Beliefs Culture Ethics Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy dies, leaves legacy of faith in business

When he died, Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy had a net worth of $1.9 billion. - Image courtesy of Demoss Group (http://bit.ly/1ruCGVF)
When he died, Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy had a net worth of $1.9 billion. - Image courtesy of Demoss Group (http://bit.ly/1ruCGVF)

When he died, Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy had a net worth of $1.9 billion. – Image courtesy of Demoss Group (http://bit.ly/1ruCGVF)

The first time I visited the Chick-Fil-A headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, I was stopped in my tracks by the corporate purpose statement stamped on a plaque outside: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.”

In a time when many believers and business owners hide their faith under bushels for fear of what others may think, Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy let his shine. And it paid off big time.

Since its founding in 1946, Cathy’s chicken chain has grown to more than 1,800 stores across 39 states. It is famous for industry-leading quality and customer service, and the loyalty of its fan base is legendary. Today, Chick-fil-A is valued at approximately $5.5 billion and, when he died, Cathy had a net worth of $1.9 billion.

But more intriguing than the financial successes of the Chick-fil-A is the way it was able to weave Cathy’s faith into the corporate fabric without compromise. Cathy was a devout Southern Baptist who taught Sunday school to teenage boys for half a century. Because he believed that faith was not merely a private matter, it flavored the way he ran his business.

Chick-fil-A restaurants are notoriously closed on Sundays, a policy implemented in the 1940s when such policies were commonplace but one that has somehow remained. According to the company website, the reasoning behind the policy is as much practical as it is spiritual:

[Truett Cathy] believes that all franchised Chick-fil-A Operators and their Restaurant employees should have an opportunity to rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to do so. That’s why all Chick-fil-A Restaurants are closed on Sundays.

Truett Cathy (second from left) offering samples of the Original Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich. The company was known and even criticized for its charitable donations.

Truett Cathy (second from left) offering samples of the Original Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich. The company was known and even criticized for its charitable donations. – Image courtesy of Demoss Group (http://bit.ly/1ruCGVF)

To further imbue Chick-fil-A with his religious values, Cathy made generosity one of the organization’s corporate values. The company has donated more than $68 million to over 700 educational and charitable organizations. When an unexpected snowstorm pelted Birmingham, Alabama, Chick-fil-A delivered free food to stranded motorists. For every bowl of soup purchased in Tyler, Texas during the winter another bowl is donated to The Salvation Army to feed a needy person. They’ve given free food to weary firefighters, provided college scholarships to thousands, runs a long-term foster care program, and has raised millions to benefit causes ranging from cancer to diabetes.

Chick-fil-A was criticized for reportedly donating millions to “anti-gay” groups, but further inspection showed that media outlets had inflated such numbers. In order to substantiate such a claim, ill-informed journalists classified mainstream religious groups like Fellowship of Christian Athletes as “anti-LGBT” hate groups. Even still, Chick-fil-A responded by dramatically reducing its gifts to controversial organizations.

Despite bouts of controversy due to imprudent comments about gay marriage from Cathy’s son, Dan, Truett never let the public pressure him into running away from his religious roots. He wanted to remain true to himself and his beliefs until he finally crossed over from this life into the next.

“I’d like to be remembered as one who kept my priorities in the right order,” he said. “We live in a changing word, but we need to be reminded that the important things have not changed.”

Whether you agree with Cathy’s choice of priorities, it’s hard not to respect his commitment to them for 93 years, even when it cost him personally. There is little doubt that Cathy will be remembered as someone who stuck to what he believed was important. As a result, he has left behind more than a slew of fast food franchises; he has bequeathed a philosophy of faith in business that will doubtlessly live on.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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