How instinct, and a winning Super Bowl ad, brought this problem-solver to Wilmington

1 month ago Wilmington Star-News

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 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 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.

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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]
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