Want an inside look at Chick-fil-A?
In this episode, I’m joined by Steve Robinson, author of Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand.
Steve is the former Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Chick-fil-A, Inc. (1981 to 2015).
During Steve’s tenure, Chick-fil-A grew from 184 stores and $100 million to 2,100 stores and $6.8 billion and became one of the most iconic brands of our time.
Now, he’s here to share stories and insights from his career, including:
- Truett Cathy’s inspiring leadership
- A $2 million mistake that shaped him
- The importance of values
- Chick-fil-A’s inverted marketing model
- And more
MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE:
- Steve on LinkedIn
- Steve’s website
- Steve’s book, Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand
Steve Robinson: I’m a firm believer that if the brand is healthy, if the brand is growing, and what I mean by that is it growing in relevance to the customer, value to the customer, then finances will follow. Sales will follow.
Voiceover: You’re listening to the Build a Vibrant Culture podcast with professional speaker, coach and consultant Nicole Greer.
Nicole Greer: Welcome everybody to the Build a Vibrant Culture podcast. My name is Nicole Greer and they call me the vibrant coach. I have an incredible guest with me today. He is the author of Covert Cows and Chick fil A, How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand. This is going to be an epic podcast. Let me tell you a little bit about the author, Steve Robinson.
Steve is a consultant, an author and a speaker on organizational culture design and leadership, brand strategy development, marketing planning and distinctive advertising principles. I bet you know all about the cows. Mr. Robinson, don’t you love it. Robinson is a former Executive Vice President and the Chief Marketing Officer of Chick fil A, Incorporated and he did this from 1981 to 2015.
Prior to joining the company, Steve was the director of marketing for Six Flags Over Georgia theme park in Atlanta. And this role was preceded by marketing positions at two other Six Flags properties and communications manager at Texas Instruments. After beginning his career at Chick fil A as Director of Marketing, Steve went on to serve as Vice President of the department before becoming the Chief Marketing Officer.
In his most recent role, he was responsible for overseeing marketing, advertising, brand development, menu development and hospitality strategies. He is so worn out. But during Steve’s tenure Chick fil A grew from 184 stores and $100 million to 2,100 stores and don’t miss this number $6.8 billion, and it became one of the most iconic brands of our time. I’m worn out from reading all that good stuff. Welcome to the show, Steve.
Steve: Thank you, Nicole. It’s a treat to be with you. It sure is. By the way, they’re not missing me at all. This past year, they hit $20 billion in sales. So they’re still rocking and rolling.
Nicole: I know. That’s right. I was just there yesterday. So I’m contributing to the whole thing. I’m a part of the process. Well, I’m delighted to have you on the show. And you know, the first question I ask everybody that comes on the show is what’s your definition of leadership? So I just want to throw out that question and see what you think.
Steve: That’s an easy question. Well, I think the simple answer for me is turn around and see if anybody’s following.
Steve: I think great leaders earn followship. I think for me, personally, the greatest pleasure I took in my leadership was finding other great talents, empowering them, and hoping that they’ll grow to be leaders as well. So great leaders, my second point is great leaders produce other great leaders. And I was very privileged to work with awesome people, and many of them are now playing significant roles at Chick fil A.
Nicole: Yeah, that’s fantastic. Yeah. So I was reading your book, obviously. And again, everybody the name of the book is Covert Cows and Chick fil A, How Faith, Cows and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand. And Stan Richards who is the gentleman and the marketeer, who helped you put together the cow program, right? He said, you are a leader who is respectful and inclusive. And I love those two words. So how does a leader show great respect for their people?
Steve: Well, I think first this is gonna sound simplistic, but I learned the hard way. First by keeping their mouth shut, and listening, listening to people. Hear them out, you know, let them express their thoughts, their ideas, don’t prejudge what they’re going to say. Don’t cut them off short. And I have all the background experiences where I did that. I learned the hard way. But I really do think the best way to show respect is to be a great listener.
And the second one then is to ask a lot of questions and let people demonstrate how they can contribute. I think the other aspect of respect is I’m a firm believer, every one of us walking on the face of the earth was created by God and for His pleasure. And how do we unleash the personality and the embedded uniqueness in every person? And so part of I think being a respectful leader is also growing to know, trying to grow to know your people.
You know, what makes them tick? How do they think? What are their strengths? You know, what are some of the weaknesses? And playing to their strengths, and then encourage them to work on the things that will actually make them a greater contributor or a greater leader. So I think those are the top three things, I would say.
Be a great leader, and then empower people based upon what you see in them, and give them a chance to really thrive. And what happened for me, Nicole is over time, I was very fortunate to track a lot of people who, as it turned out were much better at doing what I was charging them to do, that if I tried to continue to do it. They were a lot better at it.
And in the process, creativity and innovation goes up. Teamwork goes up. And the great thing for me was I got freed up to do the kind of things that not only I wanted to do, I got freed up to do the things that only I could do in my role, which changed over time. And so there you go, that’s how I’d answer how you show respect.
Nicole: I love that. I love that. And I also love in the book that you said, there’s three things that a leader needs to be building. One is the business. And so what I think you’re talking about there is the, you know, the finances, right and our assets. Also, you need to be building the culture and building the team. So really a leader is leading three different initiatives.
Steve: Yes, yes. And I would actually start, I would probably change that order a little bit. I’d start with culture. When I joined Chick fil A from Six Flags, I don’t know that I realized how important culture was in an organization. Six Flags is a great company and a great brand. But it was a very transactional oriented, short term vision organization. I mean, that’s kind of the nature of the theme park business.
But when I got to Chick fil A I started to understand, there’s another way to think about the business. And that’s first, why does the business exist? What is our purpose? And implicitly then who are we trying to serve? In other words, who are the critical constituents of the business? And in what order? You know, is it ownership first, or is the customers first? Is it staff and operators first? Or is it customers first?
So understanding why we exist. And there’s a whole chapter in my book about how we kind of nailed down why Chick fil A existed. Corporate purpose, got written in 1982 in a really a very difficult time. So nailing down why it exists. The other key component of culture for me is what are the things that are non negotiable.
Some people use the word values. And I know a lot of people, you know, they’ll work up value, put words around them, throw them up on a chart. But I think values are only important in an organization, if people see decision makers, using them when they make decisions.
Steve: Yeah, and the most powerful values are the ones that simply are not negotiable. And there were five or six within Chick fil A. We eventually got those on paper. And so the first thing I would say that’s critical is culture. Know why you exist, know what is non negotiable, and know who you’re serving. And in what order. In terms of the health of the business, for me, it’s not just finances, and again, this will be a little counter to what some people would say, to me it’s to help with the brand.
I’m a firm believer that if the brand is healthy, if the brand is growing, and what I mean by that is it growing in relevance to the customer, value to the customer, then finances will follow. Sales will follow. Then you move into the whole issue of stewardship, and managing money and talent well. But those to me are the two critical components of a healthy business is a great, a healthy, growing relevant brand.
And then you manage the resources that that brand, quite frankly, the brand attracts. And that’s what’s going on right now with Chick fil A is the brand is attracting a lot of income. And it’s attracting an incredible army of talent. What was the third one?
Nicole: Yeah, so the biz, the culture and the team. You’re hitting on all three of them.
Steve: The team. So the team, I alluded to that earlier. It’s a cliche, but we don’t achieve many great things on our own. I’m a member of the National Football Foundation Board and one of the reasons I am was I love college football, principally because of what you learn in teamwork. I mean, it is a team game. I guess you have skill players, you have guys that can kind of take it to the next level when you got a great quarterback or tailback.
But at the end of the day, you better have those big guys up front blocking, and a fullback who can block or those, those stars don’t really get to maximize their talent. So for me, I’ve already alluded to it, I wanted to attract people who could do what we needed done better than I can if I continue to do those kinds of things myself. And even in the case of the cow campaign, which I talked about in the book.
I didn’t do the agency search, I delegated the agency search to David Salyers and Greg Ingram, and I told him when you think you have found the right agency, you come get me. And let’s go talk to them. But I’m trusting your judgment on picking the agency, because they were the guys that we’re going to work with them day in and day out, not me. And obviously they made the right selection.
Nicole: Yes, they did.
Steve: Yeah. And when I walked into that shop, when I walked through the Richards Group, I felt a similar culture to Chick fil A, I felt a family commitment to great creative, not just making money. The benefits of being privately owned by Stan. And it was like, obviously became a very, very good marriage for us. But that’s just one simple example of letting other people that are part of your team make big choices, make big decisions. They might not always nail it, but more times than not, they will.
Nicole: Yeah. So I want to ask you about your biggest mistake, because I think it’s so important for people to hear that. So we made such a great decision over here. But not everything you do is going to be perfect. But one thing about Stan Richards group in the book, everybody, I don’t know if you can see it. But in the book, he’s got a picture of the Stan Richards agency having a stairwell meeting. I just thought that that was fantastic. So just the culture of everybody in the stairwell, we’re having a meeting. I think that’s fantastic.
Steve: Well, he did that with all his clients. And he was hit the point was he wanted everybody in the agency to know who their clients were even if they were not directly working with that client. And I bet we had a two or three stairway meetings a year with Stan and his team.
Nicole: Yeah, and I love that. And I had my finger on the page, hold on, I’m gonna find it about the purpose. Here, I got it right here. So when I read the book, you were talking about how the timeframe when this was done, it was in tough economic times, right, early 80s. And so, you know, when time gets tough people, you know, they have to have a little faith. And so I love your purpose statement. It says, to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us, and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick fil A. What a beautiful purpose statement.
Steve: Well, the background is that was written in 1982. Let me tell you what led up to it because it was a crisis. Period. Price of money was over 18%. Interest rates. And we’re wailing and gnashing of teeth now when it’s at 6 or 7%. It was over 18%. Mall development came to a screeching halt. Well, so what. Well, that’s where we were building stores. All of our stores were in malls at the time. It just stopped.
Retail sales crashed over 30% including ours. So we had a serious cash flow problem, all of a sudden. First time Chick fil A had ever had sales decline. To make matters worse, Truett had signed his own personal assets to back up alone to build the first office building. 10 million bucks. Doesn’t sound like a lot today, but in 1982 for a $100 million business for a guy who has most of his assets wrapped up on a farm in South Atlanta, big deal.
And to make matters worse, we had run a promotion under my supervision, pretty typical fast food commercial promotion with coupons and in newspapers and direct mail. It was within the first 12 months I had joined the company and it blew up the budget. Went over budget by $2 million.
Nicole: That’s the big mistake I was talking about.
Steve: That’s the big mistake. And it was a huge mistake. So you got all, you got the price of money, you got declining sales, you got a corporate office building debt. And then here comes the new CMO piling it on with a $2 million over budget. Truett Cathy, who was the founder, came to our young executive committee and he said we got a serious cash flow problem and want to know what you guys are going to do about it. And of course, all of us kind of looked at each other and the other guys were thinking, well, you know, most of it was out of our control except but what Robinson did over there.
So we went off site for three days to figure out how we’re going to try to stay afloat because it was iffy. And by the end of the first day, we’d probably done all the things you would think we’d do. We froze hiring, we froze building stores, we cut the budgets, we approved rolling out a new product called Chick fil A nuggets, which we had no idea they’d be so popular.
Nicole: And adding soup to the menu, right?
Steve: Adding soup to the menu. And by the end of the first day, it looked like well, we might be able to manage this. And Dan Cathy, who was Truett’s oldest son was sitting there and he said, you know, we got over half of the staff and half the operators, who had been with us less than two years. I’m not sure all of them know how we’re looking at this issue. And what he was getting at was not just the numbers, but how we think about the business, and how we think about, what do we think in the midst of this kind of a crisis.
And he said dad, I really liked for us to try to nail down a clear statement on why you get up in the morning. You know, why do you come to work? Why are we in business? Now we all had a sense of what made Truett click, but it had never been put on paper. And suddenly, we have not just a few dozens of staff members and operators, now we have hundreds.
And that’s when we wrote that statement and in less than two days, we crafted that statement to glorify God with being a faithful steward, etc. Which he wrote. And it really captured three big ideas. Glorify God. Truett saw the business as a gift. Right up there with his salvation, quite frankly. He, you know, he said, listen, all that I am and all that I have is in his hands. So I hold this business with loose hands.
But number two, I want to make sure we’re being great stewards of what we do have on our hands. And number three, let’s do it in a way that is going to have a positive influence on anybody that comes in contact with Chick fil A, within the family or outside the family. Three big ideas. And that corporate purpose has stood the test of time, not one word has changed. It still sits out in front of that first corporate office building.
And I will tell you, Nicole, that over time, what really fascinated me about that statement was how practical it was because we were constantly running major initiatives and issues and decisions through that litmus test, that statement. I mean, we’re about to spend X or do this, or hire people to do that. Does it all doesn’t line up with this statement? Or is there any aspect of it we’re not sure about. And we tabled a lot of stuff. Or we would wait.
And quite frankly, make decision making easier. That’s my real message for your audience. When you have clarity about why you exist. And as I said earlier, what your non negotiables are, decision making becomes easier. And the other benefit of clarity around that is that you’re empowering everyone else in their organization to make decisions on their own.
Nicole: Litmus test.
Steve: Yeah. And people aren’t going vertical, whatever big decision. They’re in their own respective area, their respective groups. They know what they know what’s important, and they know what to do. And so it’s really only the biggies that represents some sort of astronomical shift in the business that ever reaches the executive committee.
So that purpose to serve the business incredibly well. I was with a group at Chick fil A staff just last week about 400. Just a little session talking about history. And I told them if you have not studied with Truett Cathy, if you have not read the history of the corporate purpose, if you haven’t heard him talking about it on videotapes in past meetings, shame on you.
Because even though the man has graduated and gone to heaven, you still work for him. Because that corporate purpose hasn’t changed. So therefore you still work for Truett Cathy. And it’s still a family business. Now, it’s a big one. But it’s still a family business. I can’t overstate the value of clarity around purpose and values.
Nicole: Yeah, and you know, the third point in here is to have a positive influence in an all who come in contact with Chick fil A. But one of my favorite. I’m a big fan of stories. I think they’re such good teachers. So you have a beautiful story in here about a gal named Martha. That wouldn’t put a smile on her face. I just think that is fantastic. Because I do tons of customer service training. And you know, I tell leaders all the time, just get up from your desk, walk around, smile at people, make small talk. It goes a long way. Will you tell a little bit about it.
Steve: But first, I’m gonna finish something. The point I want to make about that $2 million mistake. I walked into Jimmy Collins office who was the CEO about a week after that thing hit the market and exploded. And I apologized. I said Jimmy, I was too aggressive. Quite frankly, I was probably arrogant. And as I think about it, we just did a promotion on steroids that looks like everybody else in the fast food business. And I’m sorry.
And Jimmy said, well, don’t worry about it. I spoke to Truett and I assured him that I’d been involved in the decision. And he said we we just invested $2 million in your education, you’re not going to make that mistake again. But the other upshot of that, Nicole, was it completely reshaped how we looked at marketing at Chick fil A. We decided we’re not going to discount or we’re not going to coupon at Chick fil A ever again.
We’re going to take most of the money in marketing instead of spending it at the national level where we’re actually far from the customer and far from the operator. We’re gonna funnel that money and that marketing support through the operators at the restaurant level. And that is still the model that Chick Fil A’s quite frankly, it’s an inverted model to most of the industry. But I don’t think it would have happened if it hadn’t been for that mistake.
Nicole: Let me add, let me double tail on that a second time, because one of the things you said is because we talked about what is your definition of leadership? And then you said you couldn’t believe the amount of patience and grace these leaders had with you. So two more great qualities of a wonderful leader, right.
Steve: Clearly, Jimmy demonstrated patience and grace when he told me that. I asked him shall I go upstairs and apologize to Truett, and he said, I wouldn’t go up there right now. I’ve taken care of it. He understands that you are not alone in that decision. So grace covered me. Quite frankly, being that early in my career, it taught me that I learned that they had not lost their confidence in me.
And I found Chick fil A over time to be one of the most empowering environments you could ever imagine. The ability to innovate and think outside the box was unbelievable. As you can tell by a lot of the stuff we did. Now the story about Martha is not one that I personally observed. It’s one of the Jimmy tells. And I think I give him credit in the book. They were at a grand opening early in the life of Chick fil A in one of their malls.
And Jimmy and Truett are both there to help open the store, help train the new operator and his or her team members. And behind the counter, there’s this young lady named Martha who, she’s just not smiling. I mean, she’s doing her job. But she’s not smiling. She’s not really engaging with the customer. So Truett says to Jimmy, would you go over there and please ask Martha to smile at the customers. Jimmy does. I’ll shorten the story.
This exchange happens two or three times where nothing improves. Finally Truett goes over to Martha and he says, you know, you have got to really stop doing that. And she said, well, what are you talking about? You’ve got to quit smiling all the time. People wonder what is going on with you? And she looked at him and he said yeah, you got an incredible smile and you smile and they don’t remember why they walked up to the counter.
I mean, he absolutely psyched her into a smile. And sure enough, she kept right on smiling. And Jimmy’s point was people are much more, when he tells that story, people are much more likely to follow through personal influence, rather than position power. Jimmy was using position power to try to persuade her and that isn’t what Truett did. And he never forgot it. He told us story hundreds of times and he allowed me to put it in the book.
Nicole: It’s a fantastic little story. I love it. Yeah. And so I love in the book, you have a whole section where you talk about the principles of Chick fil A culture and it starts with the purpose. Would you share a little bit more? I mean, I go places. I do, like I said, lots of customer service training and lead groups and leadership teams to think about their culture. That’s what I do, and they’re just flummoxed. Like, how does Chick fil A do it? So I’ve got the guy right here. Tell us how they do it.
Steve: I’ll tell you how they do it. One is clarity about what purpose and values are. We’ve already talked about that. But the hard work is to attract talent, to attract people, who can live those things out. And Truett often said, including when he was interviewing me, we don’t train culture here, we hire it. Now there’s nothing embedded in that that implies discrimination of any sort. What he’s really saying is we do our homework. We want to make sure we attract people to the business, that look at life and treat people the way we do already.
And his point was that every hire we make, whether it’s an operator, an independent operator, or staff member, is either adding to the culture or hurting it. And one of the great things about the Chick fil A operator model where operators are sharing in the profitability of the store 50/50 with Chick fil A is because they have such a vested interest in the performance of the restaurant and the bottom line, what happens they spend more time making sure they attract great talent to the restaurant.
So if the home office is very, very diligent about which candidates they select to be an independent Chick fil A operator, which they were and still are, if they’re very diligent about that, and they have picked the right operator candidate, the trickle down effect is the operators are going to attract great people as well. They’re gonna attract talent, to think and behave like that operator does.
The operators, because they have a vested interest in the talent not only attract better talent for the short term, they actually invested in them, they help develop them. And gosh, a lot of operators, almost half of the operators joining the Chick fil A family today, grew up in a restaurant. In other words, they were first attracted by an operator. And these young people mature and improve their capability, fell in love with the business. But they wouldn’t be in the business if Chick fil A hadn’t first picked the right operator. And that’s my point.
So last year, I think they selected something like 130 operators out of over 10,000 candidates that applied. When you have that many opportunities, hopefully you’re making a lot of really good choices. But those and I was with a couple of great operators just this past week. One was, I think one was 28 years in the system and the other one was 27 years. And Nicole, they’d each given back to the business over 10 operators each.
Nicole: That’s amazing.
Steve: Okay, so that’s a long answer to how do you develop culture is clarity, but how you develop it is attracting and keeping the kind of talent that will sustain it. That will build it and sustain it. And in the case of Chick fil A, it’s not only staff members, but it’s those independent contractors in the restaurants because there are now something like 200,000 team members out there in those restaurants.
Nicole: Crazy number.
Steve: Crazy number. And if you or anybody else out there has a consistently nice, pleasant experience going to a Chick fil A restaurant, it’s because somewhere in the chain of events back at the home office, somebody made a proper judgment in offering that operator the chance to join Chick fil A.
Nicole: Yeah, you know, on page 29, you’ve got a little note in here. You said Truett’s motivation was clear. I’m not interested in your money, I’m interested in your ability. After decades of observing great operators, I believe that Truett looked at two key traits: their ability to attract, develop and keep great people and their passion or their fire in their belly. As I like to label it. He looked for operators who were never content with the status quo and who are always looking to improve food, consistency, service and sales. I put a circle around that.
Steve: Let me illustrate that. One of the guys I was with yesterday, I won’t give his name or where he is. But one of the guys I was with, not yesterday, but Friday. I’ve known him since he was in a mall restaurant. His sales in that mall restaurant his first year were probably about $300,000. And I’m guessing his income was maybe $30,000 or $40,000. That operator today is running two restaurants and satellite locations around a college town. Last year his businesses, his only businesses did $30 million in sales. And his income is seven figures.
Nicole: That’s epic. That’s wonderful.
Steve: It’s epic. Now, I talked about in another place in the book, the part of the genius of Chick fil A culture is this operator deal and the fact that it’s never changed. Now if Chick fil A suddenly went public, what do you think a public organization would do? They would never dream of letting a guy running some chicken restaurants make seven figures?
Nicole: No, we’ll give that to the stockholders.
Steve: Give that to the stockholders. Truett’s attitude was the operators were basically a half net partner in the business. They earn it, they get to keep it. The other side of it was the other half was his. And he was totally at ease and peace. And so was his family with operators having agreement that was open ended generous. I don’t know any other way to describe it. It was ingenious that attracted great talent, but it’s generous. And as a result, you don’t have anybody trying to copy it.
Nicole: Right, and it magnifies, you know, God, right. That’s a quality of God, generosity. So that’s fantastic. Yeah, and so the other thing that is ingenious about Chick fil A, and this is on page 79 is your marketing model. And, I just want to say this before I read this is so I work with a lot of people who are very frustrated because they know how to attract customers to their building, but they don’t have a budget.
They’re not empowered to spend $1. I was working with a gal who is in business development, and she says I just want a banner, I just want a banner out front. That’s all I want. And I can’t get the money to get a banner. Just something silly like that, that might cost a couple 100 bucks or something.
So this poor gal, you know, she’s on a corner where she could get a lot of drive by traffic. So anyways, here’s what you wrote in the book. I know, you know what it says, but my leaders needed to hear this. So years before Chick fil A became a national brand, we flipped the model for funding and executing marketing upside down.
Even now, restaurant operators and market operator teams, not the home office provide 80 to 85% of the tactical financial support for execution of brand marketing. We provide them with tools and training, but they finance the participation in the execution. And I’m like, what if we gave this gal a little budget? What will she do for her business?
Steve: The operators, both individually and as a group and their markets are deciding how much money to spend on marketing their business. But they understand I have to do it within the creative boxtop that Chick fil A gives them, that we gave them. They can’t run out and just create their own creative. But there’s an assortment of resources that they can choose from on a digital marketing platform. And literally we call it a brand builder.
So yeah, I mean, these contractors, independent contractors are not just capable of running a restaurant, they’re capable of building it. And they are motivated to build it. They’re empowered to build and they’re resourced to build it. And I alluded to it earlier, but that upside down model that I described, which will be like this, the complete opposite of the model in other fast food businesses where all the money in the control is at the top.
And that really came out of the $2 million mistake, where we said, you know what, we’re not gonna spend all this money out of Atlanta, we got these great leaders in the restaurants, we’re going to empower them. We spent several years developing resources so they could do it the right way. And the home office still all about that. And the evolution of it, Nicole, was that spread beyond just marketing.
It spread to developing the hospitality model. It spread to how do we develop digital interface platforms with customers. You go through a drive thru at Chick fil A, you don’t talk in a squeaking box, you talk to a real person. Well, that system was actually developed in the marketing group.
But it was all based upon giving the operator what they need to build their business. We’ll do for them what they cannot do for themselves. They can’t create the cow campaign. They cannot innovate menu items on their own. They can’t build kitchens on their own. They can’t even build all the back of house technology to make a hospitality model like that work.
We’ll do that. But we’ll give them what they need to leverage their talent and the talent of all their people. So I go through Chick fil A today. I saw them walk around with that handheld technology capability to take care of me, ask my name, take my order, take my payment, I’m through there in less than two minutes.
I mean, I was around where it was developed and I’m still amazed that they get the orders right. And they say my name. They can bring the order out to the car. Steve here’s your order. Anybody else doing that?
Nicole: No, no.
Steve: And nobody’s gonna do it. Because yes, there’s incredible genius at the home office. But it only works because of the leadership in every restaurant.
Nicole: Yeah. So I love that. And I’ve got a question for you. So my son lived here in North Carolina went to Appalachian State. Day he graduated, he’s like, Mama, you know how you say you’re supposed to live your dream? Well, I want to move out West. So when I’m not working, I can go hunting and fishing. I said, okay, let’s, let’s figure out how to get you out where you want to go. So he applied for a position out in Billings, Montana.
And so we have missed him not being around the corner. But he’s thriving, totally thriving out there. Well, he texted me because part of your book talks about how you know people wait two days for the doors to open to the Chick fil A.
So he texted me and he said, there’s going to be a Chick fil A in Billings, Montana. This was groundbreaking epic news and I get the updates. And apparently the line was around the building, messing up the traffic and everything the day that it opened, and the boy is so happy because he can get a spicy chicken deluxe.
Steve: Good for him. Tell him I appreciate it. Because I have a pension program. Thank you.
Nicole: I’m curious. I was out there a Christmas ago. And it was like 15 degrees below zero. So I, you know, you guys are gonna have to figure out what kind of suits you’re gonna put your people in outside.
Steve: You notice some of those stores, almost all of them that have a permanent structure or canopies. And there’s heaters mounted in those canopies. They can work year round.
Nicole: That’s great. That’s great. Well, I want to ask you a question about generations, because one of the things everywhere I go, is people talk about all these generations, and these young people and this and that. And, I’m not a big believer, in separating people into generation, because I feel like, you know, I agree with you, you know, let’s just hire the person who has the right philosophy, core values, belief systems, that’s going to help a lot.
And that can be across, you know, all the different generations. But you do have a little section in here, about Truett being part of the greatest generation. And so will you talk a little bit about that? Because there aren’t many of those people in the workforce anymore, but they still are having an influence and I’d like to hear your take on generations.
Steve: Well, he was in the same group as my own father. If the audience out there has not read Tom Brokaw’s two books on the greatest generation, I highly recommend them. Truett came back from World War Two. And with his brother, they borrowed, I think they borrowed like $6,000. They accumulated some more of their own money and they bought this little house in South Atlanta. They put in six booths and 10 stools, and that’s where they started the Dwarf Grill. 24 hour grill.
Now, the reason I started with that, because Truett didn’t come back expecting anybody else to make sure he had a roof over his head and food on the table. We unfortunately have, I fear grown a generation with too many who feel that somehow the culture or the government owes them something. These people came back, I don’t work, I don’t eat. And that drove creativity and it drove investment. And so when you look at the post war, late 40s and the 50s oh, my goodness.
I mean, you think about the things that came out of the ground in America in the 50s. I mean, I’m not going to start listing them. But just go back and look at the sudden boom of technology, manufacturing, innovation and productivity and agriculture. Well, that’s because you had all these, these Greatest Generation young men and women coming back, and they had to provide for their families and they had their own dreams of how they wanted to do it.
And they innovated. For Truett, it was a restaurant business. And for my dad, he and a brother sort of hybrid seed corn business down in South Alabama, but nobody else was going to take care of them. And so I think part of what we benefited from, having Truett around for so long, was someone who don’t work, don’t eat. Now, let me illustrate it beyond him. He had three children. He had 12 grandchildren.
So second generation 3, third generation 12. I think fourth generation is something like 24, 25. Very early he set up a policy with his kids and then his grandchildren. If you don’t work at the home office, and/or you don’t become a Chick fil A operator, you’re not going to generate any money from Chick fil A. I’m not paying you to be just because your last name was Cathy.
And in fact, he also had an additional rule, you cannot become either staff member or a Chick fil A operator until you’ve worked at least, after college, expected, you’ve got to work somewhere else at least two years. I don’t care where you work, who you work for, or what industry it is, but you got to work somewhere else, at least two years.
Because he wanted them to come back to Chick fil A with some sense of what the world is like outside. Outside the Chick fil A sphere. And that is, I tell you, that is still the family policy into the fourth generation.
Nicole: And you say in your book you say your dad and Truett had these three traits. And I guess that’s what he’s trying to do all the way to the grandchildren. You got to be hardworking, persevering and incredibly loyal.
Steve: Yes, that’s exactly right. He would go the extra mile in terms of giving you room to make mistakes. As long as he knew you were working hard and you were loyal. If he says someone was not loyal, and was really not acting in the best interest of the business, he didn’t have any problem doing that dealing with that. He didn’t have to do very often. But he would, yep.
Nicole: And I think the other thing too, that’s so great about Chick fil A, that you had just a little like part of a bigger sentence. But I just love this. You said, we operate equal parts head and heart.
Nicole: Will you talk a little bit about head and heart and how we might balance it.
Steve: Well, I think the evolution of that began with Truett. I mean, he was running a little diner. He didn’t work in the kitchen, he worked at the counter. He would go out of his way to find great talent to work in the kitchen. And many of them stayed for decades in that diner. But he worked the counter because he wanted to get to know every customer and he’d walk around the dining room and talk to them. My point is yes, he was interested in growing transactions.
But more importantly, he wanted to grow relationships. And I think that’s one of the reasons he was so attracted to the whole idea of the operator model where operators were bested in half of the profit of every transaction. Where operators would just not look at people as a transaction. But as customers, they didn’t want to lose, you know.
So one of the best ways to not lose a customer is actually get to know them and interact with them. Now, when you’re doing the kind of volume you’re doing now it’s hard for operators to interact with every customer. But they’re still putting people out there with a face and a smile interacting with every customer.
Truett realized that if he was out actually interacting with customers, he would have a sense, when somebody was not only having a great day, he’d have a sense of when somebody was having a bad day. It wasn’t unusual for him to do something totally off the cuff. Comp their meal, give them a free pie, go visit somebody they found out in their family that’s sick.
He just had a natural bent towards getting to know people, and then maybe little things, but in some way, touch their lives. Now, I think at the end of the day, he simply wanted to earn the right for somebody to ask him why do you behave the way you behave?
Nicole: Right. So he could give a testimony, am I right?
Steve: That’s it. That’s it. But he never soapboxed his testimony. Never. He earned the right to be heard. And he would only speak if you set him up. If you asked. So easy on every operator, that same kind of platform, you know, earn the right to tell people why Chick fil A is different. So that, to me is the, there is a place for strong strategy and strong business discipline and stewardship. But there’s also a place to deal with people with honor, dignity and respect. You know, acknowledging them as part of God’s creation that deserve those kinds of relational interactions.
Nicole: Right, right. Yeah. So at one point you were talking about Truett and I just, you know, again, I pull little things out that resonate with me and I’m sure they resonate with my audience. But you said he had a balance of head and heart, intuition, which you just talked about. Yeah, understood the analytics and was an inspiration to everybody that he met which is the third part of the purpose. statement. So he was just like a living, breathing, you know, someone you could really, you know, allow to lead by example.
Steve: I’m not gonna sit here and start listing all the major decisions that I would take to him and say Truett, I think we’ll roll out grilled chicken or waffle fries or college football or use cows to promote the business. But virtually every one of those, number one he would say, if you think it’s right for the business, I trust your judgment.
And number two, invariably, even the big ones like college football, never, never forget, three years in the first deal with the Chick fil A Peach Bowl was how we, which is how we got started. We’re standing on the field before the game, he’s gonna do the coin flip. Place is packed. I said, Truett, I want to thank you for, you know, backing me and my team up to make this decision to get into college football. I think we’re on to something.
And he stood there for a moment. He kind of looked around. He said, well, I don’t see anybody in here that can’t be a Chick fil A customer. And that was his intuition coming out. I mean, he was serious. I mean, I don’t see anybody in here who couldn’t enjoy Chick fil A. If they can afford, I mean, he’s thinking if they can afford this game, they can afford a Chick fil A sandwich.
Steve: 100%. He didn’t need to see a bunch of analytics. He was a treat to work with. It was very empowering. I can tell you and he never called me to his office one time to ask me why I did something that he didn’t agree with. Not once. Now there was I’m sure there were some things, like the $2 million mistake. But never did he ever do anything to kind of undermind his confidence in me. You know, I knew he was still happy with what my team and I were doing.
Nicole: Yeah, he was a Steve fan. Steve and his team.
Steve: He was.
Nicole: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. Well, the last little nugget I’ll just throw out here is you said, when you have this balance between head and heart, two things come. Wisdom and a sense of peace.
Steve: Yes. Well, first of all, he was not a big book reader. But I will tell you right up front. He was a big reader of the Bible. And it was a big fan of Proverbs. And Truett, he did have incredible, for a guy who never got beyond high school, he had incredible canny of making great decisions, and encouraging us to not do something stupid, you know.
And it wasn’t just from experience. He just, I don’t think it was just born with it. He studied, he studied, he did study other businesses. He studied other leaders. I don’t think there’s any question that a great source of his wisdom was from the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. And he, but he was also fun.
You know, he, and that gets to the issue of peace. He didn’t lose sleep. He didn’t worry about stuff. He told Jimmy in our executive committee one time, he says there’s only one thing I worry about, and that’s positive cash flow, nothing else I worry about. So in 1982 he was a little worried. But as long as our CFO can tell him cashflow is fine.
We’re good with the bank. We’re paying down the debt. In fact, we eventually got to the point we had no debt. He was a man at peace with himself and the world he was in. His world. And he absolutely loved having fun with people.
Nicole: Yeah. And in the middle of book, you’ve got a picture of somebody stole one of the cows. And up in the sign. Yeah. You gotta get the book, everybody. You gotta get the book. Covert Cows, right and Chick fil A, How, Faith, Cows and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand. It’s by my guest, Steve Robinson. He was the former Chief Marketing Officer of Chick fil A and you know, my people like, oh, no, she’s closing it down.
Don’t do it, Nicoole, don’t do it. But I’ll ask you one more question. So I bet you you have one little more little nugget, a little something, a story that you want to share to kind of tie us off here. What one more little nugget, chicken nugget, would you share with me?
Steve: Oh my goodness. Yeah, I would, particularly in our current culture, not just culture, but even business environment. I would encourage people to go and to look at their career as a platform of influence. If you’re just looking at your career, okay, how many years can I put here and I take a step to do this.
It’s a career to you know, increase my cash flow or my position power. If you just look at your career as a ladder climbing exercise, I would urge you to step back and really think twice, because you need to think about what you’re leaning your ladder up against. What are you basing that career on? And fortunately, I learned that the Chick fil A corporate purpose is not only meaningful to business, it was meaningful for me.
I didn’t go to Chick fil A thinking I’d be there 35 years. I’d already had four jobs by the time I interviewed with Chick fil A in 80. But I stayed because it was an environment where I could lean my ladder up on a purpose and a culture and build not only a business and a brand, but build a platform of influence, build a platform of ministry, for myself and my family.
And so that’s my nugget is, what do you want your career to be? What are you building your career for? Is it just all about you? Or is it actually designed, design it so you can help impact and improve the lives of other people. And very often, that means you gotta hang around. You got to be loyal and stay someplace for a while.
It’s hard to have impact on other people and help other people grow if you’re only there for four years. And particularly in the marketing arena, and that’s far too often the case. There’s just too much turnover. People ask, why don’t other organizations have corporate purposes like that? Why don’t they last that long? Well, one of the reasons there’s, it’s not just because Chick fil A is privately owned.
And one of the other reasons is you get too much turnover at the top. And so the next guy or the next gal who come in as a leader, either the CEO, or CMO, they want to rewrite everything, they want to put their fingerprint on it. Hang around and see what kind of personal influence you can really build.
Because at the end of the day, when they put the tombstone goes up there, there’s a dash. You know that date born the date you die. Well, the most important thing on the stone is the dash. What did you do during the dash?
Nicole: That’s exactly right.
Steve: Yeah. So Truett had a significant dash. And there’s no question that there was a great deal of me that wanted to emulate him. No doubt about it.
Nicole: That’s a fantastic nugget. So just going back to what I underlined that Steve wrote in the book, so be hardworking, perseverance, right? And extreme loyalty. So that’s just beautiful. All right. So everybody, I’ve had a fantastic guest on the Build a Vibrant Culture podcast. I know you enjoyed yourself, will you please go down there and press that little like button.
It just takes a hot second. Do that. And then if you’d leave a little comment for both Steve and I, I would really appreciate it. Steve can be found on LinkedIn. It’s linkedin.com/srobinsonconsulting. Any other way that people can contact you if they want to reach out?
Steve: Oh, that’s probably the place to go. But the book is still on the market. If they want to buy a book, it’s still on Amazon. And there’s contact information in the back of the book too.
Nicole: Oh, fantastic. Alright, let me give it to you one more time. Covert Cows and Chick fil A, How Faith, Cows and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand by my guest, Steve Robinson. Steve, I’m so grateful for you to be on the Build a Vibrant Culture podcast. It’s been great to have you.
Steve: Thank you. Thank you, Nicole. It was fun. Appreciate it.
Voiceover: Ready to build your vibrant culture? Bring Nicole Greer to speak to your leadership team, conference or organization to help them with their strategies, systems and smarts to increase clarity, accountability, energy and results. Your organization will get lit from within. Email Nicole@nicolegreer.com. And be sure to check out Nicole’s TEDx talk at nicolegreer.com.