The Greatest Generation Gave Us Clues to Navigate COVID-19

As all of us watch this crisis continue to unfold and we enjoy Memorial Day weekend, I have been struck by lessons I learned while working with my Dad and Truett Cathy, Founder of Chick-fil-A. I have already authored an article on how to not only survive but also thrive during this crisis. Now I’d like to share another observation. “The Greatest Generation”, as Tom Brokaw labeled them, might offer us some proven lessons on how to respond to this virus now that America tries to reopen.

As I’m sure you remember, this was the generation that fought in World War II, abroad and here in our support industries. They paid a dear price to preserve world freedoms, and the liberties and form of government they held dear at home. Thousands gave their lives or gave up their careers to serve. But when the war was over, what did they do? What can a quick history review teach us?

For the most part, they did not look to the government to take care of them when they returned. Granted, the GI bill helped to provide many of them with an education that equipped them for a new future.

But what did the vast majority of these Americans do when they returned home or found their war-related job was no longer needed?

Some worked in industries that were rapidly retooling. (We see this today.) Others did go to college on the GI bill. But the largest number figured out a way to add value to their communities and the United States by starting their own businesses…entrepreneurs on the march!

This last group numbered in the millions. They started the greatest revolution of innovation of new products, services and, ultimately, industries that America had ever seen. Every aspect of American life within 10 years after WWII was never to be the same again. New products, services and conveniences never before imagined made their way to the marketplace, and a very healthy percentage took root and were successful. The result? America saw an economic boom in the 50s.

I had a ringside seat to two illustrations…my father and Truett Cathy.

My Dad, John Robinson, served in the Army, stationed in South Korea in the engineer corp. Upon his return home, he did pursue his education at Ohio State. While there, he met my mother Martha Haynes. He chose to take what he had learned on the family farm, in the Army and at Ohio State, and started his own hybrid seed corn business in south Alabama. Partnering with his brother, they launched out to bring the benefits of hybrid feed corn to the south. Within two years, Dad bought out his brother and was on his own. The business thrived. I spent most of my youth working along side Dad in that business. I saw the rewards, risks, ups and downs of being an entrepreneur in a democratic economy. It was hard work, but Dad loved it. And I saw a microcosm of American entrepreneurism at an early age.

Thirteen years after I left home, went to college and worked for two publically owned businesses, I met Truett Cathy of Chick-fil-A, Inc. He and his leadership team recruited me away from Six Flags over Georgia in 1981 to serve as their first marketing director.

Truett was another member of the “Greatest Generation”. He had also served in the Army. Upon returning home, he and his brother Ben opened a diner on the south side of Atlanta, the Dwarf Grill…so named because it was very small. After the unfortunate death of Ben, Truett continued to develop his craft as an entrepreneur and businessman…eventually expanding his diner and renaming it the Dwarf House. For 21 years, Truett served his community and provided for his family from this restaurant. It was in this humble, customer-centered environment that he created what would become known as the Chick-fil-A sandwich. Not until 1967 did he venture out to create another restaurant in the Greenbrier Mall in Atlanta to feature his chicken sandwich invention, named simply Chick-fil-A. Truett and I would cross paths in late 1980. By then, Chick-fil-A would have over a hundred restaurants exclusively in malls. The foundation had been laid for a business, unbeknownst to any of us, that would revolutionize what a fast food experience could be. A business that today provides over 1,500 jobs at the Chick-fil-A Support Center, an entrepreneurial partnership with over 2,200 Chick-fil-A independent restaurant Operators, and jobs for over 150,000 restaurant team members across the USA and parts of Canada! One entrepreneur empowering another 2,200 entrepreneurs to serve millions of Chick-fil-A fans every day.

So, what can the MILLIONS of “Greatest Generation” examples like these two teach us today?

Unleash the army of entrepreneurs…small business owners across this country can figure out the best way to reopen and serve their communities. They are on the ground. They have relational roots of support at their disposal. They have laid-off employees chomping to go back to work. They have the innate creativity to innovate products and services to adjust to the new realities and opportunities in the marketplace. They want to help their families and neighbors thrive, the best and safest way! We are already seeing unforeseen and major innovations…just the tip of the iceberg I would suggest.

CUT THEM LOOSE! Instead of prolonged shutdowns and rules, why not provide tax incentives, like a payroll tax grace period and/or capital investment accelerated write-offs? The small business owners of America can bring back our economy and jobs faster than any government “fix”.

If you want a proof point, just visit your local Chick-fil-A restaurant. You’ll see how their independent entrepreneurs, with the Support Center’s help, have adapted and innovated in the midst of this pandemic to keep serving America.

The greatest resource to maximize the reopening of America is the NEXT “Greatest Generation” of entrepreneurs living all around us today! They are ready. Praise God that we have an economic system that can empower and release them!