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L|C CEO PERSONAL JOURNAL

  • Writer's pictureKelly Sartain

Each summer, our family has the amazing opportunity to attend Pine Cove Family Camp. It's an intimate week of camping with the same families in the foothills of South Carolina. My husband and I have had an opportunity to build a relationship with Josh and Susan Robinson. He's the son of Steve Robinson, retired Chick-fil-A Vice President of Marketing. That summer I engaged with Josh on a personal level, inquiring about his experience growing up immersed in the culture of Chick-fil-A. I asked if Chick-fil-A truly lived out its corporate purpose and shared vision. Within a few months of learning about the company, I found myself disinterested in my corporate America clients. I was falling in love with the culture and the brand it represented. I was strongly considering "partnering" with Chick-fil-A, and I needed to know what that would look like long term. When I do something, I pour my heart and soul into it. I wanted to make sure that Chick-fil-A was a brand I could trust with my career and professional reputation.

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Updated: Feb 12, 2021

I naively accepted my first Chick-fil-A client in the summer of 2018. Michael Kelley, Chick-fil-A Operator in Vero Beach, Florida, asked me to meet with his director Randy Parks, a past Buggy Bunch Board Advisor. Randy was seeking a mentor for ongoing coaching and mock interviews as he pursued Chick-fil-A franchisee selection. During my preliminary research, I remember marveling at the highly competitive selection process: "30x harder to get a Chick-fil-A than to get into Harvard." I'm a girl that likes a good challenge, so I decided to say yes to the horrible odds. I remember saying, "Well, someone has to be selected, why not my client?" I made it my full-time job to learn all things Chick-fil-A. I began by reading multiple books about Chick-fil-A leadership and culture. As I did, my heart was drawn to more than my usual number 1 with no pickle, waffle fries, and large sweet tea. I genuinely began to fall in love with S. Truett Cathy's vision of quick service excellence. Eventually, Michael Kelley ended up "hiring" me to work with four of his team members.

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  • Writer's pictureKelly Sartain

I always knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. My elementary school years were difficult; I tried as hard as I could and my effort didn't seem to translate into real results. However, running a business came naturally to me: making a product, serving customers, and watching my earnings grow. I sold kumquats, candy bars, and caramel covered popcorn in my neighborhood after school and during summer breaks. I had my first checking and savings account by first grade; making money was like a game to me and I could tell that I was good at it. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a business owner: it was my chance to work hard at something I love and make a real difference in the lives of other people.


As a child, I was introduced to Chick-fil-A by my stepfather, who grew up in Atlanta. In the 80's we would drive to the Peach State to visit family and enjoy an original Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich, as the closest Chick-fil-A was an hour away in the Orange Park Mall. So we did... almost every summer on vacation, until we got a Chick-fil-A in the Avenues Mall on September 26, 1990.


In high school I worked at Ann Taylor, where professional women purchased suits in the 90's. I often remember asking the ladies about their careers as I rang up their purchases. I was especially interested in the lives of female business owners. I loved hearing stories about their greatest challenges and how they got started. My favorite question to ask was what advice would they give to a young person who was interested in owning a business. I remember my customers at Ann Taylor telling me that most of their struggles were with people. That was my first introduction to talent strategy: the idea that good employees are hard to find and even harder to keep.


After high school, I applied to Clemson University and received a "We Regret to Inform You" letter. I was devastated! How could I become a business owner without a degree? I remember it like it was yesterday. I called the number at the bottom of the letter and asked to make an appointment with my admissions counselor. I called 411 and made a reservation at the Hampton Inn almost 8 hours away from my home. I threw together my transcripts, SAT scores, recommendations, and a resume. I packed up my little car and over spring break my senior year--at 18 years old--I drove alone to Clemson. My admissions counselor, Andy, was impressed with my determination but said that there was nothing I could do to change his mind. I beat Andy to work every day that week wearing the same suit. On Friday he realized I wasn't going to leave until I became a Tiger. He was right, and that's how I got into Clemson! I made the best of all four years and earned a "people" degree: a BA in psychology. I continued my education in people by receiving a master's degree in professional counseling from Georgia State University.


Reluctantly, I took my Dad's advice and "got some experience in the real world" working for someone else after graduation. That "someone else" was in Corporate America with Merck. I was blessed to rotate through many departments and quickly received multiple promotions. I had a unique opportunity to spend time in HR , interviewing candidates at Hartsfield International Airport's Conference Center. I fell in love with talent acquisition: listening to people's stories, evaluating their skills, and helping them find where they fit into an organization. Occasionally, friends, relatives, and acquaintances asked me to use my skills to mentor those seeking to land their dream jobs in Corporate America. It quickly grew into a hobby of mine: people would learn by word of mouth that I was good at coaching people through job changes, and I enjoyed each opportunity to build on my knowledge and help others. However, I was still eager to find exactly where I fit into the business world someday.


Shortly after Mark and I were married in 2005, we moved to Vero Beach, Florida and welcomed our first daughter. God has a sense of humor and called me into full time ministry. I had the honor and privilege of founding and running The Buggy Bunch, a nonprofit serving moms and families along the Treasure Coast in Florida. I served as Executive Director for almost 10 years. This was a huge risk, and way out of my comfort zone. Founding one of the largest Mom ministries in the country was not for the faint of heart. I spent many days leading teams of 100+ people including employees, board members, advisors, and full and part-time volunteers. Our staff collaborated with vendors, politicians, and community stakeholders to execute on our mission. I gained experience in creating, casting, and getting buy-in on a shared vision, creating and executing strategic plans, creating culture, and developing organizational and operational systems and processes. I built relationships with donors, raised millions of dollars, created annual budgets, and managed a P&L with relentless reliability. Our team was responsible for attracting top talent on a ministry budget. We learned to mitigate risk through partnerships with lawyers, consultants, and insurance agents. Learning these things in the real world was like a practical MBA.


This decade of my career holds precious memories for me, even though I found myself doing something very different from what I thought I was originally called to do and sometimes felt a bit out of my depth. Professionally, God had a special assignment for me, and was always faithful to equip me with all I needed to accomplish His purpose. Personally, all my three children were little during this time and my husband started his own architecture firm, so I was grateful for the flexibility of my schedule. All the while, God was also preparing me to run my own business, teaching me business acumen through the school of hard knocks. When I sensed that The Buggy Bunch could continue to operate without me, I personally selected my successor and transitioned to another temporary project: assisting the startup of a family foundation. When I found myself ready for a new challenge, I revisited my earlier desire of opening my own business.

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