Name: Bill Mitchell

Age: 57

Title: President

Company: GHM Insurance Agency, Waterville

About: A family-owned independent insurance agency established in 1901.

Website: ghmagency.com

What’s your biggest challenge right now?

There are several ongoing challenges in business. Finding and keeping good employees would be one of them. We’re very fortunate to have an outstanding group of professionals in my various businesses. (Mitchell is also a commercial real estate developer, owns a property management and maintenance business and is a partner in the Proper Pig, a Waterville restaurant.) People who work really hard to deliver exceptional service, whether it’s in my insurance agency or my real estate businesses or my restaurant business. Once you find good people, it’s important to keep them.

The second challenge is that we all wear multiple hats. Not only do we need to know our trade or profession, we also need to understand technology, finance, personnel, law, marketing, trusted sales techniques, coaching and mentoring, to mention a few.

Another challenge is the ongoing need to manage money effectively. A business is really no different from running a household. You bring in a certain amount of money and you need to spend less than what you make to make ends meet, and hopefully save a few bucks along the way. I worry about money management all the time. It’s the lifeblood of my businesses. I have always felt that if I don’t worry about managing my money effectively, then that’s where something is likely to go wrong since my guard might be down. I do everything I can to not let that happen if at all possible.

When I first started my career at GHM with my father, he used to tell me, “When things are going well, put money aside in anticipation of when things might not be going so well.” Over time, there will be cycles that are up and down in business, and he was absolutely right.

What’s the biggest misconception about being in business that you have learned?

I started in business with my father Paul Mitchell when I was in my early 20s. Like most businesspeople, my hope was to earn more money. I had personal income goals I thought were realistic and wanted to reach by the time I turned 30. Interestingly enough, that did not happen. As I look back on it now, my goals were pretty lofty.

Sometimes, there’s a tendency to think that because someone is in business, it translates into making a lot of money. That’s not the case in most instances. It takes a lot of hard work and commitment. In my experience, it takes several years to build a profitable business. When I failed to reach my goal, I decided I needed to work much harder and for however long it would take for me to get there. Eventually, I did reach my goal and went on to set additional goals for myself and my businesses.

We’re always working that aspect of what we do at GHM. There’s no layup in business. There’s no easy way to running a successful business other than a lot of hard work and putting your time in and earning your stripes. If you’re lucky enough to make some good decisions along the way — and there’s going to be decisions that aren’t always going to be good decisions. But if you make enough good decisions and stick with it and surround yourself with good people, not only good employees, but an overall team of a CPA, a banker and an attorney who understand the dynamics of your business that you can use as sounding boards and advisors in all major strategic planning decisions (you) make, that helps overcome the challenges of business.

Sometimes, the misconception of business is that it’s easy — you open a business and all of a sudden you start making money. That’s not the case. It takes a lot of hard work, commitment and time. If you put those three things together usually you will have a successful business.

What’s the most valuable advice you can give?

Most businesses talk about delivering exceptional service. You hear that a lot. We talk about it a lot at GHM. Fred Ouelette, my partner at the Proper Pig, and I talk about execution all the time.

At GHM, we talk about how we improve the quality of service that we deliver to our customers every day. There are a lot of strategies around how to go about doing that. And believe me, we’ve tried them all. Over the years I have come to realize that before you can deliver exceptional service to your customers, you have to deliver exceptional service to each other every day: Helping each other out, being there for each other, supporting each other, backing each other up and working together as best we can to help each other out. When you finally strike that balance, really good things happen in the way you deliver service to your customers, how you interact with your vendors and your suppliers, your stakeholders and the public in general.

If I were to be giving advice to anybody starting a new business, I would encourage them to build a culture within their company that encourages the spirit of teamwork and camaraderie among the owner and his or her employees. Because when you do find that synergy that can come out of that type of relationship amongst a group of people, it just naturally extends that greater personality of the organization to all of the people that interact with your company.

How do you foster creativity in yourself or your staff?

When I started my career working with my father at GHM, I felt I needed to own all the projects and execution of new policies and procedures, new marketing strategy or technology implementation or sales development. I tried really hard in each of those areas to do the best I could. As I began to get a little older, I realized that to go to the next level of growth and expansion, I needed to create a culture of what I call participatory management — a culture that encouraged everybody to feel comfortable giving input into the process. In the 1990s we started doing what are commonly known as focus groups. We’d take a task — it could have been a conversion of our technology, our network software; it could have been the launching of a new product line; or how to be more efficient in our day-to-day operations. Sometimes we would do multiple focus groups at once, trying to address multiple things across our entire company’s platform. It was so second nature for me to say, “This is what we should do with this, this is what we should do with that.” Then we’d break, and everybody would try to go do those things.

As we transitioned into a participatory management approach, it was more about encouraging people to give input. I realized early on when you put people in a room, especially when you can show them you value their ideas and input, with the understanding that the final decision that’s going to be made is not exactly how they presented their idea, but it might be a variation of that merged with the ideas of two or three other people, that bring together something interesting and beneficial for the company. What’s really powerful about that approach is when people see things changing and evolving in front of them and they realize a significant part of what we’re doing today is the result of their creativity, input and suggestions, that energy continues to build. So the next time you have another focus group about another topic, their comfort level on sharing ideas just continues to grow and grow until you get to the point where you are sitting around the table talking about stuff and the ideas just continue to flow.

What’s the most valuable skill you seek in an employee?

It’s a simple thing — it’s having common courtesies. The second thing is having a strong work ethic. Those two things run very parallel to each other.

My experience has been that we can teach people the technical aspects of the complexities of the insurance industry. Through a lengthy, steep learning curve, we’re able to educate and train and coach people to learn the technical side of a complicated industry. What you can’t teach people are the common courtesies and good manners — please, thank you and you’re welcome. Either you have those basic fundamentals in how you were brought up or you don’t. I was very fortunate to be brought up in a family where we were taught to respect our elders and to generously use words like please, thank you, you’re welcome. And they come very natural to me, and it’s just a part of my personality. In my years working with people, you see all kinds of variations of that. My sense is that you have those attributes or you don’t. We look for people who have those basic manners and common courtesies that we want our company to reflect as we’re interacting with the public.

The other is a strong work ethic. That’s a tough one; you either have it or they don’t. I was very fortunate to grow up in a house where my parents worked very hard and set a great example for me and always urged me to work hard and never quit at anything. If you want to run a business, it takes a massive commitment to succeed. I’ve tried hard to demonstrate that work ethic to my team.

When you find employees who are smart, courteous and have a good work ethic, it’s a great combination of skills that will benefit any business.

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