An advisor takes a big bite out of life-and builds a barbecue business.
Cooking the books is almost always not advisable,
but for James L. Budros, cooking and balancing the books go splendidly
together. In fact cooking, preferably the barbecue variety, and
financial planning are two of several passions that illuminate Budros'
A successful fee-only financial planner who has no intention of giving up his day job, Budros has won numerous awards, such as being named more than once as one of the best financial advisors in the United States by Worth magazine. At the same time, barbecue cooking, his family, fly fishing and driving Porches are interests that are almost as important to this man, who describes himself as "sort of an enthusiastic guy."
As a founding partner in the financial planning firm of Budros, Ruhlin & Roe in Columbus, Ohio, Budros cooked as a hobby most of his life and then got into competitive barbecuing that involved road trips with friends to the barbecue capitals of the country. "I always said I would never get involved in the restaurant business," Budros now says. "In fact, if I did that full time, it would involve a lot more time than financial planning."
Never say never. Although Budros had avoided the business because he was concerned about the time commitment, he still yearned for a barbecue restaurant. And after he met Rick Malir, another barbecue lover, opening one suddenly seemed like the right thing to do. Budros, Malir and two other partners opened City Barbeque in Columbus in December 1999, and quickly after opened a second location. There are now six restaurants in or near Columbus, and two new operator-owned franchises that will open in Westchester and Toledo, Ohio, this summer, all adhering to the same competition-level barbecuing standards. Although Budros does not take an active part in operating the restaurants, the two occupations feed off of each other.
"The existence of the restaurants has given rise to a lot of metaphors we use when discussing our clients and their financial plans," says Peggy Ruhlin, the chief operating officer for the firm. "When we are looking for a good mutual funds manager, we say we like it when they eat their own cooking, meaning invest in their own funds. We also ask if someone wants to cook or just measure, meaning do you want to be slaves to a recipe or do you want to be innovative."
At the same time, the successful financial planning business rubs off on the restaurants. "When we first opened we got more publicity before we opened than anyone could imagine," Budros remembers. "It was all based on our good relationship with the community of Columbus. We were well known for our barbecue and for our charity work. The head restaurant reviewers from the newspapers wanted pictures, and there were three big articles even before we opened."
City Barbeque has been judged one of Columbus's top-ten casual restaurants, as well as being named the number one new restaurant in Columbus by local radio when it opened. Before he opened the restaurant, Budros and his friends won the Kansas City American Royal Barbecue Championship, one of the top competitions in the country, beating out 450 competitors. The barbecue wizards at the restaurants now qualify as judges. The secret, according to Malir, who quit a job at John Deere to take over the financial and operating part of the restaurant business, is in the smoking more than in the sauce. "Although Jim and I met over a jar of sauce," he adds.
Budros and Malir met after a financial planner working for Budros went to a party attended by Malir. She took along a jar of barbecue sauce made by Budros, which Malir tasted at the party, and the rest, as they say, is history. Malir quit his corporate job at John Deere, and Frank Pizzo, who was opening and managing Burger King franchises, was brought in to run the cooking side of the restaurants. The pair takes care of the day-to-day operations of the restaurants and the expansions.
On the investing side, Budros was joined by Mike Taylor, a lawyer who had sometimes shared client referrals with the financial planning firm, and Dr. John Kean, an orthopedic surgeon and Budros' neighbor. Taylor, Kean and Budros and a few other friends are part of the traveling troop that tours the country at times, looking for good barbecue or competing in cook-offs.
Although he loved to cook and loved barbecue, "I always turned my back on the restaurant business until I met Rick Malir," Budros now says.
"Owning the restaurants adds a change of pace to our professional lives," says Taylor. "It adds a lot of depth to your advice for a client if you also happen to be the owner of a business totally different from your main profession. In turn, you can bring a different perspective to the restaurant business. Jim and I have both seen businesses fail, so we bring safeguards to the company. It makes a nice marriage."
Budros agrees, although he acknowledges he, Taylor and Kean have less at stake than the other two partners who are running the restaurants. "We never expected this amount of success," Budros says. "Mike, John and I just wanted a joint we could go to and have barbecue and be proud of. Rick and Frank quit their jobs and put all their money on the line, so their interests are different. But because of their expertise, they made it into what they expected."
Both businesses have been extremely successful. Budros, Ruhlin and Roe, Budros' full-time employer, now has $750 million under management and 28 employees. One of the latest to join the firm, John Schuman, has not been made partner as yet, but is expected to in the near future. At the same time, the restaurant business now has 150 employees and could accelerate its expansion pace if it chose to.
Budros says he feels all of his varied interests play into his financial planning career. "Because of all the hobbies I have, it comes through to the client that I am a diversified guy. People like to do business with people who are thinkers, with positive people. When clients come in, we can have a relationship that is not as hard-lined or sterile as planning and investment.
"I often tell clients they pay me to think. They must trust what we do, because many times people come in here, while the are paying us, and they want to spend their time telling us about their grandchildren, so they must like what we are doing for their financial planning," Budros reasons. "It is always good if you recognize that people have interests beyond money and get to know them as people."
The financial advisor also spends some of his nonplanning time teaching cooking. He has been a member of the Corporation of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., has been a restaurant reviewer, had his own radio program and helped coordinate the ZAGAT survey of Ohio restaurants.
Budros' passion for life has spilled over to his two adult children, both of whom moved away from home for a time and then recently returned to Columbus. Rivaling his father's success with City Barbeque, Budros' son, Spencer, a pastry chef, recently opened a bakery in Columbus called Pistachio. The high-end bakery has enjoyed the same type of early publicity that accompanied the opening of City Barbeque.
His daughter, Anne Budros Fletcher, moved back to Columbus, but planned to continue her job as a managing staffer at Asset Planning Corp. in Knoxville, Tenn., by long distance. However, she was so smitten with her brother's Pistachio that she quit her job to take over the accounting for the bakery.
She has one child and another on the way. "My wife, Susan, and I are involved in all of it," says Budros. "I am the chief cheerleader for Pistachio."
A secret to balancing his many activities is to never say he is too busy to do something. Budros and his barbecue friends still take three- and four-day trips to barbecue festivals throughout the country, which they describe as eating extravaganzas that include hitting as many as 19 restaurants.
Next year they will travel to New York City to check out the barbecue fare and look at new smokers and other equipment. "I doubt we will expand City Barbeque to New York, but you never know," Budros says.
Karen DeMasters is a freelance writer
based in New Jersey who is a regular contributor to The New York Times
and various business publications.