Cameron has dyslexia; a diagnosis he didn’t receive until he was 36 years old, after co-founding Mills James. “My first-grade teacher called me stupid, so I thought I was. But as I grew up, I learned to identify my talents,” Cameron reflected.
As he played to his strengths, he sought employees that would play to his weaknesses. And that’s why he wanted good spellers. He needed a second set of eyes to review client slides.
He compensated in other ways too, often to the mild annoyance of colleagues who didn’t understand why he was doing what he was doing.
While preparing client proposals, Cameron would always write down the client’s needs in detail, then submit what he wrote as part of the plan. He did it purely for himself, to bring a sense of order to the disarray he felt in his mind. After reading his summaries, Ken’s response was usually something like, “Cameron, you have a great ability for stating the obvious.”
Cameron’s compensations extended into production where, as an event producer, he would write highly specific run of shows, more than anyone else thought was necessary.
“I had to live out the event in my mind ahead of time to be sure I got it right,” he believed.
Then came The Limited’s annual meeting. The event was always internally produced, but as scope and tech grew, the company started looking for help. And having just announced the opening of a new distribution center, this would be the largest meeting yet. Cameron had built credibility with the Producer at The Limited, and Mills James landed the job.
The event was high tech and high attendance, and it was Mills James’ big break. Cameron wrote a detailed full run of show, memorized it, and then memorized it again. It had to go flawlessly, so it did.
With continued success came constant fear — a fear as terrifying as it was motivating to the founders. Work was coming in faster than they could manage, space was getting tight, and they needed a studio for film and video shoots. They had to move.
The team went on an exhaustive search at first, looking for the perfect fit of large studio space, in a convenient location, with lots of parking, and far enough from an airport to avoid noise pollution. They searched until they realized it didn’t exist. They had to make it. It was time to position themselves for growth. They decided to design and build Central Ohio’s first production facility.
The initial numbers to break ground were staggering to two people used to running a lean, freelance-driven operation: upwards of $2 million. They sought advice from their builder, Equity Concepts Development, who helped direct them to alternative financing options. The Small Business Association and the City of Columbus offered grants to incentivize new businesses to settle in Columbus, Ohio. Mills James was the perfect candidate and was rewarded both benefactions.
They found the land they needed in a suburban neighborhood just outside of Columbus. It checked every box, and Cameron had his pen prepped to sign. Right before closing on it, Ken suggested buying all the adjacent available land to avoid landlock if the company needed to expand. “I see opportunities whenever I turn around,” Cameron described himself, “but Ken has the talent of identifying a great opportunity.”
Mills James broke ground on their sixth anniversary, May 1, 1990, a 25,000-square-foot facility. The building was completed in November. The total came to $2.3 million, not including the additional millions of dollars of equipment inside the building—a hefty investment that had to pay off.
After their first month of operation, they gathered around the front desk to tabulate their numbers to see if they reached their break-even, a figure they’d always had top of mind whatever their size. As Ken says, Fear is never put away. Fear is always constant in business ownership.”
The numbers were $100k over projections.
And they started to realize that their $2.3 million production facility gamble was way more than just a financial transaction. It was a stake in the ground from an identity standpoint. Their investment was completely repositioning two guys in the minds of everyone in Columbus, from Mills and James to Mills James.
And, at that moment, they shed their seat-of-the-pants habits of the past and acted with the gravitas of a company destined for the Fortune 500.
The humor from their humble beginnings lingered, often in the form of a prank. Their favorite was stealing and hiding employees’ shoes. One time, they managed to hide the CFO’s shoes. While she was on the hunt, Cameron had the front desk prank call her to say The Limited’s CEO Les Wexner had paid a surprise visit and was waiting for her in the lobby.
Sometimes the humor translated into wild ideas that may sound like a joke. Like the time Cameron hired a woman with a British accent that he met at a sales counter at Lazarus, thinking Mills James needed to sound more sophisticated. She only lasted half a day.
One thing they did learn: In the production industry, people are your product. And within a trade on the move, hiring was often on the move, too. Taking the spirit of their British mis-hire, they began to think of hires as casting a role—the musts: passion and people skills. Someone can be the most skilled person in the trade, but without passion for the part and a gift for engaging the people, the client will leave the job thinking the result wasn’t worth the trouble.
Ken and Cameron have always been avid believers of investing the time in people. And the new building made a statement of what Mills James was capable of. Clients came in and stayed for lunch, then for dinner, and then came back for more work the next day. Ken and Cameron knew the pain of long edits from their early days — even being forced to enjoy their lunch in the bathroom when there was no other place to sit for a bite to eat. People pay a lot of money for edit time, and with tight deadlines, it was typical to work through meals and late into the evening. So, they put fully stocked fridges in every edit suite, provided coffee service, and ordered in client meals served plated on china with rolled silverware—at no charge to the client.
Clients never wanted to leave, and Mills James needed to expand. In 1994, they decided to nearly double the space with a 22,000square-foot wing with additional production suites. The work wouldn’t wait for the construction. Employees volunteered for second and third shifts, and the edit suites stayed open 24/7. The fridges still fully stocked; beer included. By early 1996, Mills James had a fully operating 47,000-square-foot facility.