Author: Kent Hannon

Published

The most popular, oft-told version of David Salyers’ Chick-fil-A success story begins with him graduating from UGA on Saturday and working for Chick-fil-A the following Monday.

“The real truth,” says David, “is that I graduated from UGA on Saturday morning — and went to work for Chick-fil-A that afternoon. I was an unemployed college graduate for about four hours.”

If you visit David at Chick-fil-A’s sparkling high-tech Atlanta headquarters — where his title is vice president of brand activation marketing for a fast food company that has increased its profits for 49 consecutive years — it may be instructive to know David’s first office, where he started Chick-fil-A’s training program on his graduation day in 1981, was located in a converted air freight warehouse. Both he and Chick-fil-A have come a long way since then.

“Talk about getting in on the ground floor,” says David. “I’ve held so many jobs at Chick-fil-A that I can’t count them all . . . and no job that I’ve held had ever been done before I did it. When I started at Chick-fil-A, we had a two-person marketing department and our profits were $50-$60 million a year. Today, we have more than 200 people in our marketing department, we have a 97 percent retention with people we hire throughout the company — and we’ll do $9 billion in sales this year.”

The backstory of how David got his foot in the door at Chick-fil-A began during his tenure as president of UGA’s Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, which brought him under the watchful eye of Coca-Cola executive (and former ATO president) Earl Leonard. Years later, David’s son Nick would distinguish himself as a member of Terry’s prestigious Leonard Leadership Scholars program.

But as far back as 1980-81 when he was ATO president, David Salyers was able to monetize what he learned from Mr. Leonard — turning an ATO chapter $150,000 in debt into a profit-making enterprise.

Another ATO who helped open doors for David is Terry College classmate Woody Faulk, now vice president of innovation and new ventures at Chick-fil-A. As luck would have it, young Woody Faulk attended a Sunday school class taught by Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy.

“Woody ended up introducing me to Truett my junior year in college, and that led to Truett calling me about six months later. And he said, ‘Hey, I’m coming up to the University of Georgia, I’m going to be speaking to a marketing fraternity, and I wanted to know if you would go out to dinner with me and then you can come hear me speak.’ I said sure, and I became more and more enchanted with him every time I met him.

“So a couple days later, I got a handwritten note from him inviting me to the Chick-fil-A national convention. I was a starving college student, barely had enough money to buy a slice of pizza on Friday night — and this was an all-expense-paid trip to a resort!”

David fell in love with Chick-fil-A at the national convention, and has held high-profile jobs from one corner of the business to the other — from marketing to advertising to operations — ever since.

David Salyers with Chick-fil-A cows
David Salyers knew the cows would be a hit at Chick-fil-A when they had to keep restock-ing the cardboard placards be-cause customers were “creative-ly relocating them.” Photo by Jason Thrasher

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index Restaurant Report 2016, Chick-fil-A is the highest-ranked fast food restaurant in the country when it comes to customer satisfaction. And the company is at or near the top in rankings of U.S. brands across all corporate sectors.

The story of how Chick-fil-A became America’s favorite would fill a B-school textbook, but the essential facts are these:

When Truett Cathy and his brother Ben returned from serving in World War II, they opened a diner in Atlanta called The Dwarf Grill, which was later renamed The Dwarf House. That’s where the Cathys came up with the idea for the chicken sandwich, which would later anchor the Chick-fil-A menu. Hence the company motto, “We didn’t invent the chicken . . . just the chicken sandwich.”

The first Chick-fil-A branded restaurant opened in Atlanta’s Greenbriar Mall in 1967, the Chick-fil-A cows made their debut in 1995, and have become an American marketing phenomenon.

“The cows made their debut in Chick-fil-A restaurants in July 1996,” says David, “and we knew we had a hit when we had to keep going back to the printer to restock those cardboard placards of the cows. I’m not saying our customers were stealing them . . . they were merely creatively relocating them.”

Nick Salyers (BBA ’16) was a valued member of the UGA men’s swimming team, and the recent Terry College graduate was among those who nominated his father for Terry’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

David is a member of the Terry Dean’s Advisory Council, and played a leadership role in Chick-fil-A’s grassroots employee campaign to raise $1.2 million for the S. Truett Cathy Leadership Suite, which will house Terry’s Institute for Leadership Advancement and the Leonard Leadership Scholars program in Terry’s new Business Learning Community.

“I see how much the Leonard Leadership Scholars program has impacted kids,” says David. “We literally almost use that as a screening device now at Chick-fil-A. Every intern or full-time staff member that we hire at Chick-fil-A seems like comes out of that program. And they all talk about what a life-changing program it is. When I see something that’s changing lives, it’s like a magnet. I’m drawn to it and I want to support it. My son Nick was selected for the Leonard Leadership Scholars program — and he would tell you that it was the single most impactful thing he did during his undergraduate time.”