Building a valued brand requires vision and determination. During the upcoming AICC Spring Meeting, being held April 26-28 in Amelia Island, Florida, Steve Robinson, the former Chief Marketing Officer for Chick-fil-A, will discuss in his Keynote Address how he helped in building the fast-food chain into an instantly recognizable brand.

Robinson’s career with Chick-fil-A spanned 34 years, and he was integrally involved in the company’s growth — from 184 stores and $100 million in annual sales in 1981 to more than 2,100 stores and more than $6.8 billion in annual sales in 2015. He was involved in the creation of the Chick-fil-A corporate purpose and the formation and management of the now-iconic “Eat Mor Chikin” cow campaign.

In his presentation, Robinson will reference his book, entitled “Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A”, which analyzes the company’s core beliefs, its ability to attract top talent and its enormous growth over the years. Each AICC Spring Meeting attendee will receive a copy of Robinson’s book. Board Converting News spoke exclusively with Robinson about his book, his tenure with Chick-fil-A and what AICC attendees could expect from his presentation.

Q: You mention that a Corporate Purpose was the framework for the Chick-fil-A brand. Is it too late for a company that has achieved success to develop a Corporate Purpose? Why or why not? 

A: Not at all. With growth, new people and customers are brought into the brand. With size brings a potential loss of historical context for what was/is important to owners/leaders and how that influenced decision making. A clear, written purpose helps to bring the past into the future and an anchor reference point on why the organization exists and how that purpose influences decisions, talent selection and branding.

Q: Chick-fil-A’s founder Truett Cathy, who died in 2014 at age 93, had a sincere desire to honor God and have a positive influence on everyone who comes in contact with his brand. How do feel that his religious beliefs contributed to the success of Chick-fil-A? 

A: Truett never siloed his faith from any aspect of his life, including the business. He saw the CFA sandwich business as a gift from God, and as such, he felt a deep conviction to steward every aspect of the business well. Additionally, he saw everyone associated with CFA as an extension of his reputation, which clearly helped shape the values and experiences created by CFA. So, it should be no surprise that he would close on Sundays to give everyone a day off, or tithe their business, invest heavily in scholarships and development programs, or place a high value on personal hospitality. I unpack this issue in depth in my book.

Q: Without giving away too much of the message of your presentation and your book, what can you tell a roomful of successful box makers and suppliers about the three Rs: Relationships, Reputation and Relevance? 

A: All three grow out of a value that personal connections are more important than just transactions. Relationships are a priority because whether customer, supplier or member of the business family, every relationship is important to developing loyalty, brand clarity and sustained business.

Reputation is the brand. Every customer contact either adds to the brand reputation or depletes it. There are no neutral business touch point. So you better select the right people that will contribute to the reputation you want and they in turn will create not just transactions, but brand advocates.

Relevance is fundamentally keeping the customer the most important constituent in the business. Not owners or stockholders, not employees, but customers. In turn, you will be an aggressive listener to customers, in a systematic way, in order to know how to keep your business offerings, experience and brand messaging relevant. If you lose relevance with customers, you will not be all you can be.

Q: You write of your own Christian faith and its importance to your life and your work? How do you address this in your presentation? 

A: I simply share my story of realizing the truth of God’s grace through his son. It was a milestone that dramatically shaped my life, just as it did Truett’s. I don’t dwell on it, but because of this common grace-based faith that Truett and I shared, it made my work more fulfilling and easier.

Because I had a pretty good understanding of what was important to him and most of those principles and values are important to me, too.

Q: Do you believe the idea of ‘character over qualifications’, as expressed in your book, would work for all companies, no matter the market they served? 

A: Yes! Any business will be more innovative and successful if it is comprised of people who trust each other’s judgment and integrity. These will be folks who can be trusted and, therefore, empowered to make important decisions closer to the customer. 

Q: In your book, you mentioned your $2 million mistake. How important are mistakes in the growth of a company, using them as learning opportunities? 

A: CRUCIAL. People must feel the freedom to try new things. The real art is having a process for testing and  development of ideas that help determine unforeseen risks and maximizes insights before a business wide rollout. 

Q: Several AICC members are also members of family-owned, multi-generational companies facing transitions to next-generation leadership. What can you share about transitions in leadership from your experience with Chick-fil-A? 

A: First, each generation must pay attention to purpose and values; thus, building and managing the culture is that family’s number one responsibility. Strategy stands on culture. Second, proper non-family talent is huge. If you do not have all the skill sets within the family (highly unlikely), you better get it and empower them. Third, annual and long-term multi-generation personal development plans (family members and management). Fourth, proper financial and estate planning. And fifth, how do you compensate non-family in a way that incentivizes great performance and loyalty. And, maybe most important of all, try to run the business with the same commitment to excellence and stewardship as you would if you were public.

Q: What’s the best way to ensure the next generation of a company or organization has the historical context of the way decisions were made by previous leaders? 

A: Constantly tell the stories. Document milestone events and decisions in writing, videos and talent development programs, reference key historical learnings or decisions as new decisions are made and explained.

Q: As businesses begin reopening in the coming months, are there lessons from the experience with COVID that business owners and operators can use to better build their companies for the future? 

A: Listen to customers via research to determine how their future purchase and usage patterns will permanently change. Adapt and innovate accordingly. 

Q: Can you address the ways in which Chick-fil-A pivoted during COVID, making sure that the company’s mantra of customer service (“My pleasure!”) remained intact? 

A: They already had the protocols for second mile service via drive thru. But they beefed up capital investments in outdoor additions like hand washing stations, more permanent weather protection covers, and more commercial grade wifi capacity. They also ramped up their systems and standards with third party delivery companies, and gave operators the tools to try their own delivery services. And making the Chick-fil-A One app more functional to support preordered curbside pickups, delivery and preorder for drive-thru. 

Q: Anything else you may want to add that might help convince those who may not have considered hearing your talk to invest the time to hear your message at the AICC meeting? 

A: Great brands or businesses only survive in great cultural soil, but only if leaders cultivate that soil. This is the headline for my presentation, I unpack it in great detail in my presentation, with relevant Chick-fil-A illustrations.

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