When a CEO puts his trust in God, something surprising, and in this case, delicious, happens!
John Rivers was the consummate planner, to the point that when entering a meeting, his discussion points were already outlined and contemplated. He hadn’t become the president of a pharmaceutical company by working off-the-cuff. His focus was direct, and results were consistently predictable, just the way he planned.
Then everything changed: his career, his business philosophy and his relationship with God.
Courage to Pursue Passion
He’s wearing black shorts, a polo shirt and soft-soled shoes as he tells his story. “I dressed up today,” he says with a smile that reflects a man who is living his passion.
The setting is a refinished picnic table at one of his 4Rivers Smokehouse restaurants, a wildly popular chain in Central Florida on track to make just under $18-million this year. In the past four years, John has appeared on TV morning shows and in magazines such as Cooking Light and Cooking with Paula Deen.
These days, John has no rigid, long-term agenda for the future. The 47-year-old isn’t afraid to shrug his shoulders and say, “I don’t know.” When contemplating this endeavor, he never even developed a detailed business plan, saying that they are “too restrictive.”
It’s evident when you look around and sense that there’s more to this success than the signature barbecue brisket, baked beans, desserts and homemade ice cream, or even the flavorful collard greens John munches throughout the interview. It’s before noon, on a weekday, and the line is already 40-people deep, snaking out the front door along the side of the brick-façade building.
"God gave me this business as a platform..."
...John explains. With his new platform, he tells the story of a businessman who once trusted his own instincts but now simply trusts God.
First, you should know that John Rivers really likes barbecue. Even as a corporate executive, he’d seek out local barbecue restaurants when traveling for business. On a quick trip to Memphis once, he went to three places in one day to “research” the local favorites.
“Overindulgence led to indigestion,” he admits, laughing.
A “Barbecue Ministry”
Brisket, in particular, became his meat of choice two decades ago. After college he moved from Florida to Texas for a job. There, he met his wife Monica and quickly learned that barbecue brisket has a certain pedigree among Texans. He fell in love with the cut of beef and spent weekends perfecting his smoked brisket skills, creating the right rubs and sauces to set off its natural flavors.
Then, in 2004, a subtle transformation began. John got a phone call at his office. “I’m so sorry about your daughter,” said the woman on the other end. “What about her?” was his immediate response (Cameron, now 15, was just a little girl back then; her brother, Jared, three years older.)
The woman said she had a tumor. John, alarmed and confused, immediately contacted his wife, and, as he suspected and hoped, the call had been a mistake. Cameron was just fine.
But the change inside of him was already in motion. For the first time, cancer became personal to John, who just happened to be head of the oncology department for his pharmaceutical company at the time.
Who was that call really meant for? After some research, he tracked down the 6-year-old girl’s family. John and his wife, Monica, met them at a church.
He was walking toward them in the sanctuary when Monica asked, “What are you going to say?” For the first time since John could remember, he had no prepared talking points, no introductory statement. “I don’t know,” he told her.
She looked at him surprised, but John kept moving forward. He hugged the father in a highly emotional moment. That, John says, “was the first step of giving up control.”
Wanting to help the family somehow, he offered financial assistance to them but they refused. Still feeling God’s calling to help, John decided to host a fundraiser to offset the hefty expenses incurred by the family for their daughter’s cancer treatment. By this time, John had been smoking brisket and fixing up side dishes in his garage for family and friends for years. He’d do this on the weekends, perfecting various recipes that he cataloged on Excel spreadsheets. For the fundraiser, he agreed to do the cooking and organizing.
He wasn’t prepared, however, for the 450 people who showed up. Somehow he pulled it off and, equally important, he realized the joys of serving others. From then on, John spent his weekends cooking for schools, churches, and other fundraising organizations. He called it his “barbecue ministry.”
A few years later, John began to sense a greater stirring in his spirit. He’d always wanted to be a CEO, and he had risen to the top of the $1.4-billion company where he worked. The problem was that he wasn’t content.
“Trust me,” he felt the Lord telling him.
He decided to retire, and his wife asked a familiar question: “What are you going to do?”
He gave a now-familiar answer: “I don’t know.”
Not one for just sitting around, he started working part-time in healthcare counseling, but spending more and more time in the garage with his smoker. By 2008, he was looking for a place to house the booming culinary ministry. He wound up renovating a 1,300-square-foot building that had been a Just Brakes auto service center. He would use it mostly for catering and also keep a section open during the week in case people wanted to buy food left over from the events. Eventually, the vision would expand into a full-fledged restaurant.
Then the economy tanked. Renovations ran hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget and months behind schedule. Critics gave John all kinds of reasons to give up—he’d chosen the wrong location, and barbecue brisket wouldn’t sell in this region anyway.
"Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and your plans will succeed."Proverbs 16:3
The situation looked bleak when, out of the blue, he was asked if he would consider a CEO position with a healthcare company. In light of his struggles, the idea was tempting. Prayer, however, gave John and his wife a different answer. They agreed to pursue the barbecue venture because that’s what was in their hearts. Even if they failed, they would have taught their children to follow their hearts, rather than take the easy way out.
He had never been “on his knees” more than in those crucial months, John said. Monica’s faith and support was key. If she had wavered, he likely wouldn’t be where he is today.
With help from others, the stalemate in renovations finally ended. In October 2009, 4Rivers, named for the four-member Rivers family, opened with 12 employees (including husband and wife). There had been no marketing, John said, yet the line was out the door. They were happily overwhelmed.
Today, John remembers when he got a surprise call from the Atlanta area. The first restaurant building was still under construction when he heard the voice of Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy on the other end of the phone line. As it turned out, mutual friends who had visited John took his brisket back home and shared it with Dan. Now, Dan was calling to compliment him. He would go on to offer his support and knowledge to the fledgling restaurateur. For instance, Dan told John that a 1,300-square-foot restaurant would do very well to have $2,500 in sales per day.
Currently, each of the three Central Florida 4Rivers locations averages well over $10,000 per day in sales. When the numbers exceed expectations by that much, John says, it has to be the work of God.
Early on, John knew he could no longer rely on his own business acumen. He had to lean totally on God’s direction. When he worked for publicly-traded companies, the focus was the bottom line and meeting shareholders’ expectations. With 4Rivers, employees, customers, and the people in the community come first.
The 4Rivers staff works with a team mentality where everyone pitches in, no matter the task. John, himself, may sweep floors during his daily visits to the locations. Team meetings begin with prayer. They listen to requests from employees going through difficult times. John emphasizes treating others with respect and says, “It takes so little to make a difference in somebody’s day.”
The company has given hundreds of thousands of dollars back to the community in food donations, discounts, as well as food to the homeless and foster kids.
On this day, John rises from the picnic table, smiling and shaking hands on his way to another appointment. The lunch hour is coming to a close, but the line remains long with customers hungry for his mouth-watering fare, some of which will be revealed in a cookbook next summer. Two more Florida locations, in Jacksonville and Gainesville, are planned for 2013, as well. Before heading out the door, he notices a new employee in the Sweet Shop (where desserts are sold). Without a second thought, he joyfully seizes the opportunity to show the employee his method of topping a cupcake.
In time, John hopes to have 24 locations nationwide. The trick will be ensuring that each store maintains the 4Rivers quality and culture. He’s not certain how he’ll manage that, but he’s not particularly worried about it now. In time, John believes, the answers will come.