By Andrew Macdonald
In recent weeks, I reported on a Nova Scotia Business Hall of Fame induction for the late regional road-builder John ‘Nova’ Chisholm, who co-built the Cobequid Highway, which opened in 1997.
Today, I feature biz Hall of Fame induction for Maritime business leader Don Mills, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at a Halifax ceremony in November. The event is presented by Junior Achievement of Nova Scotia, a body which mentors students about business.
Mills is a former pollster who founded his Halifax-based firm in 1978 as a then 29-year-old. For 40 years, it operated nationally as Corporate Research Associates.
He sold the firm in 2018 to his top three executives, and it has since been re-branded as Narrative Research, where he serves as chair, while former employees Margaret Brigley is CEO and majority owner. Equity is also held by Margaret Chapman, who is chief operating officer, and chief information offer is Peter MacIntosh.
When he got the call from Junior Achievers that he had been selected for induction, “the first person I thought about, almost instantly, was my father (Cliff Mills). He was my inspiration for a lot of things I have been able to achieve in life. My mother, as well, (Ella Mills but my dad had a very hard and difficult upbringing and he managed to reach his way all through that, raising seven kids, who became good citizens and good productive people, and I thought my dad would be very proud.”
Mills’ father grew up in Richmond, Que., and his mother from the most eastern tip of Nova Scotia, in the isolated fishing village of Whitehead, near Canso.
“My parents actually met during the war in Halifax, when my dad was in the Navy. At the end of the war, he married my mom. I and all my siblings were born in Sherbrooke, Que. It wasn’t until later my dad got an opportunity to transfer to the East Coast and he chose Truro to live. The reason he chose Truro — he did not know a single person there — was because it was central, because he had a sales job and he had to cover all of Atlantic Canada, and he needed a central location to do that.”
Mills only lived in Truro one summer as he was attending Bishop’s University and later got an MBA from Dalhousie University.
Mills is a director and partner in the cable installation and infrastructure firm Cabco, which has stores in Dartmouth and in Moncton. His son, Michael Mills, is its CEO and his younger brother, Jim Mills, is a partner with equity. Jim Mills also operates Office Interiors, a furnishings firm, with stores and employees in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
“We expanded the business (Cabco) after we purchased the company three years ago, and we decided there was an opportunity to expand into New Brunswick. Part of that was my own experience. I spent a lot of my career in New Brunswick. I know New Brunswick almost as well as I know Nova Scotia. And, I really thought there was a perfect opportunity to expand Cabco,” he said.
“We did some research and visited potential clients to see what the appetite would be for another competitor in the marketplace and we found there was a big appetite in New Brunswick for a new supplier in our field. So we opened an office in Moncton a little over a year ago.”
There is one storefront in Moncton and staff also work from home offices in Fredericton and P.E.I.
Cabco bills itself as an IT infrastructure company. It does business in cabling for internet and wifi, security services and telephone systems.
Given he has a 40-year entrepreneurial career, I asked the senior Mills what advice he has for a business upstart, perhaps a millennial entrepreneur in their 20s or 30s.
“I have a lot of advice, and I have given a lot to people who are starting businesses, I’ve done that most of my career. I would say this: the most important thing is to find something that you love to do.
“You’re a good example,” he tells me, “because you’ll do anything to make (The Macdonald Notebook) successful because it is your passion.
“That is the most important piece of advice that I can give anybody thinking of a business. Because guess what, it is really hard. There are a lot of people who do not have instant success, it takes a tremendous amount of hard work, motivation, and long hours to make something a success.
“If you are not prepared to do the hard work, then work for someone else. But, here is the great thing, there is nobody better to work for than yourself because you are the hardest person to work for.”
As for the 40-year ownership of the regional polling company, a feat of success in itself, Mills explains his motto of owning and running a long-lasting business.
“One of the things I have always lived by was the motto…’to be better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today’. You have to have that constant pursuit of being better,” he said.
“Being better means keeping ahead of the competition, keeping ahead of technology, keeping ahead of the marketplace you are in. You have to evolve your company,” he added. “I started my business on a kitchen table – to be clear.”
He stressed that embracing technological workplace changes is critical to long-term business success.
“We went from having no computers in our business (in 1978), to computers being critical to the work that is being done today. We went from no Internet to Internet. We went from rotary dial phones to cell phones in that period of time. Think about all the technology changes.”
Now in his early 70s, Mills is also adept with social media, and he has 5,000 followers on his Twitter page, more than the population of some Maritime towns.
“I am pretty adept at social media. The reason is that I was willing to understand it and adapt to it, even at the age I did, and frankly, not many people my age do this. I saw how important it was as a means of communication and even as a means of research,” he said.
In business, he added, “you always have to pursue the latest technology, the latest thinking in your field. You have to change and if you don’t change you cannot survive. That is the one thing over 40 years I am very proud of because we adapted to change to the circumstances around us.”
Mills was nominated for the business hall of fame by Robbie Shaw of Halifax and the South Shore, a businessman about town for fundraising for non-profits and universities, and by his son Michael Mills and by former employee Margaret Brigley.
“I didn’t know they had nominated me,” until Junior Achievers of Nova Scotia contacted Mills to see if he would accept the honour.
As mentioned above, Mills sold Corporate Research Associates to his former top three executives, although he could have easily sold to a national firm headquartered in Toronto or Ottawa, where most of the nation’s polling firms are based.
It was important in 2018 when he did the exit deal that the polling firm remain headquartered in Halifax, even though he would have realized more money by selling to a national outfit.
“There is no doubt, I had actually never seriously considered anything else but selling to the people who helped me build the company. The challenge was finding a way to make it work financially because obviously, you have to be willing to be a little bit flexible in terms of making it work for the people buying the company.”
Mills says his career-long aim has been to spur on more regional headquartered firms in the Atlantic.
“We need to have more headquartered companies in Atlantic Canada. Narrative Research is a national company headquartered in Halifax and I wanted that company to remain in Nova Scotian hands.
“That was my driving motivation and it has worked out extremely well, both for me personally and for my former senior management group, who have been very successful in the transition of the business.”
Mills had long researched succession planning and executed it a decade before the 2018 exit deal.
“I have actually spoken at conferences because people are interested in the process I went through to do the management buyout. It is not easy to do. There is a lot of preparation that goes into it. I didn’t start out saying it would be a 10-year process, but, looking back it did turn out to be.
“There were a couple of curves along the way. But one of the things I had to do was prepare my senior management group for ownership. So what I did early on with Peter MacIntosh and Margaret Brigley, was I invited them to be shareholders in the company, so they could understand the difference between being an owner of a company and an employee of a company. It is very different,” said Mills.
“They participated in board meetings, they got the idea of what it meant to look at financial statements and understand how the business worked and how it was profitable. They got the financial education about how a business works over quite a long period of time.”
He also mentored Margaret Brigley personally over that period. She is now CEO of the polling entity. He also got her involved with executive professional mentoring organizations, to pick the brains of other executives and entrepreneurs.
The end result of all that work: “They were 100 per cent to be owners.”
Maritime Business Leaders Often Mentor New Entrepreneurs
Don Mills says the Atlantic business community “is a very tight, inter-connected business community overall. There is a great sense of duty that I see in almost every business leader that I know, to share their knowledge and advice to help other people be successful. Maybe it is because we have been a have-not region for so long. I am not sure why it is, but it is special and different and we should celebrate that.”
Mills says one other key thing that has been important in his career is being involved in the community, sitting on non-profit and charity organizations.
“This is one of the things that is special about the business community in general in our region. They do so much good they don’t get credit for it.
“If you look at every non-profit there is in Atlantic Canada, it is almost always led by business leaders. If you look at the composition of the boards in these organizations, the majority are business leaders. You look at the support, the sponsorships, and the organization of special events it is all business people led. People don’t credit how much credit the business community has done.
“I learned the value of being involved in the community from my parents. They were very involved in the community when I was growing up. My mother was with the Catholic Women’s League for 35 years and she was always out helping people, and my dad did the same thing. He coached track and field, he raised money for sports. He was always doing something to help someone out,” he adds.
“I really think that is an important part of being involved in a community.”