How instinct, and a winning Super Bowl ad, brought this problem-solver to Wilmington
Richard Johnson said he’s someone who always needs to have a project, a puzzle to work on.
The headquarters for one of his current projects is the Burgaw Now office on West Fremont Street above the Brown Dog Coffee Company. It’s an ideal spot to watch how his efforts to revitalize this Pender County community are going. The latest step in that is the Own Your Own contest where the winner will get the chance to design and build their own million-dollar restaurant – and the filming of the process for a possible reality show.
Johnson, 62, said Burgaw is similar to his hometown in Pennsylvania. But growing up there wasn’t easy. His father died when he was young, and then he watched his mother struggle as a single parent.
“My renegade, not having a lot of direction, came from not really having a father figure. And also suffering from things that have only been diagnosed since brain research was done in the ‘90s with ADHD and dyslexia,” he said. “I’m totally on the spectrum. And certainly neurodivergent.”
He didn’t do well in school but was good at math. He said he was lucky to get into Bucknell University but still had difficulty after. It wasn’t until he answered an ad in the New York Times that he found a good fit and became a headhunter.
“I see patterns that others don’t,” he said. “The connection of people and matching people to jobs ... it’s a magical thing finding the right person for the job.”
That work is what led to Johnson's success as he continued with recruiting and helped build new companies amid the burgeoning computer industry.
“We were the first recruiting firm to put a computer on the desk. We went from index cards and paper files to computerizing the process,” he said. And then he realized just what an important influence the internet would be.
Eventually, he and his partners launched Hotjobs.com in 1996. While the site had millions of users, great technology, and high-profile clients, it also existed in a market with much bigger companies, like Monster, that were growing faster. Despite some success, the company was on the verge of closing by 1998.
Then Johnson had one of those moments where he knew just what to do. Over the years, he learned to trust his instincts and those bursts of inspiration.
“It was just like ‘Oh my God. I’ll run a Super Bowl ad,'” he said.
He mortgaged his house and assets to borrow $4 million to run a commercial during the 1999 game. And then the race was on to complete an ad campaign on a short deadline. (The first commercial, which featured a zookeeper getting sucked into an unpleasant place in an elephant with the tagline ‘Stuck in the wrong job?’, was rejected by the network.)
As he was working on a new campaign, the move was also making headlines even before the ad ran, with news and media outlets speculating why such a relatively small company would take such a big gamble. At the time, it was very rare for an internet company to advertise on television.
More:From dishwashers to cooks, dozens have entered this contest to win a Burgaw restaurant
More:How this chef-turned-executive has kept a Wilmington coffee chain evolving for 25 years
Fortunately, it was the right move. It was a game changer, he said.
HotJobs went public and raised over $165 million in 1999. In February 2002, the company was sold to Yahoo for close to a half billion dollars.
For Johnson, business was never about the cutthroat “I win, you lose” mindset. It was about helping people and creating a win-win situation for all involved.
With HotJobs behind him, he devoted his time to what has become his current career as a social entrepreneur. Over the years, he’s worked with a number of nonprofits from Wyoming to Pennsylvania to Wilmington. Just about everywhere he goes, he said he notices when things don’t work as well as they should. Or could.
“My brain is organized in a way that ... I just get upset if there’s not efficient flow,” he said. “Process re-engineering is just something my brain does.”
He’s turned his talents to efforts like an anti-poaching campaign, the Trout Unlimited organization, and the Bucknell alumni board.
Johnson and his wife Carole moved to a home overlooking Masonboro Island in 2003. Once here, Johnson’s brain kept working. He founded the Masonboro.org group to help maintain public access to the island. He bought a historic boatbuilding property in Swansboro and later sold it to MarineMax. When he learned that many modern live oaks are genetically modified, he decided to buy a Pender County farm and grow heritage live oaks – like those from the seeds from the Airlie Oak at Airlie Gardens.
It was while he was doing work on the farm that he realized that downtown Burgaw was failing.
“Buildings were boarded up. No one was here,” he said.
There are a lot of struggling towns, he said, but he believes that Burgaw is one that can thrive.
“And if you look at those vibrant downtowns, it really comes down to restaurants," he said.
STAY CONNECTED: Keep up with the area’s latest food news by signing up for the Port City Foodies newsletter and following us on Facebook and Instagram.
Since then, Johnson bought seven buildings in the downtown area. He helped bring Fat Daddy’s Pizza to the town. And now he’s also helping former Front Street Brewery brewer and manager Kevin Kozak open the upcoming Burgaw Brewing pub. He and his Burgaw Now group are already seeing results. As handful of new business are opening on the historic town square.
But he knows the area needs more.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” he said. “I’ve talked to people, to restaureurs. And I just couldn’t think of the right concept.”
And then he had another burst of inspiration – to host a contest.
There are now already more than 360 entries from across the United States, as well as serious interest in the reality show. Johnson has recruited high-profile culinary talent such as Keith Rhodes of Catch, Christi Ferretti of Pine Valley Market, Myra McDuffie of MeMa’s Chick’n & Ribs, and Dean Neff of Seabird to help him judge the competition.
Mostly, it's because he sees what a revived Burgaw could be, he said, and he believes it's something that could work in other, similar communities.
"But also, I just also need something to work on. And I love puzzles, and to me this is a big puzzle. I think we can put all the pieces together."
Allison Ballard is the food and dining reporter at the StarNews. You can reach her at [email protected]
Buhro takes individual crown as Oak Harbor earns sectional championshipOwen Miller (138 pounds) beat Lakota's Grant Bomer 8-4, Hayden Burhro beat Lakota's Braxton Quantance 3-1 and Bodee Miller (113) beat Port Clinton's Josh Cornell by default in the finals as host Oak Harbor captured a sectional championship Saturday in Division III. Zavier Materni (144) edged Lakota's Cody Biddle 5-4 and Ethan Crawford (215) pinned Lake's Ryan Ranes at 2:40 in the final for the Comets. Jack Caldwell (157) beat Lakota's Case Paul 3-1 in overtime and Eli Wolph (190) topped Lakota's Jon Rosas 13-9 in the finals as Woodmore finished seventh. Woodmore's Michael Seeger (150) pinned Lakota's Ethan Bomer in 2:10 to finish third. Heavyweight Jacob Wetzel pinned Otsego's Adolfo Martinez-Alba in 1:44 to finish third as St. Joseph Central Catholic finished eighth.1 month ago The News-Messenger
Minico head coach Clay Robinson admitted to feeling a “little disappointment” in Saturday’s final round of the 2023 Idaho High School Wrestling State Championships. Joseph Terry, one of the team’s leaders, acknowledged the Spartans “didn’t wrestle to our best.”That’s just how good this wrestling team is: Minico won its second straight 4A state championship, anyway. It was the third in a row for the Magic Valley, too — Jerome won in 2021. We’ve got each other’s backs, no matter what,” said Vail, who won the 220-pound title by pinning Mountain Home’s Demetri Smith in the second period. There were jitters, too, for Vail — even as a defending state champion who had lost just once all season.1 month ago Twin Falls Times-News
Clyde Council to consider citizens raising chickens in town Due to rising egg prices more people are adding chicken coopsCLYDE - A woman's desire to have new pets plus the high cost of eggs have coincidently led Clyde City Council to deal with old livestock legislation and discuss whether citizens can raise chickens in the city. Earlier this week City Council approved an ordinance cleaning up a conflict between livestock legislation — a 1985 ordinance and a 1956 ordinance. Then about that same time a resident attended a council session asking the city to consider allowing chickens in the city. Clyde resident Christie Marie Watkins went to the council meeting on Feb. 21 to ask council to consider allowing chickens to be raised at local homes. Over the years, Clyde has had an assortment of livestock raised at various properties including horses, chickens, and rabbits.1 month ago The News-Messenger
Wilhelm: More on Jacksons, Willow Hill and efforts to share insight into African American history Willow Hill concentrates on African American HistoryDr. Alvin Jackson, who served at the Community Health Services in Fremont in the late 20th century, says the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center in Bulloch County, Georgia, aims to provide Americans with insight into the values of African American history and culture as related to American history and culture. Today, he said the center focuses on local, state and national African American history, but quickly pointed out “a lot of work is done in genealogy because a lot of African American people have lost contact with their history.” To help people reach into their own history, the center has a collection of more than 18,000 obituaries and is adding to the collection regularly. He continues to practice medicine part time and serves as president of the Georgian African American Historic Preservation Network. The 1988 National History Day Exhibit tells the history of the Willow Hill School won first place in the Junior Division at the National History Day Competition in Washington, D.C. You can learn much more about the Willow Hill Center online.1 month ago The News-Messenger
After splitting the season series, the Knights got the tie-breaking win over Pleasant Grove Friday night in the 6A second round. Lone Peak saw the game out down the stretch with a 19-16 advantage in the fourth quarter. 14 Orem, but a dominant second quarter for the Tigers made all the difference as Orem upset Woods Cross to advance to the quarterfinals. Sophomore guard Chance Dastrup drilled four three-pointers on the night, while Orem held the Wildcats to just four points in the second quarter. Jaxon Johnson and Carter Doleac combined to score 40 points for the Hawks, who will face upset-minded Springville in the next round.1 month ago Deseret News
Lake Geneva flourished during the decades following the Civil War. The key to this flourishing was the restoration of the railroad connection between Chicago and Lake Geneva in 1871. They were the vanguard of many wealthy Chicagoans who would buy land and build summer mansions on the shores of Geneva Lake, a development that would result in Lake Geneva becoming one of the premium summer resorts in the United States. Many of the leading citizens in Lake Geneva during the second half of the 19th Century were Civil War veterans. The station’s capacious waiting room became one of Lake Geneva’s “social centers.”On Jan. 1, 1900, residents of Lake Geneva celebrated the first turn of a century in the city’s history.1 month ago Lake Geneva News
Although the Christmas decorations have long been stored away, the shop is still operating as Twice Blessed, a large resale shop featuring room after room of merchandise, including clothes, décor and furniture. “We want to make it more comfortable to shop,” Kirsch said. One of the benefits of a second location is having the space for a permanent bridal boutique inside Twice Blessed. Twice Blessed sells home décor, holiday decorations, jewelry and books. Twice Blessed is at 1209 Oak Harbor Road in Fremont.1 month ago The News-Messenger
Electric vehicle maker Tesla is establishing its global engineering headquarters in California, CEO Elon Musk announced on Feb. 22. In a joint press conference with California governor Gavin Newsom, Musk said the new engineering headquarters will be at the former offices of Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto. He then touted California as being the state where “the future happens first.”“We’re changing the world through our historic investments, our conveyor belt for talent, and partnerships with companies like Tesla,” Newsom said. California Probing Tesla’s Self-Driving FeatureSeparately on Wednesday, Musk told CNBC that the new building in California is “effectively a headquarters of Tesla” and that it’s “kind of a dual-headquartered company.”Tesla is currently being probed by Californian officials regarding the name of its self-driving feature. Tesla’s website states that the self-driving feature is not autonomous.1 month ago NTD News