Chick-fil-A Chairman and CEO Dan Cathy spoke this week inside the Ole Miss Pavilion as part of the Leadership Luncheon series held each spring semester. It is sponsored in part by the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.
Ole Miss graduate and Chick-fil-A Director of Corporate Communications Reade Tidwell moderated the event, asking Cathy questions about his leadership style and business. Cathy, 65, said it’s important to learn how to learn if you want to be a good leader.
“My learning curve is as steep as it has ever been in my life right now,” he said. “… I’ve learned how to learn.”
Being a very avid reader and traveling extensively has also helped Cathy become a better learner. He said two important lessons are never think you know all there is to know, and never revel in your success.
“It’s a trap,” Cathy said. “It’s a cyclical trap of convenience, patting yourself on the back, listening to the applause of people. And if you get caught up in that, you quit learning. You quit leaning toward the future. When you’re a learner, there’s a lot of nervousness with learning. There’s a lot of failure with learning.”
Nervousness and failure are part of the learning process, Cathy said. If you stop experiencing both, your business may stagnate as well.
Chick-fil-A was started by Cathy’s father. After World War II ended, the family built a tiny restaurant in 1946 that later evolved into Chick-fil-A. In the early 1960s, Cathy’s father developed a chicken sandwich business that he renamed Chick-fil-A, and the store began popping up in shopping malls in the 1980s.
Cathy said “the malling of America” is what Amazon.com looked like 40 years ago. “It was these big, behemoth shopping malls across the country … Retailers, like ourselves, they were moving out of the downtown locations … and into these big, iconic, mammoth … shopping centers. All of this was driven by lifestyle, major shifts in consumer preferences.”
Since then, the company’s business leaders have worked to remain relevant. They recently opened another store in New York City that Cathy said he wishes his father was alive to see.
“We stayed away from Manhattan for a long time,” he said. “It’s an incredibly different environment than the suburban, one-acre parking lot in front of the Home Depot, or Lowe’s, or Walmart. Moving into Manhattan is an entirely different situation, a totally different business model, a different financial model. We were having to pay $1.2 million for about 3,000 square feet of space. That’s just rent … How much would you be willing to pay for trash pickup in Manhattan? $5,800 a month.”
Cathy said the Manhattan presence sets the stage for the brand in the international market. He said there are several things to keep in mind about business.
1. In order to be different, you have to think different. “Learn how to think different,” he said. “Take the contrarian view. Using cows for a chicken restaurant; that’s a little out there. Closing a restaurant on Sunday; that’s a little contrarian. At the time, being in shopping malls was very contrarian. Think forward. Lean forward into the future.
2. Consider the pace of change. Cathy said it’s important to align your company with trusted brands that are helping the company do things its leaders may not be able to predict will be important in the future.
3. Think cool. “Hang on to the cool factor, and don’t get dull,” he said. “The people who are leading the top, most valuable brands in the world; they are super cool brands doing super cool stuff. Think that way, act that way, and dress that way. Employers who attract the greatest and most talented people have the cool factor going on, and the talent knows they want to be aligned with cool brands.”