A." His employees had that engraved in a plaque and it still hangs in his office door up to now, something that reminds him of their never-ending work.
The WinShape Foundation
Chick-fil-A soon earned following and became the top chicken fast-food restaurant second only to KFC. To give back the blessings, he founded the WinShape Foundation. What it initially did is provide their employees, most of them young people, a 1,000-dollar scholarship grant. Not too big but enough to get them started in university.
The WinShape Program prospered and they now have partnership with schools and has built 11 foster homes. He wants to focus on kids because he believes that leading them to God is easier to do during their formative years. He’s written five books ever since: "It's Easier to Succeed Than to Fail," "Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People," "It's Better to Build Boys Than Mend Men," "How Did You Do It, Truett?: A Recipe for Success,” and "Wealth, Is It Worth It?"
At 92 years old, Truett has kept his good name intact. Does he now rest on his laurels?
“A reputation is something that you have to earn every day. It’s not something that you just have and that you keep automatically.”
That kind of answered the question.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Chick-fil-A Bowl
- Berry College
- WinShape Program
- WinShape Homes
- WinShape RetreatSM
- WinShape MarriageSM
- WinShape Camps
- College Program
- WinShape Wilderness
- WinShape International
- Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity
- Delta Sigma Pi Fraternity
Awards and Achievements
- 1946: Founded the Dwarf Grill
- 1984: Established the WinShape Foundation
- 1989: Published "It's Easier to Succeed Than to Fail"
- 1997-2005: Sponsored Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
- 2002: Published "Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People"
- 2003: Inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame
- 2004: Published "It's Better to Build Boys Than Mend Men"
- 2006: Honored by Ford's Atlanta plant in recognition of their 60-year relationship
- 2007: Ranked by Forbes as the 380th richest man in America
- 2007: Ranked by Forbes as the 799th richest man in the world
- 2007: Published "How Did You Do It, Truett?: A Recipe for Success"
- 2008: Opened a new restaurant called "Upscale Pizza"
- 2008: WinShape Foundation won the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic leadership
- 2008: Received the President's Call to Service Award
- 2009: Received Omicron Delta Kappa highest award, the Laurel Crowned Circle Award
- 2010: Published "Wealth, Is It Worth It?"
- 2010: WinShape foundation provided roughly $18 million to fund the development of foster homes and summer camp
- 2011: Received the Children's Champion Award for Family and Community from Children's Hunger Fund
- 2011: Inducted into the Indiana Wesleyan University Society of World Changers
- Served in the US Army during World War II
- Has written five books
- A portion of Jonesboro Road and McDonough Road in Henry County, Georgia, and Clayton County, Georgia was named after him
- Awarded more than $23 million in $1,000 scholarships in the past 35 years to Chick-fil-A employees
- Received the Norman Vincent and Ruth Stafford Peale Humanitarian Award
- Received the Horatio Alger Award
- Received the Boy Scouts of America Silver Buffalo Award
- 2012: Received an honorary doctorate at the Liberty University
Wikipedia (S. Truett Cathy)
The Cathy Family (Timeline)
Forbes (S. Truett Cathy)
Chick-fil-a (Chick-fil-A’s Closed-on-Sunday Policy)
Faces of Philanthropy (Samuel Truett Cathy Philanthropy)
The Cathy Family (Happy Birthday, Dad!)
Atlanta Business Journal (S. Truett Cathy applauded by President Bush)
BGEA (A Conversation With Truett Cathy)
Business Insider (Meet S. Truett Cathy, The 91-Year-Old Billionaire Behind Chick-fil-A)
GPB.org (Truett Cathy: A Conversation)