The 2000s | New Owners

We produced a company ident using our logo from the 2000s, parodying the respective technology and visual trends of that decade. #BornIn84 

The end of the 1990s brought apocalyptic anxiety: Y2K. A computer bug that caused the world to fear the internet would crash on January 1, 2000. Having now amassed millions of dollars’ worth of computer tech, you could say Mills James was a bit nervous themselves.

Then the ball dropped in Times Square. And… nothing happened.

We wish we could say the same about the rest of the decade.

The 2000s were packed with near-business-death experiences for many, two major economic downturns, including the Great Recession, and many other trying moments for Mills James.

Ken and Cameron had seen significant success over their first two decades in business. They were eyeing substantial growth and expansion in the days following that ball drop — building a conference center and expanding the studio space.

And then they blinked. Ken and Cameron saw the numbers and decided to hold off. “We were getting a bit full of ourselves,” Ken admitted. Their ability to gut check risks of over-extension became a necessary strength.

What followed surprised the entire country: The 2001 economic crash. Banks froze, interest rates became erratic, foreign investors pulled back, and many businesses were forced to close their doors.

Ken and Cameron had deftly dodged the bullet of financial overcommitment. But the Mills James client parking lot still thinned out, and the existing business went into decline. It forced them to begin the incredibly difficult task of “controlling overhead” — which let’s face it — is just a service business euphemism for letting people go. The lessons of these tectonic shifts were bittersweet. The company needed to be more scalable in both directions, and better insulated from macroeconomic realities in general, but damn did they hate firing people. The entire company hated it.

The world kept spinning.

In 2003, business picked back up again. Actually, it boomed.

It was the year Mills James won a major broadcast production contract. A client relationship that all started with a simple rental back in 1988, when Scott Lanum, now Mills James Managing Partner and Chief Operating Officer, answered a call from an agency needing drape for the Ohio State Fair. Scott had no idea what or who the rental was for, he also didn’t have any drape, but he made it work anyway. When he showed up on-site, he realized the client was the Ohio Lottery Commission (OLC), who then immediately requested staging and lighting rentals too. Again, Scott made it work.

That one rental turned into Mills James providing production support for the Ohio Lottery’s Cash Explosion roadshows. Then, after 15 years, a relationship that started with a simple rental turned into hosting and producing the Ohio Lottery Cash Explosion show — 52 episodes a year for the past 16 years.

Slowly but surely, the company was gaining a level of scale that was putting them on a national stage — right into 2006, when Procter & Gamble (P&G) decided to release a nationwide RFP to outsource their on-site event and video production to a third party. This novel strategic decision helped P&G focus on its core competency of building brands, and everything else was left to a creative firm to help them with. It was a strategy that was years ahead of the trend.

Nowhere near the biggest player, Mills James threw their hat into the ring, commencing a year-long process in which P&G dissected each company for their production expertise, cultural compatibility, financial strength, and scale. P&G looked straight into the soul of every candidate to see if they could handle the breadth of services they were requesting.

Mills James won the multi-year agreement to provide corporate media services to the world’s largest consumer packaged goods company. A large team of Mills James employees was now walking into P&G every day.

Was it all unicorns and rainbows after that? Not really.

For the first year, wanting to impress, Mills James tended to over-deliver on jobs, whether it be the caliber of equipment or number of people. Until their year one review, where they were politely encouraged to learn how to better calibrate to each client need in a company that produces a firehose of meetings and content. Not every client wants the same thing; in other words, and that’s really when Mills James learned to be better listeners, a skill they refer to as learning to dance with their clients. Mills James embraced these lessons, and the creative firm has been in contract with P&G for 14 years now.

The company had been around for 20 years now. Ken and Cameron were in their 60s and were longing for an extended vacation — aka retirement. They felt it was time for a new generation of leaders to run the business, so they went to their accounting firm seeking advice. Over the next couple of years, Ken and Cameron decided on an exit strategy, and we’re eager to announce their plan to the company.

Rumors began circulating that the two men who had founded the company had sold the business to new owners, and many believed it was P&G. So, at the company holiday party in December 2006, Ken and Cameron decided to make an announcement. After thanking the company for another great year, Ken confirmed the rumor that they had sold the company. And the new owners were actually at the party. As employees began looking around towards the door for a grand reveal, Ken asked the room to stand up.

"You are all the owners! We have decided to sell Mills James to the employees."

Ken Mills and Cameron James Tweet

The room was shocked, excited, and a bit confused. Cameron began explaining what an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) was. Skeptics questioned what they would need to invest, and Cameron assured them, “The effort you have already put into the company qualifies you as an owner; the work you do is your investment.” Mills James is a service industry, and the founders have always genuinely cared about investing in the people because they are the product. People don’t get into the production business unless they are passionate — becoming employee-owned added a sense of pride and special care to the work. It also added careful consideration for business decisions.

The employees’ first decision as owners came that night, on the holiday party dance floor. Ken and Cameron let everyone know that the DJ’s time was up. Mills James would have to decide if they should pay the DJ for additional time or to shut the DJ down. In true ownership fashion, they decided to send the DJ home and save on cost.

A couple of years later, they had their first real business decision as owners — a decision that tested the grit, and the humanity, of the company.

It was the Great Recession. The economic downturn in 2001 had helped to prepare Mills James for financial hardships, but not this. They went back to overhead trimming and assessed vendor relationships for business opportunities. At first, the leaders decided to slow payments for freelance labor but immediately started receiving phone calls. Mills James had always been the earliest payers in town, sending checks out in under 30 days, so people noticed the delay right away. Still remembering their early days as freelancers, Ken and Cameron reconsidered, concluding that delaying payments wasn’t the best place to make changes. “Cashflow is the lifeblood to freelancers,” Cameron explained.

Sales strategy was tweaked, too, as clients downsized events or even canceled entirely.

Thankfully, Mills James was not just an event company. With experience in live video production, they pitched virtual communication instead. Clients cut down on travel costs, and Mills James would introduce new technological chops. Cashflow was coming in, but more changes still had to be made.

This is where the first major business decision as employee-owners came in. Ken and Cameron decided to take a 10% pay cut and asked department heads to do the same to avoid laying off employees. To their surprise, other employees began coming forward, volunteering to take a pay cut themselves. They would rather see reductions in salaries than see more people lose their jobs.

“Good times make you complacent. Recessions teach you what’s truly essential,” Ken reflected.