I keep seeing it in the news – last month the San Antonio City Council voted against bringing a Chick-Fil-A restaurant into the city’s airport. I am puzzled, but perhaps I should not be.
Chick-Fil-A (for the nine people who do not already know) is owned by the Cathy family. S. Truett Cathy opened an Atlanta, Georgia diner in 1946. He hit upon the right recipe for a fried chicken sandwich in the mid 1960s and soon thereafter opened his first Chick-Fil-A restaurant.
The rub, it appears, is that Truett Cathy was a religious man, a tradition carried on by his descendants. Cathy donated generously to causes he found praiseworthy and made the costly decision to close the restaurant chain on Sundays in furtherance of his faith’s legacy of a day of the week for rest – something his employees likely appreciate.
As you might expect in our modern society, the principles which have been emphasized by the company rub many folks the wrong way.
What puzzles me is that the company is almost universally recognized as a model employer and corporate citizen. The restaurants are exceptionally clean and the food is quite good. They treat their employees well and have been generous with people in need.
I recall another company many years ago that was much like Chick-Fil-A, except in one way – Ben & Jerry’s. In 1978 Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sunk their money into a little ice cream shop in a former gas station in Burlington, Vermont.
The pair made and sold top-quality ice cream which made for happy customers. As they grew they, too were model corporate citizens in treating their employees well, making high quality products and supporting causes which were important to the founders who remained active in running the business.
It is no secret to readers here that I hew towards the conservative end of the political spectrum. And I can recall a time in my youth when I avoided buying Ben & Jerry’s ice cream because I disagreed with some of the ways they chose to spend their money. But then I finally realized that I was being a hypocrite. Here I was, a believer in free enterprise and private property, begrudging a couple of guys in Vermont the right to support things they found important. I also decided that if they were going to be a good company that made a fabulous product, why should I penalize myself by choosing something not as good?
And so I changed my mind. I could eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Not because I agreed with much of their politics, but because they made ice cream of exceptional quality and sold it from a company that treated its employees well.
I don’t eat as much Ben & Jerry’s as I used to. First, I am older and fatter so I need it less than I once did. Second, they sold their company to a big conglomerate so that the feeling of supporting a relatively small yet high quality business has sort of dissipated. But my reduced spending on ice cream has nothing to do with Ben’s or Jerry’s politics. (Rewarding the people who ruined Klondike Bars, well that is something else entirely).
It appears, however, that the modern mind does not engage in the same kind of analysis. Chick-Fil-A seems to attract opposition whenever it tries to expand into some of the more progressive communities.
I could certainly understand objections to a company that treats employees badly, runs dirty restaurants or sells poor quality food. Or do folks in San Antonio, San Francisco and New York City just not like chicken sandwiches?
I get that my tendencies towards supporting free markets and free people (thank you for that phrase, Wall Street Journal) might not fly among those unfriendly to the Cathy family’s views. But here is another way of looking at things.
Much of the political left rails against Big Business – and I am actually sympathetic with that view, to a point. Modern corporate methods have relentlessly squeezed pennies from every source. The rap on modern business is that temporary carpet-bagging management-types make short-term decisions to jack up stock prices so that they can maximize their bonuses before they jump to the next big growth opportunity. (I am probably surprising more than a few of you).
It is a theory of mine that businesses run by founders or by their families tend to do a better job, even when the businesses are big. In a modern company there are owners (shareholders) and there are managers. In theory the managers work for the owners. In practice, however, it is not uncommon that ownership is dominated by investment funds that gauge success by little more than ever-higher stock price.
Managers who are beholden to the big mutual funds that focus on stock prices tend to make decisions that support high stock prices, usually to their own private profit as well. These managers often share a short-term outlook with the funds that own the shares, and voila – everyone is trying to juice short term results at the expense of almost everything else.
I do not mean to turn this into a treatise on corporate governance but let’s just say that a company like the ones run by the Cathy family (and formerly by an actual Ben and an actual Jerry) are, all things being equal, going to be more likely to make better stuff and be better places to work. At least as long as the owners’ hearts are in the right place.
And when a company is run by a family that takes care of those in its organization and pitches in to help the less fortunate, isn’t that something that should be encouraged rather than discouraged?
Every day big companies support charities and causes important to those in charge. Is that a reason to support one over another? Not in my book – at least not automatically. The company that can take care of business, take care of its employees and be good corporate citizens (all at the same time) is the one that will, more often than not, get my hard-earned dollars.
So if some company is run by people who disagree with my politics but who also serve a better ice cream cone or chicken sandwich through a better and more generous organization – I see no trouble with them getting my business.
Modern politics is a nasty business. Perhaps a delicious chicken sandwich and some really good ice cream to chase it down is one way to take some of the ugly out.
Photo credit: J. Reed Photo of Chick-Fil-A’s chicken sandwich from Flicker via Wikimedia Commons under the Share And Share Alike 2.0 license. Changed only by size reduction from original file.