In elementary school, Matt Richman would doodle the floor-plans of the mansions he planned to build when he became rich.
His entrepreneurial drive was so intense that he tried to sell crayon drawings door-to-door when he was five years old. By age 12, he was flipping hamburgers in the family business, a small cluster of Steak 'n Shake restaurants, including one of the chain's busiest locations on Gunbarrel Road.
Hometown: Indianapolis, Indiana
Education: Master’s degree, Vanderbilt University
Occupation: Founder and president of Billboards for Education
Family: Wife Laura, and four children
Lives in: Ooltewah
"From an early age, I remember reading books about making money," said Richmann, a 34-year-old father of four now living in Ooltewah and an emerging outdoor advertising entrepreneur.
During his high school years at Boyd-Buchanan School, Richman says he felt something shift inside him. After becoming a Christian he followed the advice of people who told him that he was a natural to become a minister.
"I started realizing that life wasn't all about money and acquiring things," he said. "Jesus warns about acquiring things just to acquire. I decided I wanted to conserve and help others."
So, after finishing his undergraduate work at Western Kentucky University, he went to grad school at Vanderbilt University and eventually found his way into the ministry, serving almost eight years in ministerial roles in several Church of Christ congregations. The ministry turned out to be a good training ground for building leadership skills, he says.
"In ministry, here I was in my 20s, and 60-year-olds are looking at me for leadership and guidance," Richman said.
In 2012, he returned to Chattanooga to help his mother, Debbie "Debo" Richman, and brother, Mike, manage Debo's Diners, a chain of seven Steak 'n Shake locations in Chattanooga and Knoxville. Debbie began her professional career as a 15-year-old waitress at a Steak 'n Shake in Indianapolis, Indiana, according to her corporate profile.
While handling marketing for the business, Matt Richman met Ken Hall, the then owner of a small outdoor advertising company. Richman became intrigued by the billboard business and bought Hall's half of a billboard co-owned by his family in Dalton, Georgia.
Soon, he began to conceptualize a billboard business called Billboards for Education that would combine his business savvy with his desire to help others. He says he hopes to carve out a piece of the outdoor advertising business in the Chattanooga area, an industry dominated locally by such large companies as Fairview Outdoor and Lamar Advertising.
"To them, I'm a small fry," said Richman. "I've got five billboards. They've got thousands. My goal is not to be the biggest or make the most money. I'm just excited to be able to support my family and help schools."
In 2015, he left the family restaurant business to manage his small billboard business full-time. He says he wants to eventually have a countywide portfolio of billboards in prime, Hamilton County locations, such as one that the company owns at Highway 153 and Hamill Road. Currently, he has five billboards — most of them in Dalton — including several digital billboards that can serve multiple advertising customers at once.
"It all comes down the land owners," said Richman. "When their contracts are up, it's my bet that they would rather work with someone local and someone who puts 10 percent of the profits of the business back into the community."
Richman is already making good on his promise to donate a portion of his profits for education. He says he hopes to eventually be the largest corporate contributor to local schools in the markets his business serves.
He has given $9,000 to a second-grade class at City Park Elementary School in Dalton to supply every child with an iPad. He donated $15,000 to fund a robotics program in Whitfield County middle schools and $23,000 to help fund a sexual abuse awareness curriculum in public schools there. Soon, teachers will be able to apply for the grants, he said.
"I had a lot of people say it isn't going to work," Richman said. "That you can't give away 10 percent and succeed. You can't bust into a long-established industry. (But) I had a hunch there was a great opportunity, and I was right."
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645.