Mercer University students graduate with an academic profile and a service ethos that sets them apart. That reputation has caught the attention of companies in Georgia and beyond, leading to a concentration of alumni at iconic Georgia firms such as Chick-fil-A and causing others to turn directly to Mercer when they have a need for skilled employees.
Mercer has an impressive track record of responding to industry needs. The School of Engineering was established in 1985 in response to a need for engineers at Robins Air Force Base and manufacturing industries in Central Georgia.
“It really becomes a part of who we are as an institution that we respond to industry. Industry says we have a need; Mercer, because we have a history of response and we can pivot much faster than many other schools, we say yes,” said Allen London, senior associate vice president for Mercer’s Office of University Advancement. “There’s a very high demand for talent right now. Companies are developing a deeper university relations strategy that requires more than just a surface touch with a job posting.”
In addition, many companies have instituted a focus on social responsibility, and Mercer students have become attractive to firms due to University programs like Mercer On Mission and Go Baby Go that align with businesses’ mission to give back to the community, London said.
Mercer has long-standing partnerships with a host of companies and organizations, including Chick-fil-A, Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., Blue Bird Corp. and Robins Air Force Base, whose team rosters include many Mercer graduates. But now, the University is working to create more intentional plans to connect companies with a pipeline of graduates for employment.
London and Kim Meredith, executive director for Mercer’s Center for Career and Professional Development, are leading those efforts as co-chairs of the Mercer Corporate Relations Council. As part of that, Mercer has launched a new website, corporate.mercer.edu, to help facilitate relationships.
“More industry relationships on the deeper level really equates to understanding and education for the institution about what industry needs,” Meredith said. “We are able to bring industry closer to students, and the more we do that, the more we can equip our Mercerians with career readiness.”
The University’s connection with Chick-fil-A’s corporate headquarters in Atlanta goes back decades and is a prime example of a career pipeline that Mercer plans to more formally establish.
‘A culture of care’
Chick-fil-A Founder S. Truett Cathy was a Mercer supporter. He served on the Board of Trustees and was awarded an honorary degree in 2002, London said. Over the years, a steady stream of Mercer alumni have joined the ranks at Chick-fil-A’s Atlanta headquarters.
London said the quest for a more comprehensive partnership between Mercer and the restaurant chain was inspired by an Executive Forum program in November 2021 where the guest speakers were Chick-fil-A Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Brent Ragsdale and Executive Director of Team Member Experience Mark Moraitakis, who both earned a Master of Business Administration (MBA) on the Atlanta campus.
“I feel like Mercer’s mission and its culture seemed to be a pretty good match for Chick-fil-A’s purpose and culture. That’s just one more reason for us to have a connection,” said Director of Talent Consulting Lance Lanier, who earned his bachelor’s degree in finance at Mercer in 1998.
More than 50 Mercer alumni are currently on staff at Chick-fil-A’s Atlanta office, serving in a variety of roles. Many hold engineering degrees, including Dericus Harvey, team director of field operations.
A Macon native and 1999 industrial engineering graduate, he just marked his 12th year with Chick-fil-A. He began his career in the automotive industry, working for General Motors and Ford before earning his MBA in Indiana and transitioning to corporate finance work. Harvey had worked for Johnson & Johnson in New Jersey for almost seven years when he and wife Charletta, whom he met at Mercer, decided it was time to move their family back to Georgia.
He saw a listing for an operations lead position at Chick-fil-A, applied and visited the Atlanta office.
“I fell in love with the culture and the folks that I interacted with,” said Harvey, who now leads a team that supports restaurant operators in Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio and selects franchisees in those states. “It wasn’t a traditional company. Chick-fil-A does a good job of really probing for character and chemistry. They wanted to learn about me and who I was. I walked away very impressed with them.”
Mercer helped instill leadership skills, a collaborative spirit and a commitment to service in Harvey, and those foundational strengths carried over to his work at Chick-fil-A.
“Mercer holds a special place in my heart. Mercer is a big component of who I am,” Harvey said. “I pride myself on being a servant to others. Being a part of Chick-fil-A has allowed me to do that, to give of myself and help support others. To be a part of a company that’s growing, is vibrant and that also has a culture of care, I really enjoy that.”
Chick-fil-A’s culture and values were also a big draw for Lanier, who has been with the company for 22 years. Prior to Chick-fil-A, he worked in human resources at General Electric Co. in Kentucky and Indiana and then Coca-Cola, which brought him to Atlanta. He met several people at his church who worked at Chick-fil-A and, before long, he was being recruited.
Lanier said he was inspired by the people-centric focus and talk of “joining a family.” He was hired as senior manager of staff selection and then served as senior manager of talent strategy and director of talent development before taking on his current role 11 years ago. He has worked with company leaders on initiatives that focus on developing leaders and strengthening company culture.
“The kicker was when I discovered the corporate purpose and the fact that it wasn’t just written or hanging on the wall, it was on people’s lips when they talked to me about the company,” Lanier said. “I was hooked. I was so excited, and I was very humbled knowing the role I was coming into was making decisions about who else was joining Chick-fil-A. I went to work every day feeling like what I was doing was vastly important, and I couldn’t do it on my own.”
In the past, Lanier has worked with Mercer at job fairs and talked to interested students. Students were always well-prepared and sharp, but with his Mercer background, that was no surprise. Lanier recalled reaching out to some of his Mercer professors after he finished his MBA at Vanderbilt University.
“What I wanted them to understand was I was sitting in classes with lots of big state university and Ivy League graduates, and I was as prepared as anyone sitting there,” said Lanier, whose wife is also a Mercer alum. “I felt like I was academically equal to anybody I was in school with. I wanted to thank them for preparing me for this place, and it made me proud. The things I learned (at Mercer) … I never felt like I was in a deficit.”
It was on Mercer’s Macon campus that Amy Millard was first introduced to Chick-fil-A and fell in love with the food. She majored in business management and played softball, and she took a job at Enterprise after graduating in 1998. She worked in the operations department for 13 years and completed a training management program through the company that would later open a doorway to Chick-fil-A.
After leaving Enterprise, she discovered that Chick-fil-A shared a lot of the same values, including the “people-first mentality.” She joined the company in 2012, serving first in franchisee selection roles and moving to the operations side in 2020. She now leads a team that supports restaurant owners in West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Millard said Mercer gave her experience in building real relationships, and she loves being able to do that through her work at Chick-fil-A. She considers the people the best part of her job.
“I love it. I feel fueled in this, fulfilled in this,” she said. “I’m always amazed at the level of talent that we attract in our organization.”
Jessica Hart echoed that sentiment. As a Chick-fil-A team member in high school, she experienced the company’s culture while working under a caring and thoughtful restaurant owner.
As senior director of facilities management for restaurant development today, she oversees a team throughout the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico that maintains Chick-fil-A buildings, equipment and property. She loves working with and supporting the restaurant operators.
“It’s an incredible team of people. You kind of have to have a heart for what we do,” she said.
Hart earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Georgia Tech and a master’s degree at Georgia State University and went to work at Georgia Power right after graduation. Wanting to give a business spin to her math knowledge, she enrolled in the MBA program on Mercer’s Atlanta campus. She joined Chick-fil-A in fall 2003 and finished up her degree the next spring.
“The education made me a much better student of the business, so I understand the inner workings. It helped me to see so many different parts of the business,” she said. “Twenty years later, I still keep in touch with people from that class, and we’re all over the world.”