Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 11, 2018

Following in their moms’ footsteps

3 Chattanooga men find success by treading familiar paths

Realtor Linda Brock needed to run an errand while her 8-year-old son, Lee, waited in the backseat of her car.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” she told him. “Finish your homework.”

With the weary resignation of a young boy who had already learned what that meant, Lee asked his mother, “Do you mean a real minute or one of your minutes?”

Despite learning about the rigors of real estate early in life, Lee, now 30, has grown up to become a Realtor, too.

Likewise, Chattanooga lawyer Bart Mathews is following in the footsteps of his storied mother, the Hon. Jackie Bolton, whose career spanned nearly four decades as she served first as an attorney and then as a judge.

Also joining the ranks of the men whose mothers paved the way for their careers are Matt and Mike Richman, the sons of Debbie “Debo” Richman, owner of Debo’s Diners in Chattanooga. Anyone who has enjoyed a single with cheese at a Chattanooga area Steak ‘n Shake has tasted a piece of what Debbie, and now her sons, have spent a lifetime building.

Since time immemorial, fathers have passed down their profession or business to their sons, who then took the mantle of supporting their own families and eventually leading their own sons to do likewise. But as more and more women not only entered the workforce but also developed careers and built businesses, their sons have been able to look to an additional role model for guidance.

Although their reasons for following in their mothers’ footsteps vary, Lee, Bart, Matt and Mike have one thing in common: deep and abiding respect for their mothers. Yet each son’s choices have also been driven by something unique he’s found in his mother – and it’s making all the difference in his life.

One of her minutes

Lee was 8 when his mother became a Realtor. Until that time, Linda had been a teacher, which allowed her to spend nights, weekends and summers with her family. But when she started selling houses, it felt like she was gone more than she was home.

“I wanted to do more for my children. Teaching is an honorable career, but it’s not always easy to pay the bills, or for a child’s education, on a teacher’s salary, and real estate looked like a good path for doing those things,” Linda recalls.

Although Lee missed his mother, he was a perceptive child who saw how hard she was working, so instead of complaining, he would call her and ask if she had eaten. If she was hungry, he would take food to her office and leave it on her desk along with a note or drawing.

Lee also found subtle ways to tell his mom she needed to take a breather. One evening, while doing homework in her office as she worked late, he drew a picture of a red convertible driving past snowcapped mountains with the top down.

On the drawing, he wrote, “Gotta get away.” He then taped the drawing next to his mother’s desk. Eighteen years later, it’s still taped to the same spot.

“I wanted to take care of her because I saw what she was trying to do for us,” Lee says, referring to himself and two siblings.

Lee also started tagging along with his mother on appointments, although Linda uses the words “dragging along” instead. He also gave her a helping hand when he could, whether it was licking envelopes or stapling photographs to feature sheets.

Linda’s hard work paid off financially. She’s sold nearly $1 billion worth of real estate since 1999 and has consistently been one of the Chattanooga area’s top producing agents. She’s also in the top five percent of Berkshire Hathaway agents nationwide, despite operating in a moderately sized market.

Her view of Chickamauga Lake, which begins where her backyard ends, is a striking testament to her achievements.

But there was a cost. “The signs of my success were also the signs of my failure,” she says, tearing up. “I felt like I was never home enough.”

So, when Lee began to think about the work he wanted to do, he resisted real estate. Instead of becoming a Realtor, he framed houses for his stepdad, builder Dexter White, then moved to San Diego with his brother, attorney Matt Brock, where he sold medical imaging equipment.

That job eventually brought Lee to a fork in the road. One path led to Los Angeles, where he would work for a company that made eyeglass machines, and other led back to Tennessee, where he would become a project manager at his stepdad’s company.

Leery of beginning yet another new life in California and alone after his brother returned to Tennessee to practice law, Lee came home. When he arrived, he saw a familiar sight – his mother, working hard.

Too hard, he thought. So, he would call her and ask if she had eaten. If she was hungry, he would meet her for a meal. He didn’t write her notes or draw pictures of a vacation getaway, but if she was busy, he would change the signs at her listings or help in any other way he could.

Eventually, Lee realized he was warming up to real estate, so he earned his license and began working with Linda evenings. “I knew I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t try to learn from her,” Lee adds. “I admire her work ethic and professionalism and aspire to be like her.”

Lee also wanted to take some of the work off his mother’s hands. “He told me he wanted me to have more balance in life,” Linda says, fresh tears welling up in her eyes. “The thing that allowed me to succeed in real estate was the thing I had taken away from my family, which was the time I put into it. So to have my son give that back to me – to be able to spend time with him – is a gift.”

Lee’s timing was good. Although Linda was operating at the peak of her powers and experiencing the greatest success of her career, her vision was becoming blurry from years of doing things the same way. “I needed to see things through a younger set of eyes,” she acknowledges.

Lee gave his mother those eyes and a fresh vision for her business.

“He started looking at my listings and saying, ‘You might want to mention that the annual wakeboarding races take place there,’” she remembers. “’You’re selling the features of a house when you need to be selling a lifestyle.’

“So, I started adding recreational pictures to my listings. I loved it. Lee had found a way to make things feel new, and I was having fun again.”

Lee is enjoying being active in real estate, as well, although he might be taking one too many pages from his mother’s book when it comes to how much he piles onto his plate.

Lee continues to work days as a project manager at Dexter White Construction and spends his evenings pouring what he has left into real estate. (At 30, his reserves appear to be bottomless.)

Although he has a girlfriend of three years, marriage and a family are not yet on the horizon, but when those things do happen, he’s not able to say if he’ll try to achieve a better balance in life than his mother did.

“That’s difficult to say,” he explains, looking down at the floor of his mother’s living room, where they’re sitting close to each other, her on a chair and him on a couch.

“We’ve talked about those things,” Linda says. “I want his family, not his work, to be the greatest investment of his time. We’ve talked about balance.”

“And we’re trying to help each other achieve it,” Lee adds, looking up from the floor to meet his mother’s concerned gaze.

There’s something else in Linda’s expression, something that’s diluting her worries: motherly pride.

Despite the mistakes Linda says she believes she made, she can look at Lee and see the kind of person a mother dreams her son will become.

“Someone once asked me what my greatest success in life was. He expected me to say having the highest average sales price in the city,” she says. “But it’s not that; it’s knowing that my children are good people. It’s knowing that Lee has a good heart.”

“She’s always telling me how proud she is of me,” Lee recounts, reaching to take his mother’s hand. “That makes me want to be even better for her.

A gunslinger’s life

When listening to a conversation between Bolton and her son, one could easily mistake them for a comedy act. As they go back and forth, each one playfully trying to get the last word, their banter pops like a string of firecrackers on the Fourth of July.

Seated next to her son in a conference room in a local law firm, Bolton tells a story about the time one of Mathew’s friends jumped for joy when he heard his mom was a judge.

“We have it made!” the young boy said.

“He thought I’d bail them out if they got in trouble,” Bolton remembers. “So, I took Bart and his friends to the Hamilton County Jail and told them that was where they were going to end up if they got in trouble. I wanted them to know they didn’t have it made.”

“But I never thought that,” Mathews insists. “I figured if I got in trouble, it would be worse. When the average teenager got caught drinking in Provident’s parking lot, it made the back page of the paper. But when a judge’s son got caught doing the same thing, it made the front page.”

“But you weren’t that kind of kid,” his mother replies.

“Of course not,” Mathews says, smiling. “Besides, I think the statute of limitations has run out on that particular offense.”

“You were a good kid,” Bolton counters, trying to strike the gavel on the exchange. “You were just mischievous enough to not be boring.”

“I had to keep you guessing.”

Mathews was in fourth grade when his mother became a judge. Like Linda, she had another career prior to entering the legal profession, as anyone who watched local television news in the early- to mid-seventies might recall.

“I came to Chattanooga in 1973 to be a news reporter,” Bolton remembers. “I worked first at Channel 9 and then at Channel 3.”

Bolton likens television journalism at the time to “a gunslinger’s life,” explaining reporters never stayed in one market but hopped from city to city as they advanced.

But she enjoyed living in Chattanooga, so she quit the news business and became an attorney at a time when women were just beginning to break into the profession.

After a brief stint at the city attorney’s office, Bolton went into private practice, working with a series of partners over the next several years.

In 1989, Bolton was appointed juvenile court judge in Hamilton County. When she was unable to hold on to the seat, she tried to explain to Mathews, who was two, that she had lost the election.

He replied, “Momma, some day, I’ll give it back to you.”

“I was a very thoughtful 2-year-old,” Mathews says.

Like Lee, Mathews remembers his mother working at home. His most vivid memories involve her scratching something onto a legal pad or dictating into a cassette tape player.

“I don’t do that,” Mathews says, casting a roguish look at his mom.

“He’s trying to say I’m an old lady,” Bolton replies.

Luckily, Mathews didn’t have to find the lost juvenile court judge election and return it to his mother. Instead, she ran for circuit court judge in 1998 and won.

Bolton stayed on the bench for 16 years. She retired in 2014 to spend time with her husband, who had been sick and nearly died.

By that time, Bolton had already made a positive impression on her son.

“She was a hard worker and dedicated to her profession, which I respected,” Mathews adds. “So, when I was older and trying to find my own way, I took those things to heart.”

Initially, Mathews had no interest in the law, nor did he want to become an engineer, like his father. Instead, he saw himself entering the business arena. But his thoughts shifted slightly when he took a business law course as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

“The ways businesses deal with legal and regulatory problems was interesting to me. So, I went into law school gung-ho about doing transactional work.”

When Mathews told his mother he was going to start studying for the LSAT, she was surprised. “He had businessman written all over him. He still does,” she offers. “But I wasn’t unhappy. The more education you have, the more success you’ll experience in life.”

Mathews’ career went down a different road than he was expecting, though. Instead of doing business work, he accepted a litigation position at Tidwell & Izell. Now, four years after graduating law school, he’s working as an in-house attorney at Allstate Insurance.

“I’m the local trial attorney who represents insureds in bodily injury and property damage claims,” he points out. “Sometimes, you don’t get to pick the direction in which your career goes.”

Mathews does find his work rewarding, though, as he enjoys guiding people who have no experience with the legal system through a lawsuit. But that doesn’t mean he’s above joking with his mother about wishing he’d picked something else to do for a living.

“You should have tried harder to talk me out of being a lawyer,” he says. “It’s a hard way to make a living.”

“I don’t think that’s the place of a parent,” she replies, matter-of-factly. For the first time since Mathews and his mother sat down at the conference table, the air in the room seems a little less jovial.

The mood lightens again when Mathews backs up and says he’s grateful for what his mother has done for him. “I have two degrees. I’ll be OK in life,” he says. “Those opportunities were there almost exclusively because of my mom. I’ll always appreciate that.”

Mathews might not be done following in his mother’s footsteps, although it will be a while before he’s certain.

“He’d make a great judge,” his mother says.

“We have a quality bench and bar in Hamilton County. I have a long way to go before I’m on that level. But I won’t rule it out,” he says.

Even if Mathews chooses to remain an attorney, he’ll make his mother proud. Although he told her to not come to court when he was trying a case, she still found a way to watch him – and what she saw impressed her.

“He has command of the language, and he has presence,” Bolton says.

“You saw me in court?” he asks.

Not just along for the ride

Matt grew up as much a child of Steak ‘n Shake as he was his mother’s son. And from the time he started bussing tables when he in the single digits, he had one goal in mind: become as rich as he could.

Then Matt became a Christian, and his larger purpose shifted. No longer driven by hunger for wealth, he stared looking for a way to positively impact others.

Matt also developed a strong distaste for the business world. “I thought it was all about greed,” Matt, 33, says, “and I didn’t want anything to do with it.”

Deep down, though, Matt knew better because of who is mother is.

Debbie began her career as a 15-year-old waitress at a Steak ‘n Shake in Indianapolis. Her family was poor and life at home was difficult, so she dropped out of high school and struck out on her own when she was 16. In the ensuing years, she earned her GED, married and had two children.

Debbie also continued to work in the restaurant industry. In 1995, she and her husband, Mark, moved to Chattanooga and opened the Steak ‘n Shake on Gunbarrel Road, which quickly became one of the busiest Steak ‘n Shakes in the country. Encouraged by their success, they opened four more restaurants in the Chattanooga area.

Then, five years after opening the Gunbarrel restaurant, the couple divorced. Instead of selling her share of the restaurants to Mark, Debbie courageously purchased his shares and became the sole owner and president of one of the busiest Steak ‘n Shake franchises in the country.

From the beginning, Debbie ran her company differently than what Matt imaged when he thought of the typical business. “Mom always put people before profits,” Matt explains. “She helped a lot of folks along the way.”

One telling moment came during the recession, when Debbie faced a major dilemma: cancel her employees’ benefits or keep her business afloat. Instead of going into survival mode, Debbie obtained a second mortgage on her house and took out a number of other loans, allowing her to keep her business open and continue to offer employee benefits.

“Some people think when you own a business, you just sit back a rake in the profits. But that’s not true, especially in the restaurant business,” Matt adds. “But even if that were true, that’s not the kind of leader my mother would be. She knows almost everyone in the company by name, she’s built loyalty among her employees and she’s served as a good role model.

“I saw the kind of leader she was and realized the business world wasn’t all bad.”

While observing his mother’s people-oriented approach to doing business, Matt pursued careers in education and Christian ministry. Then, in 2012, he joined Debo’s Diners, the company under which Debbie’s Steak ‘n Shake franchises operate, eager to work not just for his mother but for a company motivated by a cause greater than money.

There was never any question in Mike’s mind: he always knew he wanted to join Debo’s Diners. But instead of immediately hitching his mule to the family fencepost, he prepared to manage the financial side of Debo’s Diners by becoming a CPA and working for the company now known as Elliott Davis.

The job exposed Mike to not only the financial industry but also a wealth of different kinds of businesses. “When I joined the company, I wanted to have something to offer,” he says.

Mike, 29, and Matt currently serve as vice-presidents of the company’s Chattanooga market. In addition, Matt is president and Mike vice-president of the Knoxville market, where Debo’s Diners owns two Steak ‘n Shakes.

Regardless of their titles, Debbie explains her sons have both rejuvenated the company with new ideas and a fresher, more modern perspective on its processes.

“Mike has done a lot of innovation in the areas of hiring and training, while Mike’s specialty has been the money side,” she says. “Together, they’ve been a great mix.”

That’s a high compliment coming from mom, but Debbie is not just an accomplished businesswoman, she’s also an honest one. So, it surprises neither of her sons when she says working with them has been “great - most of the time.”

It might be a family business, she notes, but it’s still a business, which means they sometimes disagree about how to run it.

“I’ve been doing this 22 years, and I’m not always willing to change my mind, so sometimes, I don’t like it when they keep pointing out to me that there’s a better way to do things,” she says.

Debbie has also felt the burden of playing dual roles at the company: the authoritarian father and the diplomatic mother.

“In most family-run businesses, the dad is the one who demands things be done a certain way and then mom swoops in to smooth things over,” she explains. “But here, I have to be the boss and smooth things over.

“That’s hard sometimes, but we’re a strong family and we work our way through it.”

The few, the proud

Although sons are beginning to follow in their mother’s footsteps, they are still the minority. But as Brock, Bolton and Richman have shown, moms today are not only raising good people, they’re inspiring their children to pursue satisfying, productive careers.

Perhaps, generations from now, as sons and daughters face the divergence in life to which all people come, just as many will choose to follow the path their mother forged as their father.

Then again, maybe it won’t take that long. Maybe it will take “just a minute.”

A real minute, not one of Linda’s minutes.