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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."