In August 2015, Cleveland welcomed the long-awaited Chick-fil-A into its community. Two years later, Truett McConnell University welcomed the Chick-fil-A’s owner and operator, Chris Liberatore, into the Bear family when Liberatore began pursuing a Master of Business Administration.
Liberatore grew up in McDonough, GA, but he moved to Athens after graduating high school, where he entered the University of Georgia as a freshman. While earning his business degree at UGA, Liberatore gained experience in the restaurant industry, among other things: “I spent most of my college years in restaurants and in farming. I had a friend of the family who provided me a work study scholarship when I was in college. He owned some cattle and horses around the University of Georgia. As long as I worked on his farms, he provided for all of my living expenses while in college.”
Liberatore chose a career in the restaurant industry in 2006, starting with working the closing shift at Chick-Fil-a, then as general manager at Shane’s Rib Shack through his college career, and finally back to Chick-Fil-a where he worked until his wife completed her college degree. After his wife’s graduation, Liberatore began working Chick-fil-A grand openings across the country.
“I worked about eight or nine of these grand openings,” Liberatore stated. “Mostly on the east coast. The idea was to get out from under the umbrella of the store you worked for and build a reputation. Using the results of that, I applied for the inter-management program.”As a member of the inter-management program, Liberatore traveled to various Chick-fil-As whose owner-operators were no longer in control of the store. Liberatore served as the interim owner-operator until the store had a permanent owner-operator, and he continued to build his reputation. “My wife and I traveled doing this together,” Liberatore shared. “She was a marketing director, and she also did grand openings on the marketing side.”
Liberatore and his wife received an opportunity to manage their own Chick-fil-A in 2011: “I got selected for a Foothills Mall in Tennessee. Another God-directed thing because I didn’t even apply for the restaurant. I applied for a restaurant in Maryland and a week later was called in for an interview, me with the understanding that it was for the one I had applied for.”
After realizing that Liberatore was interviewing for a different Chick-fil-A than the one to which he had applied, he called his wife and urged her to find out as much as she could about the store in Maryville, Tennessee. What his wife found out was discouraging. “It had lost money for four years, it was a dying mall, and it was surrounded by free-standing stores with operators who had been operators for longer than I’d been alive,” Liberatore stated. “But we looked at our situation and felt like this was an opportunity — it was a dying store, but the market was thriving.”
For the first six months that Liberatore and his wife managed the Chick-fil-A in Maryville, he lost money. However, that lost money benefited the store’s facilities, leadership and marketing, and paid off overall. “I remember one month of that first year, we cut a profit check of a whopping $7.42,” Liberatore jokingly shared, “but we continued to pray and trust. In the next couple years, the mall locked in about three contracts with big companies, and the dying mall exploded. Everything started growing. We started growing. We say God-driven because it wasn’t us. Be stewards of what you have, and over time, God will give you additional opportunities.”
That additional opportunity was for Liberatore and his family to relocate to Cleveland, GA, to own and operate a new Chick-fil-A. “We got here and in the first year opened up about 48 percent higher than what was projected,” stated Liberatore. “We were ecstatic. This community welcomed Chick-fil-A so much more than we’d projected. We were also happy because this store was a career store — it wasn’t a stepping stone store.”
The Cleveland Chick-fil-A was not a stepping stone store for Liberatore, but moving to Cleveland was a stepping stone for him to further his education. As Chick-fil-A developed a relationship with Truett McConnell University, Liberatore became aware of TMU’s Master of Business Administration degree.
“I’ve always wanted to get an MBA,” shared Liberatore. “In 2008, I had worked full-time for a couple years. I applied for the MBA program at the University of Georgia. I got accepted. I wanted to get into the executive program, which is a one-year program. If I did the full-time program, you’re not allowed to work. My wife and I talked about it, and we decided we did not want to hit a pause on our career path.
”The MBA program at the University of Georgia did not meet Liberatore’s needs at that time in his life, but the MBA program at Truett McConnell University does. “Truett was looking to expand,” Liberatore recalled. “I had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Gary Jarnagin about the MBA program, and he said, ‘Why don’t you give it a shot?’”
Liberatore has been earning his MBA one class at a time and enjoying every interaction with the other students in his program. “There’s a wide breadth of real-world experience that they bring to the classes,” Liberatore says of his fellow students. “It’s one thing when I go to the once-a-year Chick-fil-A summit and we hear from gurus in the industry. You’re surrounded by, essentially, six thousand peers of Chick-fil-A. It’s phenomenal, but it’s all like-minded people that work for the same company with the same resources. Now I’m stepping out of that and joining this MBA program where I get to interact with people from completely different backgrounds”
Liberatore assures those who are considering an MBA at TMU that the concepts are applicable and can lead to exponential growth. “Be intentional in time management. Be intentional in working as a group. Learn communication within that group,” encouraged Liberatore. “The more you want to, the more you can let this program impact your life and, thus, your career.”
Bailey Jarnigan is a TMU alum and English teacher at Lanier Christian Academy.
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