Dan Cathy bounded onto the stage of the seventh annual Values-Aligned Leadership Summit
(VALS), still exuding the energy he showed as a kid working in his dad's fledgling Atlanta restaurant before Chick-fil-A became nationally known with 1,400 restaurants.
He's a man who's used to being on the run. "I just left the opening of a new Chick-fil-A," Cathy, the company's president and chief operating officer, told business leaders and Colorado Christian University students at this year's recent summit on "The Role of Business in a Free-Market Economy."
In a dismal economic year when business closings easily outpace openings, the success of Chick fil-A, now with a new restaurant in metro Denver, is unusual enough.
But, Cathy told the crowd, success hasn't come from a lucky streak -- it's come from the application of Christian principles, which include treating each restaurant patron as number one.
That means when customers return to Chick-fil-A, they're not just returning to a restaurant. "They're coming to a family reunion," Cathy said.
As American corporations come under scrutiny and derision, and government paints itself as the economy's savior, Cathy offered the VALS audience a look at the classic, traditional foundation of American business.
For his family's chain, that meant building on the principles of service and character. The classic free-market business model of putting the customer first gets an added depth of purpose -- biblical purpose -- at Chick-fil-A.
"Dad made it personal, and that's how we've grown this company for over 60 years," Cathy said. "He knew we could change lives by how we treat people."
From its start in Hapeville, Ga., Chick-fil-A has based its business on the teachings of Jesus. Each Sunday, for example, the chain is closed across the country to honor Jesus' observance of a weekly Sabbath. Despite that, Chick-fil-A has never had a year of sales less than in the previous year.
While every good business tries to stay relevant to its customers, Cathy's company takes it to the next level. From the start, his dad, who at 88 still comes to work every day, treated each patron like family, making sure his regular customers were remembered at important occasions such as birthdays, weddings, and funerals.
Those gestures of encouragement created a bond, Cathy said. Then he challenged the audience: "Do you know how to recognize a person who needs encouragement? If they're breathing."
The company is now teaching its employees a new policy, called "Second Mile Service," which draws from Jesus' teaching to "go the second mile" with someone, even if that person only asked you to go one.
As business partners go, Cathy believes Jesus has a lot to teach -- especially in the restaurant industry.
"Jesus had a lot to say about hospitality," Cathy said. "He fed 5,000 people. He was always dining and cooking. After he rose from the dead, he was cooking breakfast!"
Service begins with how the staff is picked and trained. "We are a discriminatory employer -- unashamedly," Cathy said.
Hiring is based on three criteria: competence, chemistry, and character. There's remedial etiquette training available, too. "We're teaching young, barbaric 16-year-olds how to pull out a chair for a lady," he quipped.
During a Q&A session following his speech, Cathy urged CCU's students to ask serious questions at their job interviews.
"Go in there locked and loaded with four or five armor-piercing questions. Is this a principle-centered business, or is it built on sand?" If you want to open a business, he said, "Seek wisdom. Get wise counsel."
In business, family matters most, Cathy said. He once sent a new manager home during a hectic week surrounding a new store opening, telling him to go on a date with his wife. Maintaining a relationship with one's spouse and family, Cathy said, "is more important than selling another order of waffle fries."
Cathy also urged the audience to understand that Christians have an important role in the business world, and they deserve to be there.
"I believe [many] Christians are called to the marketplace," he said. "It's as celebrated a calling as anybody working on the church payroll."
Today, he fondly thumbs through memories of himself as a kid "singing to customers in that dorky-looking dwarf costume" that he wore at his dad's original restaurant, Dwarf House.
He sees that even those moments had purpose -- that even then, God had plans for him and his family's company.
It's the same for every Christian in the business world -- to share with customers, colleagues, and employees the values that are timeless. "God was getting me ready," Cathy affirmed. "And God is getting you ready."