A few months ago, I had an interesting conversation with Bill Marriott. As a prominent Mormon-controlled venture, his hotel company was an obvious target in 2008, when the church vigorously supported California’s now-overturned ban on gay marriage. The Marriott International (MAR) chairman has never tried to hide his deep faith, often referring to God in his writing and interviews.
In Marriott’s personal life, marriage is something reserved for a man and a woman. But he has long been reluctant to impose that view on the company his father founded. Not only could that crimp the company’s $12 billion in sales, it might demoralize employees working in more than 3,700 Marriott properties worldwide. With Mitt Romney’s presidential run and same-sex marriage in the headlines, we spoke about his stance as Mormon leaders were being held up for scrutiny again.
“This church helped me raise a family and has brought great joy and happiness to my life,” he told me. But that didn’t mean gay employees had any less status at Marriott. “We have to take care of our people, regardless of their sexual orientation or anything else,” he said. “We are an American Church. We have all the American values: the values of hard work, the values of integrity, the values of fairness and respect.” Marriott has both a deep faith and a deep understanding of his responsibility as a leader. Many of his shareholders, customers, and employees don’t belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their values matter, too.
“Our church is very much opposed to alcohol and we’re probably one of the biggest sales engines of liquor in the United States. I don’t drink. We serve a lot of liquor. You’re in business. You’ve got to make money,” he said. “We have to appeal to the masses out there, no matter what their beliefs are.”
As a result, when his church actively campaigned against same-sex marriage in California, neither Marriott nor the hotel chain donated any money to the cause. Instead, he stepped into the drama by publicly reinforcing his company’s commitment to gay rights through domestic partners benefits and services aimed at gay couples.
Contrast that with the approach of Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy. His company is also committed to treating gay employees and customers at its 1,608 outlets with the same “honor, dignity, and respect” as everyone else gets. “Going forward,” the company says, “our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”
But that statement didn’t come from the mouth of Cathy or any other senior executive at the Atlanta-based fast-food chain. In fact, it’s nowhere to be found on the company website. It is tucked amid the ads for peach milkshakes and Cow Appreciation Day on the company’s Facebook (FB) page. Go to Dan Cathy’s Twitter feed and there are cheerful references to great food and his great evening with celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart. The issue of gay marriage doesn’t come up.
It has certainly come up in other places. In fact, Cathy set off a nationwide drama recently by saying he supports the “biblical definition of a family” and believes Americans have a “prideful, arrogant attitude” about gay marriage that risks “inviting God’s judgment on our nation.”
Those comments led to calls for a boycott of the chicken chain and ignited emotions on all sides. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino have taken on former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in escalating the food fight. The Jim Henson Company pulled its Muppet toys from Chick-fil-A meals and promised to donate whatever money those toys have made to the gay rights group GLAAD. Meanwhile, students from at least seven schools have launched petitions on Change.org to demand the removal of Chick-fil-A franchises from their campuses while conservative activists are calling on people to eat there to show support.
The issue isn’t that Dan Cathy disapproves of gay marriage; that’s hardly a shocker in a business so infused with Baptist values that its outlets are closed on Sundays. The problem is that he crossed the line in letting his faith become less about inspiration than alienation. Not only did he openly condemn the beliefs of a big chunk of Chick-fil-A’s audience, he implied that their views are unpatriotic and even put the country at risk. Divorce rates being what they are, praising the men in his family for “still being on their first wives” probably didn’t win him many friends, either.
Hearing polarizing rhetoric from the pulpit is one thing. Hearing it from a man whose business rings up $4 billion in sales each year is another. As an individual, Cathy has every right to express his point of view. As president, he has a responsibility to talk about how those views affect the policies of Chick-fil-A. Does this mean he won’t employ or sell franchise rights to anyone whose relationship falls outside a biblical definition of marriage?
Cathy doesn’t say, though Chick-fil-A’s website cryptically notes that franchisees set their own policies and handle all matters regarding employment. That presumably means a gay couple could become Chick-fil-A franchisees and set the brand off in a very different operation. What do Cathy’s beliefs say to Chick-fil-A’s fan base among college students, who typically have more liberal views and probably don’t like buying dinner from people who call them arrogant? It’s hard to know. Chick-fil-A’s president hasn’t hit the talk show circuit to elaborate on his statement, and the company did not return calls as of Thursday night.
Cathy and his father, Chief Executive Officer S. Truett Cathy, are no dummies when it comes to running a business. They’ve built Chick-fil-A into a powerhouse chain through tasty food and smart strategies. Just before Northeastern University canceled plans to open a franchise in February this year, Chick-fil-A issued a media statement from Dan Cathy that said “we have no political agenda, policy or position against anyone, especially the LGBT community.” Moreover, he stated, “we will not champion any political agendas on marriage and family.” Given Cathy’s comments of recent days, dusting off that statement must seem mighty tempting to his PR folks right now.
The controversy at Chick-fil-A is less about the beliefs in its C-suite than the judgment therein. Plenty of leaders have strong religious convictions that carry over to their corporate culture. Tyson Foods (TSN), Herman Miller (MLHR), and Interstate Batteries openly celebrate God in their corporate statements. Forever 21 has even put biblical passages (John 3:16) on shopping bags and Christian messages on T-shirts. Anyone who’s dined at In-N-Out-Burger sees evidence of its founders’ faith from the scripture on the cups and wrappers.
Steve Jobs was a devout Buddhist, as is John Mackey of Whole Foods Market (WFM). Muslim restaurant owners often adjust their hours during Ramadan, while some Jewish-owned businesses like New York’s B&H Photo close every Saturday for the Sabbath. Such beliefs can benefit everyone. I grew up hearing my Catholic father praise the Reichmann family’s practice of halting Olympia & York’s construction projects on Shabbat, because it meant contractors got to be home on a weekend with their families.
Bill Marriott talks about how his faith has shaped him as a leader. At one point, he was putting in 100-hour weeks because of the dual duties of being CEO and a bishop in his church. That meant weekends spent counseling other members instead of seeing his children.
“It taught me to listen, and I learned to be more compassionate,” he says. What business has taught him, it seems, is the distinction between personal beliefs such as one’s stance on gay marriage and corporate values like trust and inclusion. Leaders tend to perform best when everyone feels welcomed and valued.
If Cathy doesn’t see his stance on same-sex marriage as a reason for Chick-fil-A to discriminate against gay employees or customers, now is the time to say that. If he does, there’s more drama to come at Chick-fil-A.