How Don Mills’ thirst for knowledge led to 40 years of private sector research success
Much has changed in the 18 years since Don Mills was inducted into the very first cohort of Atlantic Business Magazine’s Top 50 CEOs. “Our entire industry has shifted,” says the chairman and CEO of Corporate Research Associates (CRA). “Everything has moved to digital. The tools we use have changed. How we conduct business has changed.”
Some things, however, are timeless. When Mills co-founded CRA 40 years ago as a two-person operation in Halifax, it was built on several fundamental decisions. CRA started as a regional player, but it always held itself to national standards. He also stubbornly declared the company would never work for a political party. He watched government contracts go for years to companies that were willing to play the political game and ally with a particular party. “It took 25 years for that decision to pay off,” recalls Mills with a chuckle.
Asked to identify the fuel for his business’ longevity, his answer is a succinct, single-word response. “Curiosity,” he says. “I’m a curious person by nature. I think you have to be in this industry.”
It was that curiosity again which led him in 1988 to launch the Atlantic Quarterly; published four times a year, it’s a collection of CRA research into economic, political, and social trends in Atlantic Canada. “I’ve always wanted to represent the silent majority in the region.” He’s grinning now. You can hear it in his voice over the phone line. This is a pet project he cares a lot about. “Take Sunday shopping,” he says. “The assumed wisdom in the early 2000s was everyone was against it. We polled the region, and it turned out the majority wanted it.”
CRA put out its data in 2006 in an issue of Atlantic Quarterly. The results made headlines. “People were suddenly empowered by information,” he says. “More than a decade later, it’s a no-brainer. We shop on Sundays.”
Atlantic Quarterly’s research isn’t client-driven. It’s curiosity driven. But that’s not to say it hasn’t returned its investment. “Twenty years later, there’s hardly an issue we don’t have data on in Atlantic Canada,” he says. Mills always wanted CRA to outlive his tenure as CEO. His dream was to sell to his senior management team, and when his succession plan is triggered early next year, that’s just what will happen. Current president and chief operating officer Margaret Brigley will take over as CEO and become the company’s biggest shareholder.
“She’s completely ready right now,” says Mills. “She’s a terrific researcher. She’s great with clients. I have full confidence in the future.”
Mills began succession planning more than 10 years ago. It’s another long-term decision he’s glad to see pay off. “I could have made more money by putting the company up for open sale,” he explains, “but I had a vision of how this could work.”
Mills will stay on as chairman. He’ll also take on a new title of Special Council.
Mills is excited about the future. He wants to travel. He wants to spend more time with his family at his summer place on Nova Scotia’s south shore. “I’ve been around the world for business and pleasure,” Mills says, “but I tell you, the best place to be is Atlantic Canada. And I’m not just saying that. We are blessed.”
“I’ve always kept a high profile, built on the integrity of the company. I’ve not been afraid to have opinions. Maybe I’ll have to scale that back!”
In retirement, he’ll spend more time with…
“…my guitar. I have a Gibson Songwriter I love to play. Mostly ‘60s stuff. Beatles and Neil Young. CCR. The Stones. I guess I’m showing my age!”
Keep them close
“We’ve got five grandkids, and they all live in the Halifax area. That’s pretty rare and lucky, I think.
Hit the road
“My wife and I have always loved to travel. This past year, we’ve been to Africa and the Galapagos Islands. Next year it’s the Baltics and Panama.”