Getting Down to BusinessBy Anthony Flott
Published in Nebraska Magazine, Spring 2010
During the Depression, John Milligan used to say, even people who never intended to pay him quit shopping at his Scribner, Neb., general store.
And things only went downhill from there. Milligan, recalls grandson Robert Milligan, “lost nearly everything” during the
1930s, including the store.
Yet his family not only survived but eventually thrived. John continued to farm and sent four kids to college. One of them, son Harland, earned a law degree, ranched 100,000 acres, farmed thousands more and owned a chain of grain elevators. Harland’s son Robert has worked for two presidential administrations, runs a company with global sales and now represents more than 3 million business owners as chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce board of Directors.
“Only in America,” Robert says.
An America once more facing hard times on many fronts. Milligan and the Chamber are focused primarily on employment.
“We need to create about 23 million jobs in the next decade to put people who are currently unemployed or underemployed back to work and to create job opportunities for new entrants to the market,” Milligan says. “One of the things that the chamber focuses on is how can we keep the playing field and the rules of the game such that entrepreneurs and businesses can come back?”
Milligan was elected to his high-profile post in June 2009, the same month his wife, Cynthia Wood Hardin Milligan, retired as dean of the University of Nebraska College of Business Administration. Her husband’s appointment completed a climb that began long ago with the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce. He’s pushed jobs and business in wide travels and meetings, including a stop at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in Singapore in November and during a chamber luncheon this February with Spain President José Luis Rodrîguez Zapatero.
Not too shabby for a Nebraska farm boy who once thought he’d return to the farm in his father’s footsteps.
That first meant attending UNL, where family ties date to the Depression. Despite those hard times, Milligan’s grandmother, Maggie, pushed her children on to higher education. All four earned degrees, three from Nebraska.
“Remarkable,” Milligan says. “What I call prairie pioneer determination. My father worked, as did his brothers, two and three jobs.”
Harland, ’37, earned a law degree but never practiced, instead working the lands and animals from his homestead between Hooper and Scribner. He farmed in Dodge and Dixon Counties and ranched in Cherry and Sheridan.
Robert, one of six children, followed an older brother and sister to UNL. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1967 in vocational agriculture and agricultural economics. After graduating, he and Cynthia, daughter of former NU Chancellor Clifford Hardin, headed for the beltway to attend law school at George Washington University. That brought them closer to Cynthia’s parents – Hardin was working as Secretary of Agriculture under President Nixon.
Milligan earned a juris doctorate in corporate law and stayed in the capital, landing posts in the Nixon and Ford administrations. He worked in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, at the Justice Department as a tax trial attorney, and at the Department of Commerce as a deputy assistant secretary for policy development.
He went private in 1976, investing in a Virginia start-up, M.I. Industries. One year later, at the urging of Cynthia, he took over the company as president and CEO. In 1978 he moved the company to Lincoln.
“I took a roll of the dice,” he says. “One thing led to another. Her career took off and my career with this company developed nicely.
“I never got back to the farm.”
M.I. Industries produces nutritional, biological and pharmaceutical pet products (Milligan’s 115-pound Labrador, Ludwig, is among the company’s best taste testers). Production takes place in the United States, the Netherlands, China and Brazil. Brands including Nature’s Variety, Honey Creek Farms and Happy Pet are sold throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia.
UNL has been part of the success. M.I. works closely with the university’s food processing center on new technologies and equipment, and Milligan has hired two former faculty members for his team.
It’s an industry that’s weathered the economic downturn well.
“I wouldn’t say that pet food is recession-proof,” he says, “but it certainly is recession-resistant.”
The company noticed the quirk a decade ago when the Japanese economy turned sour. Pet ownership rose, and so did M.I. exports there. The same phenomenon is occurring today in the United States.
If his business stands out in tough times, Milligan also stands out with the U.S. Chamber. More than 96 percent of its members are small businesses with 100 employees or fewer. Yet its chairmen often are decidedly big business. Milligan’s immediate predecessor, Donald Shepard, was CEO of AEGON, one of the world’s largest insurers. Other chairmen since 2000 include Caterpillar’s group president and executives with Edward Jones, Alticor (parent company of Amway), and Landstar System, one of the country’s largest transportation providers.
“I was flabbergasted when I was asked to become chairperson,” Milligan says. “It was going from large business to a peanut-sized business.”
In late January he brought U.S. Chamber chief economist Martin Regalia to a Lincoln chamber luncheon. Days before, Congress increased the country’s debt limit to $1.9 trillion.
“Larger than the aggregate amount from President Washington through President Reagan,” Milligan says.
Jobs were a big topic of conversation. Milligan says 70 to 75 percent of jobs come from small- and medium-sized businesses, but now many are operating in uncertainty. The chamber’s main thrust, he says, is removing that uncertainty.
“I’m optimistic because there will be job creation coming from things that we’re not currently thinking about,” he says. “What gives me optimism about the future is that spirit of America, a spirit of enterprise that people who were down on their knees could come back.”
Just like Grandpa Milligan.