Editor’s Note: This article was first published in American Profile on Feb. 25, 2007.
Eddie White traces his education back to a mayonnaise jar on a counter at the Dwarf Grill in Hapeville, Ga., some 50 years ago. When the jar didn’t draw nearly enough donations from customers for the grill worker to attend college, owner Truett Cathy quietly came up with the rest of the money and encouraged White to stay in school until he graduated.
White went on to earn his master’s degree and has been a teacher, principal and superintendent in school systems around Atlanta for 35 years.
Cathy went on to become the man behind the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain. At age 85, the owner of what started as one tiny grill in a sleepy suburb of Atlanta—across from a Ford assembly plant and down the road from Delta Airlines’ headquarters—now sits atop a 1,250-location, $2 billion chicken empire.
“Without him, I probably wouldn’t have gone to school at all,” says White, now 69 and vice chairman in Georgia’s Clayton County School District. “He wouldn’t let me quit. Had he not been there, I am not sure what would have happened to me.”
Cathy’s philanthropic spirit is legendary in these parts for investments in scholarships, character-building programs for kids, foster homes and other community services. “I concentrate on helping young people,” Cathy says. “I want to encourage them and give them opportunities.”
His corporate empire is known not only for its chicken sandwiches and clever “Eat Mor Chikin” advertising campaign, but also for its owner’s adherence to biblical and family-friendly business principles. The company’s corporate purpose statement reads: “We exist 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.”
None of Cathy’s restaurants have ever been open on Sunday. “Being closed on Sundays gives people time with their family and the Lord, which have both virtually disappeared in America,” he says. The founder of the Dwarf Grill, the predecessor to Chick-fil-A, is a soft-spoken, genuine man whose generosity is as visible as the trademark signature of his company’s logo in shopping malls and on roadsides across America. White’s mayonnaise jar full of spare change has evolved into an educational funding program that has awarded more than $20 million in scholarships to eligible Chick-fil-A employees.
Cathy and his wife of 57 years, Jeannette, also established the WinShape College Program at Berry College in Rome, Ga., which promotes an understanding of God’s mission in the world and helps about 120 students annually with financial assistance.
“He’s quite unusual,” Berry College president Dr. Scott Colley says. “Behind his funding is a value system. We don’t have another donor like him.”
The Cathys’ WinShape Foundation operates 11 foster homes across the southeastern United States (and one in Brazil) that house—and nurture—hundreds of needy children.
“I am their adopted grandpa,” Cathy says. “That’s a real joy to drive up and all these kids come rolling out saying ‘Grandpa, grandpa!’ and sometimes I get a kiss on the cheek. That’s something you can’t buy with dollars.”
Cathy’s life of unselfish giving is evident at the company headquarters, where nearly 600 Chick-fil-A corporate employees eat breakfast and lunch for free everyday.
“There’s no such thing as ‘business ethics.’ It’s personal ethics,” he says. “Courtesy is very cheap, but pays great dividends.”
Dan Cathy, 53, now president and COO of Chick-fil-A, has seen his dad make an amazing transition from flipping burgers and scrambling eggs to being the CEO of a $2 billion business.
“Very few people can go through that transition and be the same person,” Dan says. “He’s the same person at home, at work and at church.”