Today, I attended the funeral of S. Truett Cathy. I was inspired, humbled, encouraged, and I teared up more than once. And there was either a massive dust epidemic in that beautiful sanctuary or the thousands of others with me got pretty emotional as well.
And it’s no surprise. There are very few people I know—or even have heard of—who have lived their lives so well. He wasn’t perfect. But he was faithful. Day after day, year after year, he gave his very best to glorify God and bless his fellow man.
Those who didn’t know him might be impressed by his wealth as the owner of a $5 billion company (Chick-fil-A) plus many other ventures, including a theme park, hawaiian restaurant, and beach resorts. But those of us who had the chance to get to know him are far more impressed at his heart than his money.
In fact, it’s pretty ironic that he even ended up rich. He certainly didn’t start rich. Rather, he grew up in a family that was hit hard by the Great Depression. He used to joke, “I was so poor, all I had to play with was a loose tooth. And it was my brother’s tooth.” And he didn’t aim to be rich. When he was in elementary school, Truett’s teacher asked all the students to bring in their favorite bible verse. One day, she chose his verse to be the verse of the week. He was so proud of that moment that he decided to make it his life verse. The verse he chose:
“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.” Proverbs 22.1a
Truett lived that value for the rest of his life. Time and time again, I saw him sacrifice profits to do the right thing. What is so sweet and surprising is that in the long run his good name generated great riches. But don’t be fooled because you learned about his riches before you learned about his heart. The riches were merely a byproduct of decades of faithful living—and not even the best byproduct his life generated.
About 9-10 months ago, shortly after he retired, one of his friends came to his house to talk with him about life and business and family. During that conversation, he told Truett about the recently released Forbes 400 list. Truett reached an all time high, being named the 46th wealthiest American. He just stared back, in a way that is well known at Chick-fil-A, as if to say, “Seriously? You think that’s important?” The moment stretched long enough that the man felt kind of embarrassed.
Truett could care less about how wealthy he was. What he wanted to talk about was the health of Chick-fil-A, the impact of his philanthropic work, and most of all, the personal life of his friend—his kids, grandkids, and even how his garden was doing.
Hearing that story, I was again reminded how easy it is for me to get off track, to confuse what’s important. The first few sentences, I was pretty excited for him, pretty impressed with his wealth. But when I heard his response, it hit home yet again: It’s not about how wealthy you do or don’t get. It’s about how well you loved.
When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Truett said he’d like to be remembered for keeping his priorities straight. And he then said these were his top four priorities:
First, God. Second, his family. Third, his business. Fourth, his church.
He started with nothing, no money and even a speech impediment. But day after day he got up and gave it all he had. In his fifties, he was an unknown businessman in the Atlanta area. He wasn’t after getting quick rich. But his faithfulness paid dividends, in lives changed, friends formed, laughter and love, and gradually, money as well.
He chose to pursue a great name. And he succeeded.
I’d like to leave you with the way he challenged us at Chick-fil-A so many, many times. He would often end his speeches by saying, “Why not your best? Why not your best? Why not? Why not?”
For those who don’t know some of the details, I’ve included the official obituary below.
Truett Cathy, Chick-fil-A Founder and Chairman Emeritus, Dies at Age 93
S. Truett Cathy, our beloved founder and chairman emeritus, died at 1:35 a.m. today at the age of 93. He died peacefully at home, surrounded by loved ones.
Born March 14, 1921, in Eatonton, Georgia, Truett was four years old when his family moved to Atlanta, where he attended Boys High, now known as Grady High School. In 1946, he relied on a keen business sense, a strong work ethic and a deep Christian faith to build a tiny diner, the Dwarf Grill, in Hapeville, Georgia. He developed it into Chick-fil-A®, which today has the highest same-store sales and is the nation’s largest quick-service chicken restaurant chain based on annual system-wide sales. It was at the original restaurant that Truett created the sandwich that became the company’s signature item.
Credited with creating the original Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich and pioneering in-mall fast food, Truett built one of the nation’s largest family-owned companies as Chick-fil-A exceeded $5 billion in annual sales in 2013. Currently, there are more than 1,800 Chick-fil-A restaurants operating in 40 states and Washington, D.C. Remarkably, Truett led our company on an unparalleled record of 47 consecutive years of annual sales increases.
“I’d like to be remembered as one who kept my priorities in the right order,” Truett was often quoted as saying. “We live in a changing world, but we need to be reminded that the important things have not changed. I have always encouraged my restaurant operators and team members to give back to the local community. We should be about more than just selling chicken, we should be a part of our customers’ lives and the communities in which we serve.”
A devout Southern Baptist, Truett taught Sunday school to 13-year-old boys for more than 50 years. As an extension of his faith and the clearest example of incorporating biblical principles into the workplace, all Chick-fil-A restaurants—without exception—operate with a “Closed-on-Sunday” policy. Rare within the food service industry, this policy allows employees a day for family, worship, fellowship or rest, and also underscores Truett’s desire to put principles and people ahead of profits. Chick-fil-A will remain privately held and closed on Sundays.
Truett’s legacy, of course, is much more than his remarkable business success. His business approach was also driven by personal satisfaction, generosity, and a sense of obligation to the community and its young people. His WinShape Foundation, founded in 1984, grew from his desire to “shape winners” by helping young people succeed in life through scholarships and other youth-support programs. In addition, through itsLeadership Scholarship Program, the Chick-fil-A chain has given more than $32 million in financial assistance to Chick-fil-A restaurant employees since 1973.
As part of Truett’s WinShape Homes® program, 13 foster care homes were launched and operated by Truett and the WinShape Foundation to provide long-term care for foster children within a positive family environment. WinShape Homes has provided a safe and secure home to more than 450 children in which they could grow physically, spiritually and emotionally. WinShape Camps® was founded in 1985 as a residential, two-week summer camp to impact young people through experiences that enhance their character and relationships. More than 18,000 campers from throughout the country and abroad attend WinShape Camps each summer.
In 2003, Truett helped Bubba and Cindy celebrate the opening of WinShape RetreatSM, a high-end retreat and conference facility located on the campus of Berry College in Rome, Ga. The multi-use facility hosts marriage-enrichment retreats along with business and church-related conferences, and in summer months houses WinShape Camp for girls, directed by Truett’s daughter, Trudy.
Truett said in his book, Eat Mor Chikin; Inspire More People, “Nearly every moment of every day we have the opportunity to give something to someone else—our time, our love, our resources. I have always found more joy in giving when I did not expect anything in return.”
Truett received countless awards over the years, including most recently becoming a Georgia Trustees Inductee (2013); Fayette County (Georgia) Chamber of Commerce Dreambuilder Award (2012); Children’s Champion Hunger Award (2011); World Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award (2010); Salute to Greatness Martin Luther King Jr. Award (2009); William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership (2008); Paul M. Kuck Legacy Award (2008); President’s Call to Service Award (2008); the Cecil B. Day Ethics Award (2008); The Tom Landry Excellence of Character Award (2007); Greater Dallas FCA Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Poultry & Food Distributors Association (2005); Norman Vincent & Ruth Stafford Peale Humanitarian Award (2003); Catalyst Lifetime Achievement Award from Injoy/John Maxwell (2003); Georgia Sports Hall of Fame – Chairman’s Award (2003); Ernst & Young – Entrepreneur of the Year – Lifetime Achievement Award (2000); and Horatio Alger Award – Horatio Alger Association, Washington, D.C. (1989). Truett was the author ofIt’s Easier to Succeed Than to Fail (Thomas Nelson Publishing, 1989); Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People(Looking Glass Books, 2002); It’s Better to Build Boys Than Mend Men (Looking Glass Books, 2004); How Did You Do It, Truett? (Looking Glass Books, 2007); and Wealth, Is It Worth It? (Looking Glass Books, 2011). He also was co-author of The Generosity Factor with Ken Blanchard (Zondervan Publishing, 2002).
In addition to presiding over one of the most successful restaurant chains in America, Truett was a dedicated husband, father and grandfather. He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Jeannette; sons Dan T. and Bubba; daughter Trudy; 12 grandchildren; 7 grandchildren in-law and 18 great-grandchildren.