It's a Sunday in mid-August at Ogren-Allegiance Park, and Michael Burks has the look of a manager. His head pokes out of the dugout, one leg up on a step, and he leans forward, rests his arms on one knee and strokes his goatee as he stares out onto the field in anticipation.
Burks isn't watching baseball. He's listening to a band perched on a stage over the pitcher's mound finishing its sound check. Once it does, a band member asks the audience of roughly 1,200 to join the band in prayer. The stadium falls silent, and Burks drops his head into his hands, appearing to mumble to himself. And then the band, a group of Christian musicians Burks cobbled together to open for the headliners, launches into a few catchy Christian rock tunes that, according to Burks, everyone knows.
Burks, 41, is tall and fit, energetic and affable. A baby-blue bandana covers his buzzed head and sunglasses conceal his eyes. He wears torn and frayed jeans and a tight black T-shirt with an elaborate design and the embroidered words "Rebel Spirit." He doesn't look much like the typical businessman, but, in fact, he's one of Missoula's most successful—a multi-millionaire who owns eight businesses in the state.
How Burks uses those businesses and his wealth stands out almost as much as his appearance: He's intent on promoting a message of faith in Jesus Christ, and doing so on a large scale. It's part of the reason he helped to bring Sarah Palin to Missoula for a Sept. 12 fundraiser to benefit Teen Challenge, a faith-based organization for young women, and why he's hosting the Christian rock concert at the ballpark.
"The Christian community, we couldn't do what we're able to do without somebody like him, somebody who has the wherewithal to do it," says Pastor Keith Mobley, a member of the Missoula Christian Network, about Burks.
At the rock concert, Burks takes the opportunity to speak to his target audience. After the opening band finishes its set, he announces the Newsboys, a Grammy Award-nominated Christian rock band, will soon take the stage. Then, he starts to preach.
"Get up, stand up, stretch your legs, and let's worship God," he says.
The audience rises and Burks attempts to recreate, as he would explain days later, an experience he had with a Christian organization for men called the Promise Keepers.
"Right now I want every guy in the house to close your eyes," Burks commands. "Every single person, close your eyes. I want you to forget about every problem you have. I want you to forget about school, work, money, marriage, kids—whatever's going in your life right now that's keeping you away from having a relationship with God. I want you to forget about it. Because fear is not of God. Worry is not of God. So right now I need you to just take a huge, deep breath and let it all go."
As Burks speaks the opening band's guitar player quietly strums the notes to "Amazing Grace." Burks then tells the men to concentrate while he talks to the women in the audience.
"Ladies...I want you to think of at least one man in your life who needs prayer—a father, husband, son, uncle, boyfriend, just a friend—who needs prayer to walk the walk, needs prayer to be strong in school, to be strong at work, to absolutely not falter on his walk to be with Christ. Just concentrate on that person or persons right now."
Burks returns to the men.
"Men, I need you to stand up...I need you to tilt your head toward the heavens right now, eyes closed. I need you to picture the throne of God up there and him looking down at you. You're the only person in this stadium right now, and I need you to be looking right at him. I need you to lift at least one hand to almighty God right now. Don't be weirded out, don't be afraid, don't be thinking I'm some crazy guy. I want you to take everything you have right now and give it to God. While you're doing this, what I'm going to have you do—and I want all of Missoula to hear this, because we had a battle this week—I want all of Missoula to hear every man in this stadium sing 'Amazing Grace.'
"I want God to hear a joyful noise," he continues, "while your women are praying for your strength and salvation."
Burks looks out over the audience as the men quietly sing the song. The band joins in and then takes the lead. After they finish, Burks announces the Newsboys will be up next.
Minutes later the Newsboys, a foursome of skinny-jeaned, pious pop rockers, take to the stage to raucous applause. The first song's opening notes rile the concertgoers to their feet, hands waving. Under the uproar Burks retreats back down into the dugout. His work, for now, is done.
The "battle" Burks mentioned during his impromptu sermon referred to the controversy that forced him to have the concert—and the worship service preceding it—at the baseball stadium, not at the Western Montana Fair as originally planned. A Wisconsin-based group known as the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained that a free worship service at the county-run fair would violate the separation of church and state. The county relented and asked Burks to move the events. That's why the crowd hollered in approval when Burks said on stage, "I want people at the fairgrounds to hear you singing 'Amazing Grace' to almightily God that is in charge of this city!" It's also why Newsboys frontman Michael Tait defiantly exclaimed after a couple songs, "They tried to stop us, but we're going to do this concert anyway!"
The debate thrust Burks, and his dual role as businessman and evangelist, into the spotlight. It's a position he doesn't exactly welcome, but one that's getting increasingly hard for him to avoid, given the visibility of his many business and philanthropic ventures.
Burks owns Missoula Big Sky Specialized Carriers, a trucking brokerage firm he started in 1999. The company grossed $14.8 million in revenue in 2006, landing Burks on Entrepreneur magazine's Hot 500 list of the nation's fastest-growing small businesses. The company employs only two people.
Burks also owns the Maulers, Missoula's junior hockey team. He helped found the team in 2005 and in March bought out partner Cory Miller's 50 percent stake. In June he acquired the Missoula Phoenix, a semi-professional football team.
He owns the Garden of Read'n, a Christian bookstore on Brooks Street. His wife Misty owns Misty's Tanning and Ultimate Salon, on S. Russell Street, a business Burks bought for her for Valentine's Day in 2008.
He owns two gyms, one in Helena and one in Butte, called Fuel Fitness and Nutrition. And he owns a quarterly publication called the Western Montana Christian Business Directory.
"My whole philosophy is that this is not my money," Burks says. "Somehow, some way, I was chosen as a person to be blessed, to have this kind of cash cow"—meaning Big Sky Specialty Carriers—"where I have the ability to make differences. I've been broke. I've delivered pizzas. I've had the idea of a vacation being in the backyard at a picnic table. Not having money doesn't scare me, so I don't take it seriously. I don't worry about it. I just want to make sure that I am doing the right thing, and I think the avenues [for producing wealth] in the past that have been brought to me haven't been by accident."
By that Burks means he credits his success to God.
"Absolutely," he says. "One hundred percent."
Burks' high profile can also be attributed to financing Sarah Palin's upcoming speaking engagement at Missoula's Hilton Garden Inn. The controversial former vice presidential candidate's visit is a fundraiser for Teen Challenge. Burks won't say how much he—through the Garden of Read'n—spent to bring Palin here, but reports suggest her speaking fee is roughly $100,000. He says Teen Challenge should net more than $50,000 from the event.
The reason for Burks' commitment to the organization goes unexplained, but it becomes clear when he dredges up some "not so proud" moments from his past.
Burks runs all of his businesses from a windowless office above the Missoula Maulers store in Southgate Mall. He has a phone, a computer with a large monitor, and a full-sized weight bench. Framed photos and awards clutter his walls. One is of his bright yellow Dodge SRT-10, parked behind a row of trophies, at an Idaho car show. Burks calls the truck one of his few toys. (He normally drives a 2005 Scion.) There's a Montana license plate on the wall next to his desk that reads, "SEEK HIM."
The short story is that Burks is a California transplant who moved to Missoula and made it big in the trucking industry. The long story, says Burks, sitting in his desk chair wearing a backwards hat, Hard Rock Café Cancun T-shirt, gym shorts and sandals, begins in Maywood, Calif., better known as East L.A. He's thankful his story didn't end there.
"I'm just glad I'm not dead," he says.
When Burks was 1 year old his dad divorced his mom and moved to central California where he started another family. A year later, as Burks tells it, his mother decided she wasn't ready to be a mother, "so she had me move in with a lady she met at my grandmother's bar."
Burks says his foster mother's son was a Hell's Angel always strung out on downers, and he put a bullet in his head while Burks, at age 7, was in the next room watching TV. Her husband spent most of his time at a bar, Burks says, "and came home pretty drunk and tossed her around for a couple of hours each night until he got tired and passed out."
When Burks was 12, he says, his foster mother decided to leave town, so he moved back in with his mother, who had remarried.
"My mother and stepfather owned a beauty salon," Burks says, "but that was pretty much a mask for what they really did for a living, which was sell pretty much every type of drug available at the time—from pot to coke to crank, reds, mushrooms, acid, you name it. So I quickly learned how to furnish product to their many customers. I had people come up to my window at all hours asking if my mom or dad was home as they were looking for their stuff."
Burks' stepfather confirms the tumultuous time period.
"He had his hard times," Roger White says of his stepson in a phone interview from East Los Angeles. White and Burks' mother are still together.
Between ages 14 and 16, Burks says he watched both his mother and stepfather overdose and have to be resuscitated by paramedics.
They were both taken to prison, White says, after cops raided the house and business when Burks was 19. After that Burks wouldn't hear from his mother for more than 15 years.
When Burks was 18 he met Tracy, whom he'd marry eight years later. She had a 2-year-old daughter. In 1992 they moved to Spokane. Burks fell in love with the Northwest, he says, "but was as broke as could be." In Spokane, Burks delivered pizza before landing a sales job with a trucking company, and within a year and a half Burks had been promoted to regional supervisor. In 1996, at age 27, Burks and Tracy had a child, Matthew.
That same year Burks moved to Arlee to work for the now-defunct trucking company Bitterroot International. (The rest of the family followed a year later.) Burks says he brought in $6 million in business his first year on the job.
The beginnings of his financial success corresponded with finding God—more cause-and-effect than coincidence, Burks believes. An Arlee church kept sending fliers in the mail, "and one day I said, 'What the heck, there might be something I'm missing,'" he recalls. "I went there and got involved and it just felt right, like there was something different about me, about everything, once I started relying on God."
All the money Burks was making for Bitterroot International was more than it could handle, Burks says. It brokered the extra business to outside trucking companies, which proved lucrative. Burks took notice of the huge profit margins, and when the company refused to give him a raise, he went off on his own. After a couple false starts, he started Big Sky Specialized Carriers in Missoula in 1999. He banked his first million in 2004.
What does he do exactly?
"What I do is I have customers all over the country that contact me to move equipment all over the country," he explains. "For example, Komatsu or John Deere, they'll call me up and tell me to move a tractor from point A to point B...Then I contact trucks and put the tractor on the load, which allows my customers to not have to make all those phone calls. That's what I do. I make all the phone calls, find the trucking company, put the freight on the truck, and they deliver it, and then I bill and keep my small commission and the truck gets its pay. That's pretty much what I do."
Burks says the numbers the company hit in 2006 were "absolutely insane," and he doesn't expect to reach them again. He says the company only grossed about $6.9 million in 2009, a nearly $8 million drop he mostly blames on the recession.
"So yeah," he says, "it hit me—hard."
Burks and Tracy divorced in 2003. He married Misty in 2004, and they had a child, Dylan, the same year. Dylan's drawings decorate Burks' office walls.
His stepdaughter, Ashley, now 25 and a student at the University of Montana, still calls Burks her father. She describes him as devoted and generous. But they're not as close as they used to be. He's just so busy, she says, and she recently got married.
"A lot of things he does Missoula doesn't like," Ashley says, "whether it's the latest thing with Sarah Palin or something else...I think it's great and I think it takes a lot of courage."
About five years ago Burks' mother called to tell him that her landlord planned to sell the house she had rented for more than 30 years. He says she wanted him to buy the house, so he did. His mom, a waitress, now pays him rent.
Burks' mother's house was again raided by police in May, according to a search warrant from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, because his mother and stepfather were allegedly selling medical marijuana to non-patients. His mother is currently waiting for a trial date. Burks says he's arranged to cover his mother's legal bills.
Of all the troubling experiences of Burks' youth, one sticks out in his mind. When he was a senior in high school he worked for a dentist whom he met through his mother. Burks says his mom paid for Burks' braces with cocaine. The dentist's addiction ultimately landed him in jail, and he lost everything.
"That was real eye-opener to me," Burks says. "You completely determine your own destiny in this world, and if you choose the wrong way, you're going to pay for it."
"Seven years ago I could have stopped working. Period," Burks says in his office. "I had enough in the bank, I had the house paid off, the cars paid off, and at that point I was kind of lost as to what to do. There was no more apple, no more carrot, no more anything for me to do, and that's why I've slowly but surely gotten into these other things."
The Maulers is Burks' baby. He and Cory Miller founded the team in 2005. Burks says he's dumped more than $1 million into the organization, based on his belief that Missoula is home to a solid hockey fan base that hasn't been discovered yet. About $750,000 went toward improving Missoula's Glacier Ice Rink, and another $250,000 went toward the team bus, equipment, advertising and other operating costs.
Burks doesn't expect to profit off the Maulers, much less break even.
"I lived in Arlee for a couple years, and what I noticed in Arlee was that there was nothing for people to do," he says. "So they partied. They didn't have anything to look forward to, nothing to put their time into. And to me, if I can get one kid to not go to a kegger, and go to a Mauler's game...." He trails off.
"It's about impacting people's lives," he continues. "It's about impacting the city. To me the money—and I know this sounds ridiculous—the money isn't the big issue. I've been blessed. I live a simple life. My idea of fun is playing softball or playing hockey. I don't travel. I don't do any of that stuff...I know it's a really strange attitude in American capitalism, but I just think that being able to be at a Maulers' game and see people wear Maulers' gear and have kids come and just embrace it...."
Burks says he's put about $500,000 into Garden of Read'n. He plans to make a sizable investment into the Phoenix, as well, but hopes he can leverage the infrastructure he's built around the Maulers to grow the Phoenix efficiently.
"The Maulers, the Phoenix, the Garden of Read'n—those are pretty much for the city," Burks says.
Burks says he typically loses between $20,000 and $25,000 on the Christian rock concerts he brings to Missoula every year. He estimates he lost $20,000 on the recent Newsboys show, in part because the attendance was less than half the 2,500 people he expected. He blames the small crowd on the concert being moved to the baseball stadium just days before the event.
He says his two Fuel Fitness and Nutrition locations have recently begun to turn a profit. Misty's Tanning and Ultimate Salon is also close, he says, as is the Maulers store in the mall.
"I owe so much money a month it is insane, and if I actually worried about it and thought about it, I probably wouldn't be able to sleep," Burks says. "But giveth and taketh away. I truly believe that...If you just continually spend it on yourself I don't think you'll ever be happy. Because there's no reward."
Cory Miller, the former co-owner of the Maulers, says that while Burks does spend money for the community's benefit, he most certainly expects to turn a profit.
"I mean, he's a business person, and he's in business to make money," Miller says. "He just doesn't do it for fun. He wants to bring something good to the community, keep it low cost and provide good entertainment to keep kids out of trouble.... But you don't want to continually keep feeding a program that's not working, and he's not a guy who would do that."
The way Burks cross-promotes his various entities suggests that Miller is right. At the Newsboys concert, for instance, Burks hung a Misty's Tanning and Ultimate Salon banner at the front entrance. Before the band played he again took the stage and paraded out Misty wearing a Maulers jersey with "Palin" written across the back.
"The reason I have Misty up here is because she's sporting something that is advertising somebody who's coming to town," he said, followed by cheers.
Burks went on to defend Palin's appearance, referencing hateful e-mails the Garden of Read'n has received since announcing the event. Palin isn't going to talk about politics, he said. She's not going to talk about health care reform or "the ridiculous 10 percent tax on tanning," a comment that draws laughs.
"She is going to talk about God, country and family—the three most crucial things that we are missing out on in this country," Burks said. "So, I'm just asking you to please look past the political part of Sarah Palin, and look at the fact that she has done one thing and she's not even here yet—she's let everybody know about Teen Challenge, and that's the most important thing."
Burks also took his time on stage to plug Brock Gill, a Christian illusionist the Garden of Read'n is bringing to town in November.
"If you like magic, and you like somebody who's completely sold out on God, you don't want to miss out on this thing," Burks said. "Because I've seen some of his YouTube videos, and he does some crazy stuff. But it's all in the name of Jesus Christ."
Business interests also appear to bleed into Burks' church affiliation, or lack thereof. He says he doesn't belong to a church, preferring to bounce around to thank pastors for supporting the bookstore.
"There are 35 churches in the [Missoula Christian Network] and we hit them all and shake a hand and say thank you very much and listen to what they've got going on there. It doesn't matter where you go. It's right here," Burks says, motioning to his heart.
As for Burks' political persuasion, he won't say on the record who he'd vote for in a hypothetical race between Palin and President Obama. He says he leans Republican.
"But there are issues on both sides I don't agree with," he says. "I'm not diehard by any means."
Regardless of his political beliefs, Burks' business style is anything but conservative. Those close to him say his gut, more than anything else, guides his decision-making.
"I like to think about things a lot more [than Burks], and I study every angle...," says Miller, who, at 28, owns Garden City Janitorial and BioSafe Solutions, a medical waste disposal company. "I think when it comes to decision time, he has his mind made up before he has all the information."
Pastor Mobley has noticed a similar tendency.
"Sometimes he just takes the ball and runs with it because he can," Mobley says. "And that's okay."
Burks' wife Misty sees it from an insider's perspective.
"Being who he is, he has a lot of different opportunities brought to him that probably wouldn't just be brought to the normal guy," she says. "And he's just got the type of brain that can take an idea and take it to the next level. He goes with his gut but he also prays about it and makes sure it's the right way, too."
Mobley gushes about the positive effects Burks has had on the Missoula community, and on its Christian community in particular. He calls the concerts and the bookstore "wholesome" and "edifying."
"You could go on and on and on about how great Michael is," Mobley says. "He's just a great guy. Almost to the point where there's got to be a flaw there somewhere."
Some might take issue with part of Burks' message at the Newsboys show—that the man's role is to pursue Christ, while the woman's role is to pray for him. But not Misty.
"The man is supposed to be the leader of the home," she says. "I firmly believe that. And the women are supposed to lift their husbands up...So praying for him on his walk with God is very, very important."
Burks, despite his oration at Ogren-Allegiance Park, doesn't want to be a preacher. He regrets that the separation-of-church-and-state controversy over the Western Montana Fair launched him into the limelight. In the future he'll leave that role to pastors. "I am a businessman," he says, and he's content to remain one.
"In five or 10 years I hope I'm sitting at this desk, hitting the keyboard, moving some freight, and maybe doing a couple more things in town," Burks says. "I don't see an end. I don't have a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Whatever impact I can make I'll make. And if there's something else that comes up in Missoula or another city that tempts me to make a difference, I'll probably do it."