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Nov. 11, 2021

106 How Chick-fil-A Became an Iconic Brand with Chick-fil-A’s former Chief Marketing Officer Steve Robinson | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

106 How Chick-fil-A Became an Iconic Brand with Chick-fil-A’s former Chief Marketing Officer Steve Robinson | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Steve Robinson, former executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Chick-fil-A. Steve Robinson shared lessons from his decades-long experience leading marketing at Chick-fil-A, including stories from his book Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken built an Iconic Brand.In addition, Steve Robinson shared what made Chick-fil-A culture and marketing unique and continues to help the brand differentiate in a competitive market.  

Some highlights:

-The importance of hiring the people who fit the organization’s culture and value

-How Steve Robinson come up with the Blue Ocean Strategy and its vital role in the successful branding of Chick-fil-A

-The impact of the leadership of Chick-fil-A’s founder, Truett Cathy, on the organization’s culture

-Lessons that Steve Robinson learned on the 2-million dollar mistake

-Steve Robinson shared marketing and business insights in building a brand that people cannot live without

Also mentioned in this episode:

-John Rossman, author of The Amazon Way book series (Listen to John’s episode on the Partnering Leadership Podcast here)

-Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A

-Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A

-Jimmy Collins, former president of Chick-fil-A

Book by Steve Robinson:

Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand

Book Resources:

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill by William Manchester, Paul Reid

Blue Ocean Strategy by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim

Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies

The Bible: Book of Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Joel

Connect with Steve Robinson:

S. Robinson Consulting

Steve Robinson on LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Steve Robinson. He's a consultant, author, and speaker on organizational culture and design and brand strategy development. He's the former executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Chick-fil-A where he served from 1981 through 2015. Eventually then for three years serving on the board of Chick-fil-A from 2015, through 2018. 

Steve has written a great book called Covert Cows, and Chick-fil-A: How faith, cows and chicken built an iconic brand. And they did build an iconic brand that continues to grow and do superbly well. 

We talked about the branding of Chick-fil-A, the culture of Chick-fil-A, and the leadership of the organization, both from the founder onto the pillars of success all throughout the years, including the iconic eat more chicken cow campaign, which was launched while Steve was there.

There are so many lessons with respect to not just organizational culture and branding, but also with respect to leadership that comes out of this conversation.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I'm sure you will too. In addition to the fact that if you are Chick-fil-A fans, like my wife, girls, and I are, you will enjoy some of the stories Steve shares with background details on what makes Chick-fil-A so iconic. Not only with respect to the operations, but also with respect to the customer experience that they're able to provide. 

Now, I also love hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. mahan@mahantavakoli.Com. There's a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. Leave voice messages for me there. 

Don't forget to follow the podcast. And for those of you that enjoy it on Apple, leave a rating and review when you get a chance. 

Now here's my conversation with Steve Robinson.


Mahan Tavakoli: 

Steve Robinson, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am thrilled to have you in this conversation with me,

Steve Robinson: 

I feel the same way, I'm thrilled to be with you. Look forward to it. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Steve, your experience that you capture in your book, Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How faith cows and chicken built an iconic brand is insightful on so many different levels from leadership to culture, to product and brand. But before we get to some of your insights, I would love to know a little bit about whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you've become?

Steve Robinson: 

Well, I grew up in LA and that's not California. That's Lower Alabama, 10 miles from the Gulf coast. My father moved there in 1948 and started a hybrid seed corn company down there. He was from Ohio. He met his wife, my mother, at Ohio state. So I grew up in the home of an entrepreneur who happened to be farming, but it was his own business, entrepreneur. I learned pretty quick that nothing happens if you're not selling something. 

I had three sisters I went to high school locally. I spent a year in New Zealand as an exchange student. But before I graduated from high school I went to a junior college. One because that's the only thing I look forward. But two, it also gave me an opportunity to play two more years of baseball. And then I went to Auburn University and majored in marketing. 

Late in my junior year, I met the lady that turned up to be my best friend and my wife, and now for 49 years, Diane Robinson. And in fact, she and I got married four days after we both graduated. And at the recommendation of my Auburn Dean, I select the Northwestern to go get a master's in journalism and advertising. 

So I'll accelerate the story, I got through Medill. The Medill program. My first job was at Texas Instruments and it was in the fairly newly created consumer group. They call it the semiconductor group. They were at the forefront of introducing handheld calculators. Now those things back then were the fraction of what this thing does, but my job was to help direct market it to engineers, mathematicians professors, people who needed a high-end calculus-capable calculator.

Well, I did that about a year and I was starting to become a little disenchanted with TI because it was very engineering-oriented, not marketing-oriented. I get a phone call from the brother of a Medill graduate of mine. And he was the director of marketing, Six Flags over Texas. Interviewed with him for a day. A long day, but got the job offer to join Six Flags in Texas.

I'll speed up the story. I had seven years with Six Flags. The last four and a half were in Atlanta where I became the director of marketing. And it was at Six Flags over Georgia that I met some folks with Chick-fil-A because I was trying to convince them to build a restaurant in the park as a way to build their brand and create of a little product because back then, they were exclusively in malls predominantly just in seven Southeastern states.

And they happened to be the states where Six Flags drew most of their attendance I got well down the line. Store design, location, proforma. They decided not to do it because they couldn't make any money at it. I told them the only people that are going to make money out of it was the park. They didn't believe me. And we were there to create brand awareness and trial. We were not there to make them money. So we shook hands agreed to part ways. 

So I was director of marketing for Six Flags over Georgia, almost four years. And it was about three and a half years until that phone rings one evening. I'm in my office. And as Jimmy Collins, who's chief operating officer for Chick-fil-A and he's one of the guys that I met about the park venture. And he said, “Steve, we don't have a marketing department. We're looking for somebody that can help us. Our operators just don't have what they need to sell more sandwiches.”

And I'm thinking of the back of my mind. I know you don't have a marketing department or you would have done that deal with me. But I listened and I knew a lot about the company because of the research we've done on that potential deal. And I thought you know what? What's three or four days? They're a private company, great product, interesting strategy of being in malls. What's three or four days to interview?

So as I share with my book, that started in August of 1980. And in early December of 1980, I'm sitting in Truett Cathy’s office, who is the founder and chairman, and I'm still interviewing. It's not three or four days. It's over four months. And I've interviewed anybody that's anybody in that business, probably more than twice. And this is an important story that leads up to Chick-fil-A because I'm sitting there and I'm doing all this still cause I liked the job I had. I really did. And I said, "Truett, what are you looking for in the ideal marketing director? Because I'm doing this, still it's getting a little uncomfortable. I really think I can help you. Well, what are you looking for in the ideal candidate? Am I your guy?"

And there was this long silence. He was almost 60. He put a sandwich down, we reading in his office. He says, “I have absolutely no idea. All I know is whatever it is. I don't want to do it.” And I'm shocked. And there's this long pause. He says, "I'm counting on Jim and the others, figure out how we can do the job. "And then sure he gets serious. "I'm more interested in who you are, whether you and I can work together for a long time, potentially the rest of your career, that we can have fun together. And then I can trust you and you can trust me because it's my intent that if you come here, you'll never go anywhere else. "

Now I've had four different jobs in eight years and he's talking about it's the last year I'm all I ever have. And I'm a little, cultural shock going on. And this is all the same conversation. Then he says, “We don't train culture here. We hire it.“

Now, most organizations are so consumed with recruiting competency. Just like Six Flags was quite frankly, they figured out in one day that I could do the job, but they did not spend a lot of time really understanding who I was and what I valued and whether we could trust each other, all those issues and Chick-fil-A was.

As I went to work there, I learned that that conversation was one that happened often. It's indicative of the culture and it was indicative of Truett and Jimmy's priorities as the most important decision they make at Chick-fil-A is who they invite into the organization. 

And I go back to me personally. I was through with the prospect of getting out of a publicly owned company. I had issues with that. Getting involved in organizations that did have a value fit that was more aligned with mine. Privately-owned. Clean sheet of paper to potentially build a marketing organization and strategy. And it turned out to be everything Truett was implying it could be. And I was the CMO for almost 35 years. And then three more years on their board. I had an incredible run. And as I share in the book it was a blessing beyond anything I could have believed just to be frank. It was. 

And professionally it was stimulating. It was never boring. It was constant innovation. I love the ability to attract and develop and keep good people, just like Truett was trying to do with me. And to walk out of there, to see Chick-fil-A when I left at the beginning in 2016, Chick-fil-A had become a major iconic brand. And I certainly hoped that, dreamed that, trying to work towards that, I'm not sure I felt like that was going to happen while I was still there, but it did. When I left, they were rocking and rolling and they still are, 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Steve, you have an incredible story of impact as you said when you joined Chick-fil-A in 1981. 184 stores, a hundred million dollars by 2015-16. Almost $7 billion in annual sales. Last year, $14 billion. So it's a very successful organization.

Steve Robinson: 

And then, by the way, they probably will come near hitting 17 billion this year, their same store-growth rate is still running, double-digit so it's amazing.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is an incredible organization. And we could probably spend an entire podcast talking about one aspect of what you mentioned that I wanted to underline. And it also comes across in your book also, which is the care that was taken and continues to be taken in the selection of people that are the right fit.

And that by itself makes for the culture. So can you speak to how you also were able to take that and make sure that the people that you brought on to your team, to Chick-fil-A would represent the culture and the brand the way you wanted it to be represented?

Steve Robinson: 

That's not going to be a short answer. The headline is I think I learned pretty quickly and a five-month interview process will help expedite that. I learned pretty quickly Truett and Jimmy's formula for attracting and keeping great talent was worth me replicating. So I took the same approach and the same attitude they did.

In terms of competency, I was looking for people that could do the job better than if I did it myself. It didn't matter what field it was, within the marketing or the brand group. Were they going to be competent? And could I trust them to do it better than I could? 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So, Steve, let me interrupt you for a second there, because that's a really important point. It takes tremendous confidence by a leader to recruit someone that can do the job better than the leader could themselves.

Steve Robinson: 

Right. Well, I never had an issue with them, not respecting the fact that I was still the leader. But I think people actually gravitate towards and want to follow a leader who's willing to empower their subordinates to be innovative, to take risks, and to develop and lead other people.

So what Truett did with me. He hired me when I was 30. And he's gonna make me potentially an officer, in his business so I just tried to do the same thing. 

So competency was number one. Can they do the job equal to or better than me? Cause I'm more interested in their ability to adapt to the marketplace and be strategically smart. The more that it's around me, the better I'm going to be. 

So number two was, could I see this person being a long-term leader in the business, even if it's not in marketing? Now, Truett and Jimmy never explicitly unpack that, but that's what I've observed. That's what happened. And to this day, since I've left, probably half the people that are in marketing, when I left Chick-fil-A are now in other groups because they're great leaders. 

So there's the issue of competency. And then the issue of chemistry, they, they're not only great followers, but they develop followership. And then the third one is this whole issue of character. Can I trust their judgment? Can I trust their decision-making do their values align with what's support the truth. They know what the corporate purpose says. Do they believe it? Does it motivate them to get up in the morning and come to work? Do they take honoring God, influencing others, and be of great stewardship. Did they take that seriously? And how can I see that demonstrated in their life before they potentially come to us?

So this requires a lot of time talking and visiting. At times requires a lot of work vetting and doing reference checks. But you do, the right way over a sufficient length of time. And you're going to discover not just what somebody is capable of doing, but who they are, what motivates them. Are they going to attract great talent? Are they going to inherently be able to develop great talent? 

The more that you attract to your group or your organization, as a leader, the more of the strategic and tactical stuff you can let go of. Over time it gave me the ability to focus along with Truett and the rest of the executive committee, culture management, macro strategy, macro brand-wide partnerships. Things that I learned over time that only I could do. Only a CMO should do. Because I wasn't worried about the advertising group or the PR group or the private redevelopment, because I knew what we agreed to in the plan. I'd help them get the resources of people and money they needed. And they're working on it. And when there's a point in the processes where I need to see something or approve something, it ain't a big deal. Because 90% of the time I love it. I agree with it. I said, "Great! Keep going.". And if I don't agree with it, I give them a good reason why so hopefully they understand what, not only what I'm trying to say, but they learn from it, why I feel about strategy or whatever. 

My final point about this. You can't do this if leadership at the top is not dedicated to what the macro purpose of the organization is, and they understand how the fulfillment of that is built around the talent you attract. You attract the culture, you don't train the culture. 

And secondly, but it's related to that point. That's very hard to do if you've got a lot of turnover at the top. You got CEOs turning every three to five years and CMOS turning every three to five years. It's very hard to build an organization where people feel empowered because their leadership, their leaders keep changing. The rules of the game keep getting rewritten. Maybe even the mission of the purpose or the mission of the brand keeps getting rewritten. So it's hard to have, building an organization with a long-term horizon about talent and be able to show somebody, “Hey, you gonna have a long-term career. Oh, by the way, you won't be doing the same job over the course of that career.” Can I tell you what it is? Because we have a step ladder? No, no, we don't have a step ladder over career. 

People get moved around in Chick-fil-A based upon how they've proven their capability, not only in competency. But competency, character, leadership, influence, followership, getting things done, strategic thinking, value fit. They walk the talk. They know what's important in the business. They know what's important: ownership. They know where we're trying to take the brand. Their hands don't have to be held. And my gosh, that makes work more fun for everybody including me. 

So that was part of the journey of getting to a point where fully the last half of my career. There was not a need for me to be in the weeds of the day-to-day. I was able to focus on strategic planning and budgeting. And I was able to focus on those things that only a CMO ought to be involved in which I referenced earlier. And then make myself available. I spent a lot of time traveling. I spent a lot of time walking around the office management role, wandering around. I visited with people, “How are you doing? How's your family? How's your son doing?” Et cetera, et cetera. 

So when I started at Chick-fil-A, I was very hands-on. First, it was just me and two or three others. But I learned the Truett had this thing figured out. When he said, I don't know what it is you're going to do, because I don't want to know. That allowed me to have a great deal of freedom. And I tried to pass that freedom onto the people that I invited to be part of the marketing group, which quite frankly evolved to become a brand development group. It became more than marketing. So that's a long answer to your question, but that's a crucial question of what makes Chick-fil-A work.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is really important, Steve, and you repeatedly mentioned, and the stories in your book also show that great brand and product are important, but they come from partly a powerful culture and that powerful culture comes from incredible leadership and the leadership that Truett showed and you showed in the organization. Part was selecting the right people whose values aligned with organizational values, part an impressive amount of therefore leeway and trust given to those individuals.

You also have an incredible experience pretty early on where you cost the much smaller organization, more than $2 million early on in your Chick-fil-A career. How did Chick-fil-A handle their somewhat new CMO making that mistake?

Steve Robinson: 

It was about a year and a half in my new job there. And they already had a promotion on the books called First and Best. And it was designed to try to raise visibility that the Chick-fil-A was the first chicken sandwich. Primarily because McDonald's is in the market of chicken sandwiches.

So their ad agency has been working on it. I come in a few months before that thing is supposed to launch. Well, I come in January and that, promotion was to go I think it was the next spring. It was a coupon-based promotion. Pretty much what the fast-food industry does. It was coupons or discounts and combos and buy one, get one frees. And it was five. They introduced people to the product, use direct mail, newspaper inserts. It was pretty, I have a picture of it in my book. 

Well, there was a budget that was accrued as a percentage of sales to cover that. And promotion was run out of the home office and all the food and paper costs, operators, incurs were charged back to that budget. We went $2 million over that budget. And we were not going to charge that back to the operators because we'd committed to them we would not exceed a certain percentage of their sales. That 2 million bucks went straight to the corporate budget. Now that's the time when sales were not that much, over 150 million bucks. Truett committed $10 million to build a new office building. His first. The cost of money is double-digit back then. And the mall business is starting to dive and our sales are starting to dive and all that's going on creating this cashflow crunch. And I had a $2 million promotional overrun to it. I'm concerned that the accountants are going to salt my yard and kids and ladies all over America, are throwing darts of pictures to me on the wall.

So I go three or four days into this. It's really clear. I have messed up. And I go to Jimmy and I have to apologize. I made recommendations quite frankly, out of arrogance or lack of knowledge. I did what I thought would really make the promotion more successful, but I didn't have full understanding of the impact on the back of the house, et cetera, et cetera. I am very, sorry. 

Again, Jimmy was CEO and he looks at me across the desk. He says, “Listen, don't worry about it. I've already told Truett that I was part of this decision too.” He says, “So I'm in there with you.” He said, “Secondly that means we've just invested $2 million in your education and you're never going to do something like this again.”

And I was blown away. He was very understanding. He had my back. It kept the accountants and the finance people from trying to destroy me. And I said, “Do I need to go apologize to Truett?” And he said, “No, I would, I wouldn't go in there right now.” He says he's got bigger issues than even this all is fine. And Truett never brought it up.

And so I learned early that if they still trusted me they weren't gonna slap my hands so hard that I was afraid to take a risk somewhere else down the line. Now the other side of this is quite frankly, the bigger lesson was I walked out of that and decided we're never going to coupon or discount product at Chick-Fil-A again. Never. 

Now that requires a multi-year commitment of deprogramming operators and what staff we had to do deals and discounts and coupons. But they created one of those major paradigm differences at Chick-fil-A of which there are many, but one of them was that we were not going to look like the other fast food guys when it came to how we were promoted. We're going to, if we feature a product and we wanted somebody to try it, we'd just give it away. We'd give it away.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So Steve, there is a brilliant leadership insight in there and then a branding and organizational strategy insight. And I want to briefly touch on both of them. One of them is in essence, Chick-fil-A having invested in you with a $2 million mistake. 

I was speaking with John Rossman. He's written a series of books on the Amazon way, and he retells the story of, in essence, Amazon Alexa has become a big contributor to Amazon. And it came about after the flop, that was the fire phone. And Bezos did exactly the same thing. The person that was leading that project now in this case had spent over $200 million on it and was willing to resign. And Bezos said “I've spent all this money on you. I don't want you to leave now.” And it ended up. turning into something that has become extremely profitable and valuable to Amazon strategy. So in essence, Truett, and Chick-fil-A, we're approaching it the same way. 

Now, what ended up happening out of that $2 million is something that I had never reflected on. It's a blue ocean strategy that you did for branding Chick-fil-A, which is if anyone thinks about it, even though my girls and I are big customers of Chick-fil-A, I had never thought about the fact that Chick-fil-A, doesn't do coupons and buy two for the price of one this week and so on and so forth. So how did you come up with this fast-food approach to marketing? 

Steve Robinson: 

Well, several ways by this time by year three, year four of my tenure there, I had two or three other key people around me. And the experience with the coupon promotion obviously impacts all of us. I took the burn of it, but we all learn from it. So we just sat around, said, look at the fundamental premises, we don't want to look like the other fast-food brands. It's kind of like when 7UP said, we want to be the un-Cola or BMW said we're not going to feature price. We're going to be the ultimate driving machine and we're not going to talk about price. And we started studying these brands that get incredible results that don't feature price. Well, what do they feature? In most cases, they feature superior products whether it's engineering, food, whatever, or they feature superior experiences. They feature usually more intimate, emotional relationships with their customers. Even something as big as the BMW dealership network.

And so we started, we literally started studying how they market, how they build their brands, visiting their stores we discovered, here's how a McDonald's burger king and others do it. They not only use coupons and discounts, they were doing what Chick-fil-A was doing. They're accruing money from the stores for their marketing budget. And their control on all out of the headquarters. 

Now, wait a second. We have these independent operators who generate their income from half net profits from the stores they're leading them, they're operating. They have a natural building incentive to give the customers a great experience, build sales, build relationships in their community. Why don't we, if, the typical marketing strategic platform at McDonald's burger king others looks like an upside-down pyramid, which they do. All the control and money is at the top. Very little at the market and virtually none to the store manager. Let's flip it upside down and let's build all the key components of our marketing strategy and ultimately turn out to be the brand strategy from the store up, from the operator up. 

Let's don't coupon. Let's don't discount. But we got to give them the resources to build their business in some other way. So it led to develop promotions and events and resources to give away food in the store, in the mall environment, at community events. You know, today it's digital free sandwich, free food offers cards. It's distributing free food. 

Last year I was there, Chick-fil-A operators distributed something like 10 million Chick-fil-A sandwiches free in their communities, ballgames, concerts, parades, community meetings, whatever. We basically said if we're going to make that work, then we can't keep taking money from them. So we canceled that accrual program. And we said, “Mr. Mrs. Operator, we're going to try to resource you to market the business.“

Over many years, what that led to was not only how do we create trial but what are the tools and the resources we give the operators, from a locally, it got to be so effective and so big that it led to develop a local store marketing director in every store.

They didn't work for us. They worked for the operator. It led to the operators in a given market at the next level, organizing their own marketing council. Our job was to give them guidelines on creative advertising resources. Do’s and don'ts of promotional partnerships, but they do their own deals. And then they use the resources we provided to run those deals.

The last piece at the top of the pyramid, the smallest piece was the national piece and the basic criteria there and we tried to keep it simple was what is it that only we can do out of the home office? That's where food development comes into play. Hospitality development comes into play. Relationships in college football, Chick-fil-A peach bowl, cutting deals with the national networks. They can't do that stuff. And by the way, whatever we did there, whatever we negotiated or did in that part of the pyramid, we paid for that. The store level and the market level, the operators paid for it.

Well, here's what's interesting. Over a course of time at the federal level and on the market level, the operators ended up spending about the same amount that we had been taking from them as an accrual. And what we were spending out of the national budget was less than 1% of sales to support the brand nationally. So as a result over time, the marketing strategy being flipped. And as you said, we under the course of that, discover the blue ocean strategy book. And we said you know what? That's kind of what we're doing. Let's learn from this and let's get really good at it in every area. And what we meant by that? In food development, in technology development and hospitality development, store design employee benefits, everything let's create the un-Fast food experience in every customer touchpoint, which is basically what the solution is all about. So we have no one that looks like us. And yes, we're in the same industry. We don't worry about them. And because of the way we do it, and because of the independent operator concept, the other guys, they cannot do what Chick-fil-A does. And they cannot recreate a marketing pyramid that's this way. That looks like a pyramid. They're still doing it with the inverted pyramid because I got all the accrual back to the home office. 

Well, what does that mean? It means that people with the most control of the farthest from the customer, the independent operator is in charge. They've got to do it within the brand standards of Chick-fil-A, whatever it is. But they're close to the customers. They know what customers love. They know what they don't like. And what do they do? They tell us. Not only over time the Chick-fil-A learn how to listen to customers effectively through research. Qualitative and qualitatively.

We learned to listen to the operators a lot. And those were the inputs that drove innovation. Again, whether it was food technology, service, marketing, didn't matter. The drivers of innovation were not one of the guys at the top thing. What did the owners should think? The drivers of innovation were, what are the operators think? What are the customers think?

And yes, we're going to listen to the operators, but you know what? We're going to, we're also going to keep a little check and balance for what they tell the realist, the customers in an aggressive institutionalized way. Oh, by the way, we're going to develop listening systems with customers store by store. So the operators get to hear the voice of the customer, not just from us, but for their store consistently quarter by quarter. 

And so you got this loop, that feeding this brand innovation process, but to your point is based on a completely different model than everybody else. It exploits the leadership of the Chick-fil-A operator in every restaurant.

It's empowering, it's the same basic principle where Chick-fil-A operators are empowered. Truett empowered them. He trusted them. He had only given half net, profit from a store to have someone who's fully engaged as an entrepreneur in that restaurant. And as a result, when I joined them, the average Chick-fil-A operator was making about 40 grand a year in those mall restaurants. And the average Chick-Filet operator now is let me just say it's more than tenfold that today. 

So we basically just took advantage of what Truett had given us. He gave us a culture that had a long-term perspective to talent, including the partnership with operators. Was willing to empower leaders, both of the staff and the operators. He was generous. So he was not only generous with the operators. What does that do? It bred generosity from the operators to their team members. He really was a pioneer in showing how to give away food. Cause he's been doing it in the dwarf house since the day he created it. And we're out here doing coupons and he never did. What were we doing? Even that we went back to our roots, which was him. 

To your point, the blue ocean was an evolution, but that book really did capsulate what we were trying to do. And quite frankly, helped us get better at it. Get us even more honed, more focused,

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Steve, a couple of points that you made that are absolutely brilliant. And you shared with such humility that I want to underline the fact that you were willing and the team at Chick-fil-A was willing to learn from the BMWs of the world and others, that might sound easy and people nod and say, okay, it makes sense.

However, that is extremely hard for an organization. I'm sure there are voices. And there are people that say, what the heck would we do? With learning from whether it's BMW. I know you studied Nike, Southwest. So what was it in you, the Chick-fil-A culture that got you to be able to go so far outside of the norms and limitations that most leaders in most organizations would put on themselves?

Steve Robinson: 

Well, several things. First credit where credit's due. Truett really had created the blue ocean experience to the dwarf house. And it was so common to us. So common to him. It took a few years for others like me. This guy doesn't discount his food. He gives away, he shows incredible care for his team members, LA hardly has any turnover. He gives generous bonuses. He gives them Sundays off. He's given people in his team member, his teams, scholarships. He loves on customers personally. And he's doing all this for 27 years before he even creates Chick-fil-A. and that's not the typical diner and that's what he was operating, it was a diner. And so you have that background of the guy who's already role modeling didn't even know it. He didn't even know he was doing it. Then the conversation evolved and that this was probably my primary role was constantly having a conversation with my leadership and with Dan Cathy, and Truett, Jimmy, do you really want this business just be about a sandwich? Or do you want this to be a brand that people can't live without?

People cannot live without BMWs. Or At least they don't think they can. People can't live without Nordstroms or Southwest airlines or Zappos or Amazon? Well, why can't we be a brand that people can't live without? What's that going to take? And I didn't have all the answers, but part of my strategy was let's go study people that have already created brands like that. So I created field trips.

By the way, I took Dan Cathy, the oldest son is now the CEO. And we went to Nike. And when we went to Amazon. And we went to Apple. And we went to BMW all the way over to Munich. And we saw companies that were focused, not just on the product, fortunately, not focused on price at all, but predominantly focused on creating an engaging experience for their customers. A relational experience, not treating customers as just transactions. 

If you go to a BMW dealer and you feel like you were just treated like the transaction, you need to report the dealer because I guarantee you, that's not what BMW wants. 

And so we figured, okay, how can we create that in the stores? And it took 30 years, but we just gradually kept adding what I call layers to the brand onion. Let's have menu innovation. Oh, by the way, let's get the operation really nailed. So it's always the same. And in the nineties and early 2000, it wasn't. So we went to with the encouragement of a couple of operators and Louisville, we went to Lexus and we studied zero defects. How do they implement operational procedures to achieve zero deck defects? And the cars they produced. And say, well, what has got to do with fast food? Well, we're making our own food. Every kitchen, every store is a real kitchen. Well, how do we have zero defects in our kitchen systems, processes, procedures, time and motion study.

Where are we letting the team members down? Because the ingredients are coming in the right way or the equipment are not capable of doing what we want the outcome to be. So it led to innovations in recipes and innovations in ingredients, innovations in equipment, innovations in kitchen design. And it took the better part of 10 years.

Again, we're measuring, we're using measurement systems. Many of which we learned from Lexus the move, our, delivery gaps down to almost zero. And operators started getting rewarded on that performance. 

We went to people outside our category. We didn't study our category. We went to people outside our category to figure out how do people deliver hospitality? Because the challenge is not the shirts that I want you to say My pleasure. That's easy. The challenge is what was in 50,000, what is now almost 200,000 team members to always say my pleasure. And always refresh drinks. And always pick up paper. And always carry larger orders. And always look you in the eye. And always get the order accurate before they hand it to you. That's the hard part. 

Let's go learn from these other guys because Ritz problem seems to do it back when we were doing this, they were doing a pretty good, there's an onion, the ad campaign using the council's another layer of the onion. It wasn't featuring product or price. It was featuring something completely unexpected from fast food, a smile, a laugh. Basically saying to people, listen, we don't take ourselves too seriously. And we never said, we were also saying, we can show you a million chicken sandwiches and they're all going to look alike and they could be ours, or they could be somebody else's. You never know the difference. So we're not going to show you we're to give you a little flavor of who we are. So what happened was over time, first of all, people, when they're in Chick-fil-A, were having fun.

So people started understanding they'd come to Chick-fil-A, and they might actually experience fun. At the very least they're gonna experience people who smile and say hello and act like they're glad you're there. What evolved out of that campaign was what we didn't expect. And that was people absolutely fallen in love with it and eating more chicken becoming iconic, which was part of the journey of becoming a brand nobody can live without. 

It's these strategic decisions leaders make about how do they build their brand experience beyond product only in a way that does with every layer you've added more uniqueness to your blue ocean. You've added another layer of protection to your blue ocean space. 

When I left, which I show in the book, the evolution of that led to the last three or four years, I was there. We were helping them orchestrate strategic planning throughout the entire organization where any customer touchpoint had someone involved in that initiative from marketing, representing the voice of the brand and the voice of the customer. Whether it was store design, customer-facing technology, uniform design, drive-thru design, menu. And so brand over time, we went from a place of just focused on selling sandwiches to a place where the brand was everything. And professionally, that was the most fulfilling part for me.

There were other things more fulfilling, quite frankly, there were personal and relational partnerships and stuff like that. But from a strategic point of view that was an amazing experience. And I could not have had it. I'm convinced I could not have had it in a publicly held company with a lot of leadership turnover.

 And the freedom that this founder gave me and my team I think if they continue to preserve that and they seem to be because they're still innovating they're still creating blue ocean uniquenesses in the market, they're going to continue to do quite well.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Steve, it shows that the leadership drives it all with the attraction and retention of the right people. Giving those people the opportunities to at times make mistakes. And at other times own up in the organization. And then having the right culture, which to a certain extent, as you talk about the brand, there is operational excellence that you learned, whether from Lexus and other organizations and implemented with a lot of metrics that are looked at, however, it didn't end with operational excellence.

The experience the customer experience is what Chick-Filet is known for. Even my family and I went to Chick-fil-A last week and there was a young man serving us, Jackson. He was 16 years old saying my pleasure, doing such a great job. And I asked my girls because he was a good role model. I've got 11 and 14 year old, what they noticed?

And they said, every time we come to Chick-fil-A it's as if they love having us here, the person serving us doesn't matter who it is, how old they are. They love having us here. So it's not just the quality of the sandwich that needs to be there. Those are the operational excellence metrics that you have, not how hot the fries are and everything else that you get.

But it's an experience that is handled the way, whether it's BMW Nordstrom's or other best in class companies think about in establishing that brand.

Steve Robinson: 

That's right. Well, we, discovered over time, we weren't going to move to become a brand that you couldn't live without if we couldn't deliver operational excellence. That was the foundation. And in fact, as we started the initiative around second-mile service Dan Cathy when he talk about the development of that hospitality model, he would tell the operators.

Now we're not, we're not walking away from operational excellence. That's the first mile. That's what people expect us to do. Second-mile service has got to be about what they don't expect us to do. And quite frankly, the third key pillar of the brand strategy was marketing. And it was built around the marketing experience for the people don't expect you to have. Places where they experienced free food, the cow advertising partnerships, engage with the community partner. They show up, they volunteer, they help, they bring food. They show up in times of crisis or emergencies. Why? Because those things only shift like in there. And think as long as they can stay focused on being the unfastfood we don't want to look or smell like any of the other guys and the minute we start entertaining doing something that looks or smells like the other guys, we ain't doing that. I think that's common ground to all those other brands that I mentioned, and as you mentioned, that's where we got our cues. And then over time Truett, Dan, Jimmy, they embraced it. Again, they had my back, even when there was a lot of pushback in the early years of moving to brand, as opposed to just selling more sandwiches.

Trust me, that was a big paradigm change. You know, just moving from just selling cars, having an experience. That's a big deal. But they had my back, but over time, our sales are outperforming the industry average 2, 3, 4 X, this brand thing must mean something.

You said something about your experience with Jackson at that store. It was back in 2012, we did extensive research requests customers. We did focus groups. These weren't qualitative, dozens of them across the country. And the key point was, what do you love about Chick-fil-A? What you don't like about Chick-fil-A? And now this was a few months after a PR blow-up that occurred. And what we heard and I unpack them in the book was four words. It was like a social media aggregated word, chart where good meets gracious. Where good meets gracious. I can go to Chick-fil-A no matter what store I feel like they meet me, they connect with me. They respect that I'm even there. I sense that they actually care about me. Where good meets gracious. And oh, by the way. Yeah, the food's great too. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And Steve, that's why your book is an outstanding book. I think for leaders of all kinds of organizations in understanding great leadership, great culture, and then brand and product, you do a great job with both the storytelling. There is so much, we just touch the surface of it with respect to the organizational purpose, that is such a key part of Chick-fil-A. There is so much that Chick-fil-A has done well. And just want to touch on the fact that couple of years ago, this data was collected that the average Chick-fil-A unit made about 4 million, dollars when an average McDonald's unit made about , 2.6 million average Starbucks, a little under a million average subway, about 400,000.

So McDonald’s, Starbucks, subway units put together would do less than average Chick-fil-A units. So there is a lot of brilliance that goes into this that is not just operational. It is not just the product. If anything, it is so much more than the product.

Part of what makes your book fun is the story of Chick-fil-A. Part of it is your story. But a lot of it is business practices and lessons that I think all organizations need to think about all leaders, all brands in building a great organizational culture.

So, Steve, in addition to your own book, when people ask you for leadership resources, wanting to become more effective, impactful leaders, are there any that you typically recommend to them?

Steve Robinson: 

Well, there are, I could give you a long list, but I'll give you just three or four. I would recommend the Bible. And even if you don't want to read all of it, from a leadership management point of view I think a leader needs to read in Proverbs. It is a book of wisdom. It's a book of leadership. 

The other book, which is right in front of it is Psalms. It's a book of relationships. It's a book of joy. It's a book of empathy. God's empathy for us and how we learned to extend empathy to others. 

Ecclesiastes, Joel, those four books. Well that getting into a word study on them are full of leadership principles. 

Another book that I read years ago, and I've got it right over there on my shelf. Absolutely love it. The book on Churchill called The Last Lion. He was a blue ocean, out of the box, non-paradigm leader. And he was a leader for his time because he was all of those things. He was courageous, he spoke the truth. He didn't play to the paradigms of the day. And he had this ability to see over the horizon. He called out Nazi-ism for what it was long before others were willing to even entertain it. The Last Lion. Great book. Awesome book. 

I've already talked about the blue ocean strategy for branders’ marketings. I think it's a must a must-read. Built to Last I think. He kinda like us going out and doing these benchmark trip benchmark visits. That's what he did. Great book. 

Those are the three or four. I love to read biographies. I've recently read one on Abe Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Dwight Eisenhower Teddy Roosevelt Theodore Roosevelt. I've read them all in the last two years. And these are men who were not perfect. But men who, some cases had a strong faith, other cases didn't, but they were men who had the ability to see beyond the noise and the clutter of the day, visionary thinkers. The ability to track great people around them and empower them. Think about the men I just named. They are not the heroes of our day if they had not attracted and empowered, great leaders around them. 

So I think biographies are an incredible source of leadership lessons. Quite frankly, I'll be transparent with you. One of my, one of my concerns in America's day is the apparent lack of appreciation of our own history. We don't study and learn from our own mistakes or our own successes. And when you read biographies, you're going to scratch your head and say, gee that sounded like some of the stuff going on today. Well, it shouldn't have to be that way. We ought to learn from our leadership predecessor. As I like to say, bring the future into the present, not back to the future, bring it to today. There's incredible stuff out there and much of what I've learned from it. You'll see the theme of what I've given you are less about strategy. There are more about the personalities and leadership traits of great leaders.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And I totally agree with you, Steve. I think biographies are really important for us to read and understand. And none of us are perfect human beings. None of the people we read about were perfect human beings. However, there is a lot we can learn from them, lots of great recommendations and books. 

Steve, really appreciate you taking the time to share some of your thoughts. Some of your perspectives. Some of your experience. Some of, Truett's biography. Some of your biography, and some of Chick-fil-A's with the partnering leadership community.

I really appreciate you taking this time and sharing this Steve Robinson. Thank you so much. 

Steve Robinson: 

I appreciate it.