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President Dan Cathy talks about Chick-fil-A's unusual keys to success

Dan Cathy, president of the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain, meets with store employees at a S Dale Mabry location Wednesday in Tampa. Cathy, whose father founded the company, credits its success to focusing on top-notch hospitality.

CAROLINA HIDALGO | Times

Dan Cathy, president of the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain, meets with store employees at a S Dale Mabry location Wednesday in Tampa. Cathy, whose father founded the company, credits its success to focusing on top-notch hospitality.

Running a company that put "glorify God" in its mission statement meant not opening Sundays. Yet the average Chick-fil-A store sold more in six days a week in 2011 than any other fast-food chain did in seven.

Its industry leading $2.7 million per store was $300,000 more than the average McDonald's, and its $4 billion in annual sales put the Atlanta company on track to pass KFC as the nation's ninth biggest.

At 91, founder Truett Cathy is chief executive, but son Dan Cathy is the savvy marketer calling the shots day in and day out. A champion collegiate wrestler who almost became a professional trumpet player, the younger Cathy feels right at home playing reveille camped overnight in a Chick-fil-A parking lot filled with fans hoping to win a year of free meals for being one of the first 100 in a new store.

Cathy, 59, spoke to the Tampa Bay Times about how the secret ingredient to the company's success is more than food.

What is the glue that made Chick-fil-A a chain?

Every bit of the DNA we learned from my father's first store, the Dwarf House Grill, a tiny restaurant he opened near the Ford plant in Hapeville, Ga., after World War II. It's all about knowing how to please the customer. You keep reinventing things to keep up with their lifestyle. But real hospitality remains timeless.

How do you maintain the corporate purpose of "glorifying God by being a faithful steward of all that has been entrusted to us"?

We run the business based on Christian family values. But we serve and employ everybody. We don't wear religion on our sleeve. We serve it in the cup.

How did your dad go from burgers to pressure-fried breaded chicken sandwiches?

A poultry supplier for the airlines was selling a boneless chicken breast that was too big for the trays. My father used our family fried chicken seasoning and, coming from a burger background, pickle slices and a burger bun. By 1967 we dropped the burgers and refined our business model to put Chick-fil-A in malls, then free-standing stores with drive-throughs.

You're highly rated for service by everyone from Zagat to Consumer Reports. How?

Training. It took us 10 years to teach teen employees to say "My pleasure" when someone thanks them (instead of "not a problem"). But we owe a lot to our operators. Last year we had 22,000 apply for about 90 positions. Two-thirds of them were our own employees.

Most similar chains sell franchises and keep a percentage of revenue. Instead, you own the stores, then charge $5,000 to an independent operator to run one for half the profits. The average operator earned $190,000 last year. Why does that business model work?

It puts our interest on the same side of the table as theirs. And by charging up front, we attract more entrepreneurs.

Gay rights groups protest your charitable foundation donation to Exodus International, a religious nonprofit that counsels people who believe they are gay to become heterosexual.

We believe in marriage regardless of definition. We are not in the politics of same-sex marriage. This is about preserving marriages about to be torn apart.

You put fresh flowers on the tables, give girls plastic princess tiaras and boys pirate swords and stage petting zoos and pony rides. What's next?

We're creating remarkable experiences unexpected in fast food. We offer to grind fresh pepper table side. When it rains, we'll get someone to your car with an umbrella to escort you. We're staging mom-and-son and dad-and-daughter date nights. We decorate and have limo rides, a violinist, flower stems and table service dining.

Why should business owners put their kids to work?

That's how I learned valuable lessons. At 6, I developed confidence singing at tables to total strangers and a few years later using a big knife to debone ribs. When dad counted the cash at home, my job was to make all the Lincoln heads face the same way. I created my own imaginary business. In my teens I almost became a professional musician but chose to follow my father.

How is he doing?

He is still the chief executive and reviews the payroll. He says he comes in so we cannot take him off the payroll for missing a day. In my 20s, when we were first business partners, I started calling him Truett, and we'd shake hands when we said goodbye. I quickly saw that's not how a family works. Now he's Dad and we hug and kiss on the cheek.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8252.

President Dan Cathy talks about Chick-fil-A's unusual keys to success 03/21/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 10:21pm]
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