Interview with Mike Schisler

By Brad Dupray

Mike Schisler is an elder at Heritage Christian Church in Peachtree City, Georgia, overseeing the congregation’s missions ministry, but his occupation takes him to Chick-fil-A restaurants throughout the southeastern United States. As regional management consultant at Chick-fil-A, Mike works directly with the Chick-fil-A operators. Mike is a graduate of Georgia Tech University and has been married to Teresa for 34 years. The Schislers have three grown children, Kelly, Kim, and Kyle.

How did you end up at Chick-fil-A?

In the late ’70s I went to Southwest Christian Church with Jimmy Collins, who eventually became the president of Chick-fil-A. Three or four others at the church ended up being Chick-fil-A operators.

Are the Chick-fil-A stores franchised?

They are all company owned, but set up like franchises. There’s no substantial cash investment on the operator’s part. It’s like being in business for yourself, but not by yourself. The individual gives Chick-fil-A a $5,000 deposit, and Chick-fil-A turns over a turnkey operation. If it’s a new restaurant we help them get it off the ground—preparing the restaurant to open and training the new people.

It seems like you would have people lining up at the door to join the team.

We do get people who want to invest in Chick-fil-A for their sons or daughters—and that’s not something we do. We go directly into business with the individual and he or she will be involved not just with the store, but with the community. It’s a pretty arduous task to join Chick-fil-A; you have to be exemplary in all aspects of your life. We look for great references as an employee, and as a leader. The operators are protectors of the brand, so to speak. We’re not just entrusting a cash-flow type business into the hands of an individual; we’re entrusting the lives and livelihood of 25 to 60 people.

What sets apart the Chick-fil-A corporate philosophy from others?

Our founder, Truett Cathy, believes very strongly that you can be successful in business using biblical principles. In 1982 the company was facing some challenges, so Truett and the executive committee got away for a couple of days and asked the question, “Why do we exist?” The corporate purpose is what they came away with, and I think God has honored that.

Is Chick-fil-A a Christian business?

Our core values have both a spiritual side and a practical side. That makes the company work. We’re not a Christian business; we’re a business that rests on Christian principles. Our corporate purpose sums that up—we want “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that’s entrusted to us and to be a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” That’s our check and balance, our safety net, when we get ready to make decisions. The final question we ask is, “Are we going to fulfill the corporate purpose?” It’s our guiding light; it’s our beacon.

Does the company ever catch flack for mixing “religion” with work?

We haven’t yet. We’re not publicly traded so we’re not looked at as much. I think we may be under divine protection some way. Sometimes outsiders can be meddlesome and try to create some problems where there aren’t any problems. But at this point in time God has honored our philosophy. It’s not a show; it’s the heart of Chick-fil-A. Some day someone may challenge that, but what we do is pretty much who we are.

How does Chick-fil-A act out that philosophy in a practical way?

Whenever we open a new store we have a dedication dinner for the store. It’s primarily directed at the new team members for the new store, but that gathering is to dedicate that business to God—“We know that all things come from you and we want to acknowledge that and give it back to you and ask that you bless these operators, these team members.” Usually the new operator’s minister is there to give a prayer of dedication, never forgetting that the blessings we have are from God.

Truett Cathy sets the example. I’m sure I’m not aware of 10 percent of what Truett does to support the community. He has taught a class of 13-year-old boys at his church for 60-some years. I believe there are 12 foster homes that Truett supports in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Brazil. In my mind Truett has always walked his talk. It’s one thing to say it; it’s another thing to live it. He’s quite inspirational to all Chick-fil-A employees.

It sounds like you guys do a lot more than sell chicken.

When you’re wearing a Chick-fil-A tie, or driving a vehicle with Chick-fil-A on the side you have a reputation to uphold. I try to live up to that reputation of Chick-fil-A that has been set by Truett Cathy and our leadership. People say, “You work for Chick-fil-A? You must be a great person.” That’s because of Chick-fil-A’s reputation. It’s my responsibility to uphold it, and I take that responsibility very seriously.

Are new employees shocked by your corporate approach?

The people we’re attracting know about Chick-fil-A, its core values, and its people. I think people are attracted to Chick-fil-A because of those core values and principles, so they know what they’re getting into when they come. Every Monday morning we have a devotional time—it’s voluntary. We have a prayer list that goes around. Last night I got a call from a Chick-fil-A operator to let me know his parents had been in an auto accident and his mom, age 59, had been killed in that accident and his father was hospitalized. He called because he knew we would put his family on the prayer list. He said, “I want my family at Chick-fil-A to know, and if they would, to pray for us.” He knew he could do that. When it gets down to it, people drop what they are doing just like a church family would.

People who are new to Chick-fil-A are surprised to find your stores closed on Sundays. Are there other indicators of the company’s Christian roots?

Being closed on Sundays is probably the biggest visible statement of who we are. It would be rare for you to find the corporate purpose in our stores—that’s an internal motivator. We’ve even asked operators not to display that because we don’t want to offend anyone. We’re not a church. If you sit in our dining room and hear Christian music playing, that might be offensive to some. We’re not trying to evangelize in our business. We show our testimony in how we act, how we serve the customer, and in the quality of the product we provide.

You mentioned your “product” last, is that intentional?

People all the time mention the quality of the people in our restaurants. Truett challenged the operators and staff people to use the phrase, “It’s my pleasure.” It’s not in the phraseology, it’s in the attitude. It truly is our pleasure to serve you. We spend a lot of time and money trying to attract the kind of people who have a servant’s heart and want to be of service.

So when you guys talk about “customer service” you really mean it.

We practice “second-mile service.” Our competitive advantage is in building raving fans who are extremely loyal to Chick-fil-A. A clean bathroom is first-mile service. Any restaurant would do that. We want to do those things you don’t have to do. Helping someone to the car when it’s raining. Carrying a tray for a mom who has two little ones with her. Picking up wastepaper while people are having a conversation at their table. Those things exhibit second-mile service.

What could a person who is looking for a good company to work for learn from Chick-fil-A?

I think you need to look at what a company’s core values are and what guides them—the principles by which those core values are implemented. You need to identify what those are so you know who they are. Otherwise, things can change from day to day. You know what they do—they sell chicken or build automobiles—but you need to know who they are.

What happens when Truett Cathy passes on?

Truett has two sons and a daughter—Dan, Don (we call him Bubba), and Trudy. Five or six years ago they stood on stage and made the commitment to 1,000 operators, “You saw what Dad has created here and we’re committed to doing the same thing in our generation.” Now, they’re preparing for the third generation. We have two Cathy grandsons running Chick-fil-A restaurants. Before they did that they had to work outside of Chick-fil-A to get the experience in the job market. I admire them so much that they don’t have an attitude of entitlement, but they are individuals who are looking to earn the respect of the Chick-fil-A family.

Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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