Chick-fil-A’s executive moves show ongoing focus on internal succession

By Maria Saporta

By forming an expanded executive team at Chick-fil-A – a move announced Thursday, CEO Dan T. Cathy has completed a leadership transition that began in earnest 14 months ago.

It was in November 2013 when he took over as the CEO – succeeding his late father, Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, who had served as the company’s top executive for more than 50 years.

Cathy added five new members to the company’s executive team – evidence of how strategic Chick-fil-A is about leadership transition and succession.

The new members of the company’s executive committee are:  Jon Bridges, Brent Ragsdale, Lynn Chastain, Andrew Cathy and Cliff Robinson. All have been promoted to senior vice president.

They join Dan Cathy, Donald “Bubba” Cathy, Tim Tassopoulos, Steve Robinson, and Buck McCabe, who have comprised Chick-fil-A’s Executive Committee for more than 19 years.

“There are very few companies in America who can staff senior executive positions by promoting internal people who are as competent, experienced, and understanding of the corporate culture as these Chick-fil-A people are,” said Ken Bernhardt, a recently retired marketing professor at Georgia State University who has served as a consultant for the company for more than three decades.

Jon Bridges, 51, joined Chick-fil-A in 1992. He also assumes the role of chief marketing officer, previously held by Steve Robinson, who headed the marketing department for more than 30 years. Robinson will remain on the executive committee in an advisory role through 2015, at which time, he will retire.

Bridges began his career at Andersen Consulting, and in 1992, he joined Chick-fil-A, Inc. in the Information Technology group. He was named chief information officer, a position he held for 11 years. Five years ago was named vice president of customer experience.

He currently serves on the board of directors for City of Refuge, a non-profit working to transform the challenged Vine City community of Atlanta. A graduate of the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program, Bridges also earned a Master of Science in Marketing from Georgia State University and a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Georgia. He is married to Amy, and they have two daughters.

Brent Ragsdale, 48, assumes the role of chief financial officer, previously held by Buck McCabe, who will remain on the executive c

committee in an advisory role through 2015, at which time he will retire.

Ragsdale began working at Chick-fil-A as a restaurant team member in high school. In 1990, he joined Chick-fil-A, Inc. as a franchisee consultant. He later moved to the financial services department and held multiple leadership roles, most recently vice president and chief accounting officer.

He currently serves on the board of visitors for Berry College and the boards of directors for Southwest Christian Care, Fayette County Chamber of Commerce, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program, holds a Master of Business Administration from Mercer University and a bachelor’s degree in business from Berry College. He is married to GiGi, and they have three children.

Lynn Chastain, 59, joins the executive committee as senior vice president and general counsel. Chastain began her career as a commercial real estate attorney at Troutman Sanders in Atlanta and joined Chick-fil-A in 1990 as a staff attorney.

She held multiple leadership roles, including vice president and assistant general counsel, before being named general counsel in August 2013.

She serves on the executive committee of Junior Achievement of Georgia and is chairman of the board for the Kenya Project, a non-profit working to improve the lives of children in Kenya.

Chastain is a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law, and she holds a Master of Education in Counseling from the University of Georgia and a bachelor’s degree from Georgia State University. She and her husband Terry have three children and two grandchildren.

Andrew Cathy, 36, joined Chick-fil-A in 2005. He assumes the role of senior vice president and chief people officer, overseeing recruitment, selection, and cultivation of corporate staff and franchised restaurant owners.

Cathy began his career teaching business courses and coaching football and track at Landmark Christian High School. He later joined the family business as a franchised restaurant operator. After 18 months of running his own Chick-fil-A restaurant, Cathy joined Chick-fil-A, Inc. in its west coast office as a franchisee consultant.

Since moving to the Atlanta headquarters, he has held jobs of increasing responsibility, most recently as the vice president of people.

He serves on the board of directors for Pinewood Atlanta Studios and board of trustees for Point University. Cathy holds a bachelor’s degree in business education from University of Georgia. He is married to Mandy, and they have two children.

Cliff Robinson, 47, is senior vice president of field operations, which supports all Chick-fil-A restaurants nationwide. Robinson began working for Chick-fil-A in high school as a team member in his father’s Chick-fil-A restaurant.

In 1990, he joined Chick-fil-A as a marketing consultant and later joined the field operations department as a franchisee consultant. After holding multiple leadership positions in both field operations and marketing, he served as vice president of field operations for six years before being named senior vice president.

Robinson serves on the board of directors for Providence Christian Academy and Care for AIDS, and is an elder at North Point Community Church. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program, holds a Master of Business Administration from Georgia State University and a Bachelor of Business Administration from Oglethorpe University. He and his wife Stacy have three children.

“Longevity in leadership has always been one of our secret ingredients,” said Dan Cathy, who is Chick-fil-A’s chairman, president and CEO. “Chick-fil-A is in the rare and wonderful position of having senior leaders who helped grow this business with care and confidence. They have mentored a new generation of leaders.”

Cathy went on to say he was “especially grateful” to Steve Robinson and Buck McCabe, “for their loyalty, wisdom and humble service.”

Cathy said they played a significant part in growing one restaurant into a business of more than 1,850 restaurants that have had 47 consecutive years of sales growth.

“As we position Chick-fil-A for an even stronger future, we will be strengthened by the wisdom of the leaders who got us here,” Cathy said in a statement. “They are passing the torch to a new generation of leadership who are well-prepared to foster growth of a relevant brand in a changing world. They are individuals with character, fortitude and unparalleled business acumen — our best is yet to come.”

Dan Cathy joined the company in 1970, becoming its president and chief operating officer in 2001. By becoming part of the executive committee, his son, Andrew Cathy, appears to be in line to eventually succeed his father.

Bernhardt said that Chick-fil-A’s smooth transition from Truett Cathy to Dan Cathy as well as how it grooms its top executives is a model for other companies.

“As these people are promoted, the company has a strong enough bench that each of these people have replacements for their previous jobs who are as strong and well prepared as they are,” Bernhardt said. “More companies should focus on people and succession planning the way Chick-fil-A does. It pays off big time. They are a truly amazing company.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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