Michael Mills | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND

What’s Your Brand?
By Nicholas Andrade

Michael Mills recently spoke to students at his alma mater, Hobart and William Smith Colleges about careers in public affairs and joked that he and his father hold different views about his brand. “My father believes I can’t hold a job,” Mills told students. “I believe it’s the unique resume and entrepreneurial spirit that allows me to join new companies every few years and start, grow or fix them.”

Mills’ pedigree is pretty unique, having worked in the political, non-profit, corporate and agency sectors. He currently is an Executive Director in the Atlanta office of GolinHarris, a global PR firm with offices in 39 countries. He currently calls upon these diverse experiences, developing public affairs campaigns for clients as varied as the United Egg Producers – a trade association of farmers responsible for 90 percent of the eggs sold in America – and the newly formed American Transaction Processors Coalition (ATPC). “More than 70 percent of every credit card swipe processed in America runs through Atlanta and few people outside the industry knows about its impact,” said Mills. “I’m excited to join the team that is branding Georgia’s Transaction Alley and helping them gain support from our delegation in Washington and leaders at the state Capitol.”

No matter the industry or organization, Mills seeks to bring about positive community change through the power of strategic public affairs engagement. He attributes this mission to his grandfather, George Holahan, a World War II Bronze Star recipient and devoted family man. “We all know a member of the Greatest Generation and I was fortunate to spend time with a man who adored his wife and family, worked hard, earned one of America’s highest military honors yet never talked about it because the service and commitment to others was just a part of living,” Mills said. “I never consciously sought a career that allowed me to make a difference, the path just unfurled for me.”

Mills moved south from Upstate New York to attend graduate school at Georgia State University, earning a Master’s of Arts in Communications. His first job as a legislative aide to former Georgia Secretary of State Lewis Massey “fell in his lap” and would be the on-ramp to many of his future career opportunities. In Massey’s office, Mills reported to Tom Mishou, a fellow bowtie wearer and election savant. Mishou encouraged Mills to complete his grad school thesis on improving youth voter turnout, which he did, and then opened the door for him to become campaign press secretary for Lieutenant Governor Mark Taylor. “I moved on from the Secretary of State’s office, was working on my thesis and received a call from Tom one afternoon asking if I was ready to get out of the office,” Mills said. “Knowing Tom, I figured he wanted to grab a beer at Manuel’s Tavern but he was actually helping to arrange a job for me, quickly arranging an interview with Charlie Hayslett whose PR firm was running Mark’s communications.” Mills helped plot the communications strategy that catapulted Taylor into the Lieutenant Governor’s office in 1998 and then he went to work for Charlie at the Hayslett Group.

It was at Hayslett Sorrel, making a difference on healthcare and climate change issues and helping to pass legislation that created the North Metro Water Planning District, where Mills met the founders of The ATPC – Robert Green and H. West Richards (previously profiled in Atlanta Trend). Mills moved on from Hayslett Sorrel after having a self-described Jerry McGuire moment when reading a book on campaign finance reform that encouraged him to launch a nonprofit to improve Georgia’s civic engagement. “I was reading a book on campaign finance reform at 2am on a Tuesday, and while clearly needing to get a life, was struck by the book’s conclusion that we needed to reform money in politics if President Lincoln’s vision of a ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’ was to become reality,” he said. “I bolted out of bed and wrote a business plan for a non-profit to engage people in the civic process.” His group, Coalition for a Voting America quickly merged with Vote for America, a group run by Senator Joe Lieberman’s daughter Rebecca. He launched their Georgia chapter, which helped raise 2002 voter turnout by seven percent across metro Atlanta in an off-year election.

Mills simultaneously served as Executive Director of the Georgia Electronic Commerce Association, which was the state’s first technology association founded during the Dot-com Era. “Robert was the board chair and West the previous Executive Director, and together we passed the nation’s first electronic signature legislation, which became the model for Congress’ own legislation. We built a strong friendship, significant trust and always talked about working together after GECA closed up shop in the wake of the Dot-Bomb.”

Mills had a few other roles to fill before getting the GECA band back together through the ATPC, including serving as the regional director of public affairs for Wal-Mart Store, Inc. He launched a reputation management program for the company in the Southeast, becoming a national spokesperson, donating millions of dollars to charity each year and engaging key stakeholders on issues from health care to the environment. Hurricane Katrina struck during Mills’ tenure, forging a deep passion for New Orleans and forever changing Wal-Mart. “My cellphone buzzed off my bedside table a week after Katrina with calls and emails about (Wal-Mart CEO) Lee Scott proclaiming during a high profile speech that we would seek to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy, create zero waste and sell products that were good for the environment. These bold flags in the ground led to a sustainability revolution at the company and provided me with a deep introduction into the green community.”

Mills would parlay that experience into a role as President of the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, the position he held before moving to GolinHarris last year. But he first was called to run for political office, leaving Wal-Mart in 2009, traveling Georgia as a candidate for Secretary of State. “I saw the difference a company like Wal-Mart was making on the issues that mattered to me and was increasingly frustrated that our government wasn’t similarly productive, and decided to put my money where my mouth was.” He traveled more than 35,000 miles around Georgia talking to voters and narrowly missed a Democratic Primary runoff by 7 percent of the vote. “I’m a pretty competitive guy and on election night my brother commented on how calm I seemed. I was a long shot candidate from the start but ultimately ran the race we wanted, shook every hand possible and in the end had to be satisfied with giving it everything we had,” he said. “That campaign was hands down the most amazing experience of my life, allowing a platform to talk about issues that mattered to me, instead of helping companies or other candidates find their voice.”

Mills has written a book on civic participation (Battling Democracy’s Decline) based upon his grad school thesis and real world experience, owned a record label, played college hockey and helped companies and organizations pass legislation that improved our environment, made healthcare more accessible and lessened our dependence on foreign oil. Each experience was infused with the lessons of hard work and commitment to serving others demonstrated by his grandfather.

“I’ve spent a career helping companies and individuals build their brands and drive positive change,” Mills said. “GolinHarris encourages me to find clients that fit my passions and I wake up each day excited to spread the word about groups like the ATPC who are creating high-paying jobs while also bringing significant tax revenue to Georgia’s coffers.”

Mills lives in Ansley Park and spends his free time on the ice, tennis courts and recently launched the “Social Giving Experience,” allowing participants to experience Atlanta’s best restaurants, network and bundle donations to charities who present “Shark Tank” style at each event. We’re sure Michael’s grandfather would be proud to see how he’s carried his legacy of hard work and positive change forward.


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