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Clarity of Purpose with Steve Robinson

George Grombacher September 14, 2023

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Clarity of Purpose with Steve Robinson

LifeBlood: We talked about how clarity of purpose helped birth an iconic brand, the necessity of a long-term time horizon when building a company, how to be a values-driven organization, and creating an environment of fun, with Steve Robinson, former Chief Marketing Officer of Chick-fil-A, author, and speaker.      

Listen to learn about the real magic behind the growth of Chick-fil-A!

You can learn more about Steve at and LinkedIn.

Get your copy of Covert Cows HERE

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Our Guests

George Grombacher

Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson

Episode Transcript

george grombacher 0:02
Steve Robertson is an author, a speaker and a consultant. He is the former director of marketing for six flags and the former chief marketing officer for Chick fil A his newest book is covert cows chick fillet how faith cows and chickens built an iconic brand. Steve, welcome.

Steve Robinson 0:18
Thank you, George. Great to be with you.

george grombacher 0:20
Yeah, really excited to have you on. Tell us a little about your personal life. So more about your work? Why you do

Steve Robinson 0:26
what you do? Wow. Well, I grew up in South Alabama, LA, and a little town called Foley Alabama, 10 miles from Gulf Shores. I’m gonna abbreviate this for time. Spent my senior year in New Zealand as an exchange student with an American Field Service to junior college for two years one because that’s what I can afford. And two gave me an opportunity to play two more years of baseball, went to Auburn University, and majored in marketing. met Diane, my wife there on a blind date. And we have been happily married and still best friends now for 51 years. And then she and I graduated on the same day at Auburn. Four days later, we got married, and went to Evanston, Illinois, where I entered the graduate program and Medill School of Journalism major in advertising communications. Great program would not have shown up there without the help of my Auburn Dean who made introductions and strongly recommended. That’s where I go. first job out of Medill was Texas Instruments out and talent in Dallas. I was in a brand new group marketing what they call so many semiconductor products. For layman’s, that was the first handheld calculators and I was focused on scientific calculators for engineers, mathematicians, etc. Architects and predominantly direct response marketing, or media and direct mail a whole new area of growth. For me, I learned a ton. It wasn’t an area that I got much at Northwestern on. Was there about a year phone rang and it was Director of Marketing Six Flags Over Texas. He was brother, one of my Medela brothers. And he said I got an opening in my marketing department, would you be interested? And I would think okay, you’ve only been a TI for a year. Why would you do that? I discovered a year the TI was a engineering focus company. And I started to get the feeling that it was not going to be a great place for a marketing career. So I figured why not? Let’s go out and visit I really liked Dan’s brother. So I went and interviewed Dan house for a full Saturday. And at the end of the day, they offered me the job. And I went to work for six flags. I had a seven year career with Six Flags, three different locations, started out there in Texas my last four years or was the Six Flags Over Georgia in Atlanta, where I actually became the director of marketing for my last three years there. And Lana was always where I wanted to be and the Lord navigated the the relationships and the trip. And at time dine and I had a daughter. And I was having a really good time with Six Flags Over Georgia learned a lot, clearly a marketing oriented brand oriented company. This is in the heyday of theme parks and phone rang one evening in August of 1980. And it was Jimmy Collins, who is the CEO for central light. And I had met Jimmy about two years earlier and an attempt to get them to build a Chick fil A store in the park. They were a small regional chain, only in about nine states less than 100 stores all in malls. awareness level of almost nothing. And if you weren’t a mall shopper, you would have no idea who Chick fil A was. So we were pitching them on how to build your brand and create trial. Inside the park where you potentially be exposed to 2.8 million people a year. Shorter that was we had a great conversation. We looked at sites we looked at a store design they decided not to do it because they realized they couldn’t make money at it. I told them that all along. The only people are gonna make money at it or the park was the park but got to know them. So it’s now and that’s back in probably 79 We’re all I have So it’s now summer at. And Jimmy calls. So I know who he is. And Jimmy said, you know, we know each other, and we don’t have a marketing department and our operators really need help building their sales, your name keeps popping up, I just want to refer you to have an interest in talking to us. Now, George, my immediate reaction sitting there was, I know you don’t have a marketing department, or you would have done that deal with me back in 1979, or 78, whenever it was, but I had grown to know the company well enough. I really appreciated the leadership, it was private, I loved their product. They were based in Atlanta. And I had in my first eight years, I’d been in public companies and quite frankly, had grown a little frustrated with six legs had been sold. And the new owners were heavily focused on quarterly cash earnings, which is not a healthy thing, when it comes to building a brand. So I said, Sure, let’s talk about it. I spent one day interviewing with Dan house at Six Flags, what’s a figure what’s three or four days with Chick fil A. I’m going to speed up the story here and jump all the way to December of the same year. And I’m in truth Kathy’s office, who’s chairman and founder. And I’m still interviewing. It’s been almost five months. I’m doing it still. And it’s lunch, and I’m on my lunch break from Six Flags. So I look at shirt and I said the truth. I love what you got going on here. I really appreciate the kind of culture you’re building. I like your product. I like your operator model, which we can talk about a little bit. But this is getting a little difficult because I also liked the job I have now. And what are you looking forward now to marketing candidate. And Georgie looks at me. And there’s this long silence. And I figured okay, I may have just screwed the pooch here. He says I have no idea. All I know is whatever it is, I don’t want to do it. Really. But he won’t finish. Many says. But I do know this, that if we invite you to join Chick Fil A’s because we think we can have a long, long career together. You’ll never leave here. We’ll be able to trust you. And we’ll have fun together. And another long pause. And I’m in a bit of a state of shock by now. Particularly when he said you’ll never leave here. And and he says you need to understand that our product. Our process is methodical because we don’t train culture we hired we’re more interested in who you are, and whether you got to be a really good fit for this organization long term. So I’ll shorten the story to say he did not tell me what they were going to do. And then interview two weeks later, Jimmy called me said we want you to do it if you’re willing to do it. I said yes, obviously. So I joined Chick fil A in 1981. In January. I had no idea I have a 35 year career, plus three more years on their board. But he’s right through it was right they did not have a marketing department. And the upside of all that was I had the honor and privilege of building. I just the marketing department had the honor and privilege of building a brand strategy as well as a marketing strategy and over the long haul. He was a patient man, he wasn’t interested in short term profits, he was focused on growth, having a healthy business, building his reputation. In fact, I’m leaving his office and on his desk. It’s a Bible verse proverbs 22. One a good name is to be more vital than riches, gold or silver. And I learned over time that that that really was his primary focus in business to have a good name, create an environment where people could thrive. And as long as he wasn’t in a cash, cash prices position. It was a content man. And he gave me incredible freedom to fulfill my duties initially as director of marketing and eventually Chief Chief Marketing Officer. So that’s our very quick wrap up on how I got there. Where I came from Diane and I have two children. They’re both grown adults have their own families. We have four grandchildren. They’re all doing great. They live in Atlanta, we sold our house in Atlanta back in May we now live in North Carolina. And love being up here.

george grombacher 10:07
Excellent. Well, that’s that is quite a story. Thank you for sharing that. You’re welcome. Do you Do you consider yourself a traditional guy, traditional kind of person?

Steve Robinson 10:19
I would, I would. When I was in junior college, and I think a lot of that is fostered by my faith. When I was in junior college, I attended a conference where a guy was speaking, who wrote the book, crossing the switchblade. He was an evangelist in New York City. And it was really the first time even though I’d grown up in the church, it was early the first time I’ve heard the gospel and understand what Christ eventually done for me. So all that to say, when I became a believer at that event, I started a spiritual walk that had not been very healthy. And so if I’m found a traditionalist is because a large part of what I’ve learned, not just in the context of church, but more importantly, in the context of God’s word, being around other men and women who have this balance of worldview, as well as Christian view, spiritual view, and priorities that, that transcend what’s goes on here. So yeah, I would have say, I’m a traditionalist, but in the, in the biblical sense,

george grombacher 11:39
yeah, I appreciate that. Is that Is that ever been at odds with with with, with marketing,

Steve Robinson 11:47
I don’t think it has to be. It can be. But I don’t think it has to be. Now it helps that I’m working in an environment with an owner who was also a believer. And wanted to have an environment where people could grow and be their full self, physical, spiritual, as well as professional. He created an environment where you had an opportunity to truly grow and thrive personally, professionally. He empowered his people, including me. And I, for example, I, my 35 years or true, had never called me to his office wants to argue with me about a decision I made or why I made it. I make some mistakes. If you wrote, you read my book, you know, I talked about some I made some big mistakes. But he created environment where I learned from those mistakes. And it fostered creativity, innovation. So if you’re an environment, that’s your question, where people are true to a lot of dignity respect. Theirs, you’re not going to do anything in the marketing arena that does anything undermine that. And so we took a pretty non traditional approach where instead of just chasing people’s money in their in transactions, we chased relationships. We tried to build relationships, give people genuine value for their money, treat them with respect in the restaurants treat them with respect in the labor market at the store. Early in my career, we completely got out of discounting and deals where we’re, you know, just chasing transactions. And we really focused on building a brand that delivered every bit of the value we’re paying for, and hopefully, an experience that actually made you feel better, whether it was in the restaurant, or even because the cows made you laugh, you know, so that the long answer is no, I don’t think there’s any has to be any conflict at all. But it depends on the kind of culture that leadership creates. If you create a culture, that’s short term focus, profit is king. Quarterly Earnings is paramount. People are not genuinely valued as as people that have a, you know, an eternal value, but more importantly, an opportunity to contribute to the business more valued in business, the longer they’re there. So you focus on developing them and giving them opportunity leads to grow professionally. For example, I would say over half the people that were in the marketing department when I left, which was almost 250 people, over half of them were doing some they’re still at Chick fil A, but they’re doing a different job. They’re not in the marketing department anymore. And it was illustration of giving people an opportunity to grow and thrive and not have to leave the business and lose all institutional knowledge to still have an opportunity to grow contribute. So, no, I don’t think it’s a problem at all, if you have the right leaders at the top, and they create the right culture, that’s the key.

george grombacher 15:12
That makes a lot of sense. And certainly being a private company. sure that that is one of the big advantages that take advantage.

Steve Robinson 15:19
Well, George, think about it, you know, the typical CEO, and even cmo turns over and public companies about over three to four years. Now, think about it, it’s fairly logical when you realize that doesn’t avail the opportunity to build much of a consistent culture. Because next CEO, next CMO, they want to put their fingerprint on the culture of the business, the priorities of the business, they create new purpose statements and value statements, most of which go on walls, and they don’t even live out. And so when you have that kind of turnover, in most public organization, the most public companies, you’re not going to have clarity about why you exist. Purpose, or how do you make decisions around fundamental values that you won’t, you will not bend on their non negotiables. In business? Well, we had, we had clarity of purpose, which we wrote in 1982. To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all those entrusted to us and have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick fil A, it was written in the middle of financial 1982 crisis. We had clarity purpose, it hasn’t changed, not one word is change. Still, today, we have clarity of eyes, we knew exactly what was important to true stewardship, excellence, integrity, having fun, teamwork, there you have it. Everybody knew what they were everybody knew how those things played out in the business. And everybody knew why we exist. The purpose, when you have clarity of purpose and clarity of values, that you’re willing to literally fall on a sword over what happens, everybody is better empowered to make decisions. Decision making doesn’t have to keep going up. And decision making actually can be pushed down. And what’s the advantage of that you’re making decisions closer to the customer. And that’s the one of the real operational keys to Chick fil A is because of the clarity of purpose and values. And because of the organizational model, where Chick fil A restaurants are run by independent contractors who are empowered, not just the run the business, functionally, but also run the business in the context of those purpose and the values. These men and women are representing the brand and their communities, consistent with what true would have done if he was still running each of those restaurants. And that’s the real magic of Chick fil A is local leadership. They don’t they’re not equity investors, but their, their their franchise, Qi franchisees on the side of the law, they are independent contractors. And when I get into the details of the of the deal, their income is half of the net operating profit of the stores that they operate. So what do you have you got a bunch of entrepreneurs, they didn’t have any financial risk, but their their sweat equity is in the business like they’re not passive investors, they are in the business. They’re in their communities, helping to build sales and helping to attract and keep great people. They’re building relationships, relationships in the community. They’re not going on a word annual turnover less than 3% for those men and women. And POS how in the world is Chick fil A do average store volumes like they do last year was over 8 million is because clarity, purpose clarity values and great leaders close to the customer. Now there’s a lot going on underneath all that. But that’s so watch it fois who they are today. And he gave me an incredible environment. Okay, how do we equip those men and women to build the brand we didn’t try to build the brand from the home office. We flipped the the paradigm of how marketing is done in most franchise organizations, including including fast food restaurants. And instead of everything being done out of the home office and billed back to the stores and all the decisions are made at the corporate office, we push marketing to the store level and power the operator gave me the tools I needed, gave him the brand creative. They needed to be consistent in the marketplace, even empower them to invest in To the brand through the restaurants, they don’t send us any money. They keep the money. They invest in building the brand and building sales in their respective communities and their markets they work together. And our role, our will, how do we do what they cannot do? Well, let’s make sure the brain is healthy and relevant. So we take care of the menu, we take care of marketing, creative resources, we take take care of brain innovation around Office food, but store design technology systems, drive thru systems, distribution systems, there’s certain things the operators simply cannot do for themselves. But what they can do for themselves actually do better than if we tried to do a forum. And one of those things was market the business. So the headline on that people used to ask me view, what keeps you awake at night? My answer was two part answer. Number one, what doesn’t keep me awake is I don’t worry about building sales. It’s up to the operator. They’re highly motivated to build sales. Therefore, what does keep me up at night? Are we given the operators what they need as a brand, and marketing resources to build the brand and build their sales. And that was, that was our charter. My job, quite frankly, made my job a lot easier, a lot more fun. And I was able to focus on stuff that really would move the brain forward in terms of customer engagement, loyalty, and not be worried about what I said much earlier about chasing transactions every quarter, I won my job. So so a lot of reasons I stayed for 35 years. But that’s kind of that’s kind of a high level synopsis of it.

george grombacher 21:53
I love it. Yeah, certainly. Sounds like sounds like Mr. Cathy honored. What? What he said was going to happen when you accepted the job.

Steve Robinson 22:03
He absolutely did. And I loved him, and he loved me. And it was good. It was good. Love it

george grombacher 22:12
was Steve, thank you so much for coming on sharing story. Where can people learn? Where can people learn more about you? How can they engage with you? Where can they get their copy of covert cows and Chick fil A?

Steve Robinson 22:22
Well, covert cows and Chick fil A is still on Amazon. It’s still every now and then you’ll find it at Walmart or on their website. It’s available through bulk books. For those out there that want to not only read it themselves, but share it with others. So it’s still Amazon’s probably the easiest for most folks. I have a I do have a website, says s Robinson And I’m on LinkedIn. I do not do Twitter. Or any of that other stuff. I stay focused on business connections. And that’s pretty much it. So let’s rolling finding smart man. And the book. The book obviously goes into the story that I’ve highlighted. And Greg is, it’s basically a summary is a biography of Truett. Cathy, the brand in my career. That’s what it’s about. Have it

george grombacher 23:25
with you enjoy this as much as I did show Steve your appreciation and share today’s show with a friend who also appreciates good ideas. Pick up your copy of coverts cows and Chick fil A how fake cows and chicken built in iconic brand. Find it on Amazon some other places. I’ll list them in the notes of the show. And then you can learn a little bit more about Steve at Robinson. Is it s Robinson consulting Steve Robinson consulting? Yes, Robinson And then find Steve on LinkedIn as well. Thanks again, Steve.

Steve Robinson 23:58
Thank you, George. It was honored to be with you. It was fun.

george grombacher 24:02
Till next time, remember, do your part by doing your best. Amen.

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