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Down to Business

Virginia's voice for small businesses talks about the small-biz boom, Wall Street and flying with presidents.


Mills and the former commander-in-chief faced off in the pseudo-volleyball and racquetball sport during Mills' stint as pilot of Bush's presidential helicopter, "Marine One." He rose to the job at age 29 and piloted the presidential helicopter throughout the Bush and Clinton administrations. After his flying days, Mills turned to the pressures of Wall Street. He still operates a financial firm in Reston.

Now he's 40, and he lives in Loudon County with his wife and two children. Nad his competitive drive is perhaps more profound than ever. Especially when it comes to small Virginia businesses. Last year, Gov. Mark Warner appointed Mills director of the Department of Business Assistance. The 6-year-old, $13-million state agency offers access to capital, business counseling and workforce training to small businesses throughout the state.

At a time when the president is touting the role of small businesses in helping to boost a troubled economy, Style sat down with Mills to discuss the state of small businesses in Virginia and just how vital they are.

Style: One of your big responsibilities is to create jobs. What was your first job?

Mills: My very first job was a traveling grass-cutter in my neighborhood at 9 or 10.

Why so early?

It was sort of my primary — even at that age — source of discretionary funds. If I wanted to go buy some candy or something, I had to cut some grass in order to do it.

Is it easy or hard right now to start a business?

It's hard to start a business irrespective to the climate, irrespective to what's going on. Starting and running a business is one of the most difficult things that anyone can do from my experience. However, there is nothing more gratifying than claiming ownership of a business opportunity or entity that proves to be successful. It's as close to having a child as you can get.

Who is starting businesses today?

One of the upsides of a downward economy is the folks that are laid off, who generally have some sort of business experience in many cases, find themselves now having the opportunity to start that business that they always wanted to start, but never would have. But given a current demise, why not go for it? So, in a downward economy, it is not uncommon to have individuals that bring a high level of experience, that have some more managerial skills, starting businesses.

How important are women-owned and minority-owned business to our future?

Extremely important. A full 40 percent of all the business within the commonwealth of Virginia are either minority or women-owned, and it is probably an untapped resource, or a less-tapped resource within the commonwealth. If we are fortunate enough to give access to that subset of our business community, it will ultimately translate into more prosperity for the entire business community within the commonwealth.

In President Bush's recent State of the Union address, he said with unemployment rising, the nation needs more small businesses to open. Have you felt a heavy burden after hearing that?

No, I have not felt a heavy burden. I was very, very happy to hear President Bush say that. ... I think you can draw from his comments that business — in particular, small businesses — is a lifeblood for this economy and virtually any economy. And by his insistence that it's important to open a small business, provides the level of credibility of what we do in this agency, which certainly is involved with helping small businesses start and grow.

What intrigues you more, the intensity of Wall Street or the sense of accomplishment you get by helping out small businesses?

The intensity of Wall Street. Only from the standpoint that in the Wall Street environment, I was in charge or at least had part responsibility of a $250 million portfolio on a daily basis. In addition to that, the results of my actions had a direct impact on my compensation package. So those two things, combined make for my average day being a little bit more intense than any other environment, including, frankly, some of my flying days.

What was it like piloting the "Marine One," during the Bush and Clinton administrations?

It obviously was very, very exciting. ... The opportunity to be in that environment or play a role in what happens when you move the head of any state, in particular the United States — it's incredibly challenging, but it is extremely rewarding and worthwhile. Every move that the president of the United States makes is a very, very large production, and the public only sees the final outcome. But what happens behind the scenes is a tremendous amount of work.

In the first 13 months you've been here, what have you been most proud of?

I have a tendency to try to fight little battles. My ultimate goal is that hopefully the sum of the little battles will mean an ultimate victory in the entire war. So I have a lot of little successes, but probably the most interesting thing that I have found that has been pretty rewarding is the establishment of our database. Our database at one point was not comprehensive enough. ... Now we have a database that we can slice and dice and determine where the businesses are with contact information and virtually do anything that we would like to. And that's a big success for us because it gives us a great opportunity to reach our business constituents.

If you were starting a business today, what would you start?

I would probably start a business that deals with homeland security, if I were to start a business today. A government contractor probably located in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. It would probably be a technology-based company that could streamline some of the inner agency operability that homeland security is now going to be required to oversee. Something that helps the FBI, CIA, ATF and all the agencies talk easier with each other. S

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