Patron Saint 

Local businessman Michael Burks says God gave him a fortune, so it's only natural that he spend it spreading the Gospel

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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."

click to enlarge Burks grew up in East Los Angeles, moved to Spokane in his early 20s, and then to Arlee before finally settling in Missoula. He says he found God in Arlee. “I went [to a local church] and got involved and it just felt right, like there was something different about me, about everything, once I started relying on God,” he says. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Burks grew up in East Los Angeles, moved to Spokane in his early 20s, and then to Arlee before finally settling in Missoula. He says he found God in Arlee. “I went [to a local church] and got involved and it just felt right, like there was something different about me, about everything, once I started relying on God,” he says.

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.

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