A visit to Chick-fil-A reveals much about the organization. The facilities, usually crowded, are pristine. The employees, a rainbow of young (but during this recession not always so young) faces, inevitably are welcoming, smiling, helpful, polite and quick. The food is hot, tasty, reasonably priced, and healthy options are available. The menu is displayed attractively but there is no “value menu” with cut-price items (the patrons seem to find value in the restaurant’s regular offerings).
While locations are not on every corner, they are convenient and easy to locate in the areas where the company operates. A tasteful poster on the wall (there are several) talks about opportunities with the company and reveals that outlets are operated with carefully selected partner/managers, a very different model than that commonly seen at other fast-food franchises. The poster also talks about college scholarships provided to employees, one of the factors that allows the company to be highly selective in who it employs and gives it perhaps the lowest employee turnover rate in a high turnover industry.
Another tasteful poster shows the company’s philanthropic thrust (without calling it that) – aimed at providing life sustaining and building programs for challenged youth and families. One program is aimed at building stronger marriages.
If you visit Chick-fil-A on a Sunday, however, you won’t see any of these things. You won’t be able to get in. The place will be closed. The entire operation is closed on the Christian Sabbath at a cost that Forbes Magazine estimates to be in the neighborhood of $500 million in annual sales.
The Cathy family, owners of Chick-fil-A, is strongly Christian, but no religious icons decorate restaurant walls. No Christian tracts are handed out with the waffle fries. While an employee walks among the diners at their tables offering to refill drinks, no one encourages saying grace before their meals.
The recent protest over a local Chick-fil-A providing lunch to a group that promotes the traditional view of marriage focused a national media spotlight on the company. Dan Cathy, second-generation owner/executive, said that Chick-fil-A values everyone and isn’t “anti” anyone. He said that the company’s goal is to create “raving fans.”
I’ve run into some of those fans. Like my client in Cleveland, Ohio – third generation in a very large family business who could afford any restaurant but had his 30th birthday bash at Chick-fil-A. Or the porter at the Honolulu airport who saw my Georgia driver’s license (Chick-fil-A is headquartered in Atlanta) and told me to tell those Chick-fil-A people to open some locations in Hawaii (being acquainted with Dan Cathy, I passed on the message).
As a family business consultant for nearly thirty years, I have been fascinated with Chick-fil-A as a family business. I think the recent attention to the company obscures important lessons that it exemplifies. It has perhaps the strongest culture of any company that I am familiar with. It is a culture built on very clear values, reinforced by the company’s every action and decision. The culture is observable in the products, prices, promotion, and especially the people of the organization. The culture and values are visible, but other than the Sunday closing, not their Christian source.
That Chick-fil-A is a wholly-owned family business allows them the freedom to operate as they see fit within law and regulation. That Chick-fil-A’s and the Cathy family’s values are based in their religion gives them the means to more readily and easily formulate and communicate their values. Of course, actually practicing and living one’s values is always the hard part. Implementing their culture and values in a way that supports the on-going success of a business that has grown as large as Chick-fil-A ($3.5 billion in sales in more than 1500 locations) and that welcomes a large and diverse base of loyal customers is no small feat. Focus on politics or religion, in my view, can lead to loss of the opportunity to learn from Chic-fil-A’s success in building and sustaining its organizational culture as a way of building and sustaining its business – or the opportunity to enjoy a really good chicken sandwich and the best freshly-squeezed diet lemonade you’ve ever tasted.