UPDATED Sept. 9, 9:00 a.m.
S. Truett Cathy, founder and chairman emeritus of Chick-fil-A, died Sept. 8 at 1:35 a.m., according to an announcement from the Atlanta-based restaurant chain. Cathy was 93.
A company-released obituary follows of Cathy, a Southern Baptist churchman known for his commitment to Chick-fil-A restaurants being closed on Sundays.
Baptist Press file photo
S. Truett Cathy
Cathy, who died peacefully at home surrounded by loved ones, was born March 14, 1921, in Eatonton, Ga., moving to Atlanta with his family at age 4.
In 1946, Cathy relied on a keen business sense, a strong work ethic and a deep Christian faith to build a tiny diner in the Atlanta suburb of Hapeville. 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 Cathy 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, Cathy built one of the nation’s largest family-owned companies, as Chick-fil-A reached $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.
Mel Blackaby, senior pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, described Cathy as "perhaps the most gracious Christian man I have ever known, and it was a privilege to be his pastor."
"Having taught eighth-grade boys Sunday School class for 52 years, he chose to invest his life in the next generation of leaders," Blackaby said in a statement to The Christian Index of the Georgia Baptist Convention. "Everywhere I go, I meet leaders with a smile on their face who say, 'I am one of Truett's boys!'
"His winsome personality left a positive impression on every person he met, and his deep love for the Lord was undeniable," Blackaby said. "In the marketplace he may be known as 'the inventor of the chicken sandwich,' but his success in business simply gave him the opportunity to serve people and point them to Christ. Truett's life is the story of a man and his God. He leaves an example for all to follow."
More than 1,800 Chick-fil-A restaurants operate in 40 states and Washington, D.C., recording $5 billion in annual sales in 2013 and 47 consecutive years of annual sales increases. Chick-fil-A was listed among the "Top 20 Brands with the Most Loyal Fans on Facebook" in a report by market research firm LoudDoor released in August.
Cathy has received more than 100 national, state and community awards since 1984 and 18 honorary doctorates since 1991.
His key Bible verse was Proverbs 22:1: "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold."
After serving in the Army from 1939-45, Cathy and his brother Ben opened their first restaurant in 1946, a venue so small they named it The Dwarf Grill (later, The Dwarf House). A second suburban Atlanta location opened in 1951 but burned down in 1960. In reopening and repurposing the restaurant, Cathy became one of the pioneers of fast-food restaurants in greater Atlanta.
In 1967 Cathy continued to chart new ground, opening his first Chick-fil-A venue in a mall followed in 1986 by the first free-standing Chick-fil-A.
Ethical and biblical principles were central to each of Cathy's steps forward.
"We live in a changing world, but we need to be reminded that the important things have not changed," he said. "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."
J. Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, said Cathy "will long be remembered for taking strong Christian stands in the marketplace including keep the Lord's day as a day of rest and worship for all Chick-fil-A employees and influencing his company's more recent stand honoring the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman."
"It would be difficult to measure the positive impact that Truett Cathy has had upon young people through his generous [employee] scholarship programs that have assisted many in their desire to complete their college education," White said. "Georgia Baptists extend our prayers to the Cathy family as well as to all the Chick-fil-A family for the comfort and peace of the Lord."
Cathy was a devout Southern Baptist who taught Sunday school to 13-year-old boys for more than 50 years. As an extension of the founder’s faith and the clearest example of incorporating biblical principles into the workplace, all Chick-fil-A restaurants 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 Cathy’s desire to put principles and people ahead of profits. Chick-fil-A will remain privately held and closed on Sundays.
Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Cathy "lived before the entire world a strong commitment to faith, family and work. His convictional leadership not only built a great family, but also one of America's most phenomenal companies."
Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, said he will never forget Cathy's address at a regional business summit several years ago. "To this day, it remains the largest crowd we have had in our 12-year history. His life, legacy and personality captivated the audience."
Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, said he was "privileged to meet with Truett Cathy on several occasions. I deeply appreciated his stand on Christian convictions. Most of all, I admired his tenacity and faithfulness, especially exhibited in teaching young boys at First Baptist Jonesboro, Ga. His example of steadfastness and commitment to teaching the Word of God is an example to us all."
Cathy was often quoted as saying: “I’d like to be remembered as one who kept my priorities in the right order. 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.”
Cathy’s business approach was largely driven by personal satisfaction 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 its Leadership Scholarship Program, the Chick-fil-A chain has given more than $32 million in financial assistance to Chick-fil-A restaurant employees since 1973.
Dan Cathy became president of Chick-fil-A in 2001, and chairman and chief executive officer in 2013 while Truett Cathy continued in the role of chairman emeritus until his death. "Bubba" Cathy leads a retreat center founded by the company, while his daughter, Trudy Cathy White, is involved with a summer girls' camp, also stemming from her father's charitable work. She and her husband John served 12 years as Southern Baptist missionaries in Brazil. John White subsequently was the International Mission Board's associate vice president for overseas operations from 1995-2001 and executive vice president from 2001-03.
As part of Cathy’s WinShape Homes program, 13 foster care homes were launched and operated by Cathy 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 Christian faith, character and relationships. Each summer, more than 18,000 campers attend WinShape Camps.
In 2003, Cathy helped his son and daughter-in-law, Bubba and Cindy, celebrate the opening of WinShape Retreat, 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 Cathy’s daughter, Trudy Cathy White.
Cathy was the author of It’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).
Cathy 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).
In addition to presiding over one of the most successful restaurant chains in America, Cathy was a dedicated husband, father and grandfather. He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Jeannette McNeil Cathy; sons Dan T. and Don “Bubba” Cathy; daughter Trudy Cathy White; 19 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
A public funeral service is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 10, at 2 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ga. The public is asked to park at nearby Tara Stadium, 1055 Battle Creek Road, and take the shuttle to the funeral. Shuttles will run from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. from the stadium to First Baptist and, after the funeral service, from First Baptist to Tara Stadium until 4:30 p.m.
Two visitation times have been scheduled at First Baptist Church: 4–7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 9, and noon to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 10, immediately preceding the funeral.
In lieu of flowers, the Cathy family has asked that donations be made to the WinShape Foundation to further Truett Cathy's legacy of developing and supporting young people. Donations can be sent to WinShape Foundation, Attn: Linda Hedgecock, 5200 Buffington Road, Atlanta, GA 30349.