Chick-Fil-A Founder S. Truett Cathy Dies at 93

Kept Company Closely-Held to Keep Brand As He Wanted It

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Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy and wife Jeannette McNeil Cathy
Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy and wife Jeannette McNeil Cathy Credit: Chick-fil-A

S. Truett Cathy, who became a billionaire as the founder of Chick-fil-A, the closely held fast-food franchise known for its "Eat Mor Chikin'" slogan and for staying closed on Sundays to reflect Mr. Cathy's Southern Baptist faith, has died. He was 93.

He died at his home in suburban Clayton County, south of Atlanta, earlier today, the company said in a statement on its website. No cause of death was given.

The chicken chain that Mr. Cathy started in 1946 grew to more than 1,800 restaurants in 39 states and the nation's capital, according to the Atlanta-based company's website. Chick-fil-A is valued at about $5.5 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Mr. Cathy had a net worth of $1.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The prospect of an even bigger payday never persuaded Cathy, the longtime chairman and chief executive officer, to take his company public. Doing so, he said in a 1998 interview, would mean giving up family control of matters such as contributions to charity and remaining closed on Sundays.

"As a public company, I'm sure somebody would object to our generosity," he said.

Religious controversy
Even as it expanded nationwide, Chick-fil-A remained a distinctly Southern institution, one that generated fierce loyalty among its customers. In 1982, the company adopted a two-sentence corporate mission: "To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A."

Mr. Cathy and his family drew notice for their philanthropy through their WinShape Foundation, which offers scholarships and funds foster homes. Their donations to religious organizations active in the debate over the definition of marriage landed the family, and Chick-fil-A, in the middle of an uproar during the 2012 U.S. elections.

In response to reports about the family's support for groups fighting legalization of gay marriage, Dan Cathy, who succeeded his father as chairman and CEO, said, "Well, guilty as charged. We are very much supportive of the family, the biblical definition of the family unit," according to the Biblical Recorder, a newspaper for North Carolina Baptists.

Gay-rights groups, which for years had pointed out that Chick-fil-A's charitable arm gives millions of dollars to Focus on the Family, the Eagle Forum, the Family Research Council and other organizations opposed to gay marriage, urged a boycott of the chain. Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino sent a letter urging the company to back out of plans to locate in his city.

Opponents of gay marriage, including Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, Billy and Franklin Graham and former Arkansas governor and talk-show host Mike Huckabee voiced their support for the chain.

The company, responding to the outcry, issued a statement saying its policy is to "treat every person with honor, dignity, and respect -- regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation, or gender."

The early years
Samuel Truett Cathy was born on March 14, 1921, in Eatonton, Georgia, one of seven children of Joseph Benjamin Cathy and the former Lilla Kimbell.

Starting at age 8, he sold soft drinks and magazines, and then began delivering newspapers, winning awards for signing up new Atlanta Journal subscribers, according to his family's website. His mother took in boarders to help pay the bills.

Mr. Cathy was drafted into the U.S. Army after graduating high school and served until 1945, according to the family website.

The following year, he and his brother, Ben, opened a small diner called the Dwarf Grill, later the Dwarf House, in the Atlanta suburb of Hapeville. The original menu consisted of hamburger and steak plates and a chicken-salad sandwich, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote in a 1999 profile. Ben Cathy and a third brother, Horace, both amateur pilots, were killed in a crash of their private plane in 1949, according to the newspaper.

It wasn't until the early 1960s that Mr. Cathy began work on a fried-chicken sandwich, after the owners of a local poultry purveyor came to him with surplus boneless breast pieces. Mr. Cathy, whose mother had fried chicken in a skillet with the lid on to keep it moist, began using a recently invented commercial pressure cooker, the Henny Penny, that allowed him to fry a boneless, skinless chicken breast in just four minutes.

"I recalled how my mother had cooked chicken in an iron skillet with a lid and served it to our boarders," he wrote in "It's Easier to Succeed Than to Fail" (1989). "I tried the lid idea. It held the steam inside, speeded up the cooking, and left the chicken juicier."

After tinkering with his seasoning mix, Mr. Cathy put the result on a buttered bun, added pickle slices "to give the sandwich character," and, at the suggestion of his lawyer, came up with the name Chick-fil-A -- the final "A" a measure, he said, of the sandwich's quality.

Mr. Cathy opened the first Chick-fil-A restaurant, in an Atlanta shopping center, in 1967, before food courts became a standard service in malls. During the next 20 years, Mr. Cathy added 350 more plaza restaurants. When mall development slowed in the 1980s, Mr. Cathy turned to free-standing stores. He also opened restaurants on college campuses and inside hospitals and grocery stores.

With his wife, the former Jeannette McNeil, he had three children. Sons Dan and Don, who is known as Bubba and senior vice president of Chick-fil-A, and daughter Trudy Cathy White, who became girls' director of WinShape's summer camps.

--Bloomberg News

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