Olan Mills sale highlight in family business

Olan Mills sale highlight in family business

November 11th, 2011 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

BY THE NUMBERS


1932

Olan and Mary Mills begin photography business in Selma, Ala.

1943

General offices moved from Alabama to Chattanooga

1971

Olan Mills II appointed company chairman

1993

Company has 15,000 employees

2011

Olan Mills Inc. is sold to Lifetouch Inc.

Source: Newspaper archives

Olan Mills II, the 81-year-old namesake of what was once America's largest portrait studio, said Thursday the sale of his family's business to rival Lifetouch is best for the company's future and its employees.

While the Olan Mills name will survive, Mills, his son James and Mills' longtime secretary are leaving the Chattanooga company of which he was a part for nearly six decades.

"It just looked like a better outcome for our employees really to go ahead and do this," Mills said Thursday, a day after it was announced that Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Lifetouch had bought the local business.

Mills said that while the combined company will be stronger, he still has mixed feelings.

"Bittersweet is the perfect description," said Mills, who started at the company's mailroom while he was still in school. "I spent my life in it."

But with industry consolidation and changes in the business and the economy, he said Olan Mills Inc. needed to be in a strong position and the deal does that.

While financial terms weren't disclosed, Lifetouch officials said the deal is final and not subject to anti-trust scrutiny.

Lifetouch, which has 20,000 workers including operations in Chattanooga and Cleveland, Tenn., will keep virtually all of Olan Mills Inc.'s 4,000 employees, including about 475 in Chattanooga.

"That was a real plus for us," said Mills, who was chairman and chief executive officer.

The acquisition is Lifetouch's second in eight months. In April, it bought competitor Herff Jones of Indianapolis. In 1999, Lifetouch bought Olan Mills Inc.'s school photography business.

Bruce Hutchinson, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga economics professor, said there's typically a lot of uncertainty when a company headquarters is effectively moved out of the city through an acquisition.

But, he said, because Olan Mills has production facilities in the city, employee headcount in that part of the company could increase.

"I'd be more concerned about headquarters personnel here," Hutchinson said. But he said Lifetouch may want to maintain a regional operation in Chattanooga.

Mills said Lifetouch and Olan Mills are the top two in the church photography business in the nation.

"We think that was a good natural fit," he said. "It's a win-win for both of us."

Mills noted that Lifetouch is employee owned and "very much into their own people and they honor tenure very highly as we have."

"We've thought over the years what we'll do someday. This opportunity came and we decided it was the time to do it," he said.

Mills said Lifetouch is interested in the talent at the Chattanooga company.

"We don't operate identically. We deliver pretty much the same service, but we do things they don't do in our plant and in our field operation," he said. "It appears they will keep an open mind about what we do here."

Mills said the name will continue. He said stores in which Olan Mills Inc. has studios wanted Lifetouch to keeping using the name, and Lifetouch does as well.

"Just how they will use the name in the future excepting those stores, that's up to them," he said.

Mills said he doesn't expect he'll start another business. He will have more time to spend with family, and he quipped he has been told he needs to learn how to cook.

"I'm just delighted we got this done," Mills said. "It means a lot to all of us, I think, that the business will continue and continue using the name and using the same people -- that's the part I'm delighted about."

Pete Cooper, Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga president, said when it comes to giving, Mills has been "one of those major contributors who made Chattanooga what it is today."

"They have given to youth, arts, downtown development," he said. "They gave lots and lots ... and I hope they continue giving."