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Even leaving a $4 billion company, he was certain of the Lord’s call

BROKEN ARROW, Okla. (BP)–“A lot of fish have had their day ruined by that reel.” So says Jim Dawson of the Zebco 33, the most popular fishing reel in America. That reel is just one of the products manufactured by Zebco Corporation, a subsidiary of Brunswick Outdoor Recreation.

Dawson, 65, who is now executive associate pastor at First Baptist Church, Broken Arrow, Okla., became president of Zebco in 1989, and in 1995 organized Brunswick and became its first president. Among Brunswick products are Zebco, Quantum (reels), MotorGuide Trolling Motors, Martin Fly Reel Company, Igloo Coolers, American Camper, Remington Camping & Hunting Clothes, Browning Fishing, Lews Rods & Reels, Swivl-eze Marine Accessories and Roadmaster Bikes.

So why does a prominent, successful businessman leave a $4 billion company to serve a church?

“I always worried a bit about how I could walk away from a great company, a great product line of family fun and people I had grown to love,” Dawson said. When he retired in March 1999, the company was eight times the size it was when he stepped in as president just nine years before.

“But there was no doubt it was time to go. There was a call for something greater and bigger,” Dawson recounted. “God took away my desire for the business world, and replaced it with an insatiable desire to know him; not just know about him, but to know him and then to tell others about him so they can get to know him.”

Dawson made a profession of faith in Jesus during a revival when he was 14.

“My parents were not Christians, but I had a Sunday school teacher who took an interest in his class of boys my age,” Dawson said. “As I grew up, I drifted in and out of fellowship with God, but always came back.”

Dawson said he was a weak and comfortable Christian who left most of the religion to his wife.

“I had a career to build, material security to pursue and I wanted to do it fast,” Dawson said. “I worked long hours, traveled frequently and knew where I wanted to go.”

Dawson, who worked for the same company 39 years, started in the accounting department, which he said he hated.

“I would sweep floors just to get out of the accounting office,” he noted. Then, he said, he got into the technical end of the business where he flourished.

In 1983, Dawson was transferred to Tulsa and for the first time left his native Virginia.

“It was a career enhancement,” Dawson said, “but my wife, Rita, will tell you it was a ‘God move.’ He had plans for us.

Dawson said a major turn in his life came when shortly before the move the company sent him to Harvard University for a crash course in advanced management.

“During my time at Harvard, God really started working on me, and I relived my life many times night after night trying to comprehend what he was saying to me,” Dawson said. “I’m not sure I ever understood, but I came home with a determination to live life differently.”

After moving to Tulsa, Dawson and his wife started attending Broken Arrow’s First Baptist Church.

“We weren’t Baptists, and the issue of a second baptism concerned us,” Dawson said. “But we resolved that issue, and after attending for five years, we joined in December 1987.”

Dawson said by 1996 he was fighting the idea of retirement and ministry, but by October 1998, he realized it was time, and he was ready.

“I dealt with the idea of early retirement from an exciting position in a great company with great products and great leadership to working for the greatest leader the world has ever known with the greatest strategy and vision the world has ever known,” Dawson said.

Although Dawson was not in full-time ministry, as he traveled around the country giving speeches as a top business leader and executive, his talks always focused on a relationship with God.

“I believe this country is ready for a revival,” Dawson said. “Every time I speak at a business seminar, I end my presentation with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Not too long ago, in a business seminar in Tulsa, 30 businessmen, women and students prayed to receive Christ. At another meeting in Kansas, where Dawson, accompanied by his pastor, Nick Garland, spoke at a mayor’s luncheon, 123 men and women prayed asking Jesus Christ into their lives.

“Businessmen need to be bold in their commitment to Jesus Christ and in their witness to our Lord and Savior,” Dawson said. “There was a time in my life when I believed that when the going got tough, the tough got going, but I’ve changed.”

Dawson said he now believes that when the going gets tough, “we need to turn it over to the Master and let him take care of it.”

Dawson added that people need to make a commitment.

“There are too many people who want to sit in the front of the bus, sit in the back of the church and walk in the middle of the road,” he said.

After retiring from Brunswick, Dawson said he thought his work would be with Shepherd’s Hand Foundation, a ministry to single mothers.

“When I filled in for our single adult ministry for awhile, God convicted me about the hardship of single mothers,” Dawson explained. “Basically we raised money and distributed it through churches to single mothers.”

But when Dawson was approached about joining the staff of First Baptist, his ongoing relationship with Garland made that decision easy.

“Meeting Nick Garland was the turning point in my spiritual life,” Dawson said. He added that their mutual interest in business created a bond that helped propel him to a deeper level in his commitment to Christ.

A millionaire by the age of 32, Dawson readily admits that the transition to ministry has been a challenge.

“I believe that what we do in church is just as urgent as the time element in business,” he said. “Over the last five years, I’ve been in many churches, and I think many have failed to recognize there is a responsibility that cries out for organization, efficiency, innovation and good business principles.”

He said he believes a church accounting office is not enough, but there must be a disciplined business office to address human resources needs, laws and the like.

“As a matter of fact, there needs to be mentoring churches for the smaller ones,” he said.

At Broken Arrow, Dawson coordinates staff and takes care of the business end of the church. He was heavily involved in the church’s new building, which the congregation moved into in January.

“We have between four and five thousand members, and I try to keep the membership involved and aware of all we do,” Dawson said.

Garland said Dawson has brought a new dimension to the church.

“When he came to work for us, he brought a tremendous amount of expertise and professionalism from a corporate structure to help us organize, plan, strategize, publicize — everything a church does poorly by nature, he does well by nature,” Garland said. “He brings a heart for the Lord, so he’s not approaching it as a secularist. But his 40 years of training in corporate America is in how to put systems, people, training programs and motivational things in place to get the maximum effort from folks as they serve, and make a maximum impact.

“He has taken enthusiasm, which we already had, and was able to structure it to make it the most effective as far as church growth and spiritual development to help us become a strong, strong church in the future,” Garland added.

So Dawson has moved from selling fishing rods to reel in fish to selling the Word of God to reel in people. The only difference is that while it ruins the day for the fish, it makes the day for people who are introduced to Jesus Christ.

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  • Dana Williamson