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Over the years, there have been several retailers and wholesalers who have served in the Maryland Legislature. Names like Pete Bozick, Jim Simpson, Cas Taylor and former Delegate James King come to mind, but very few have had such diverse experience in business, the legislature, government agencies and the alcohol beverage industry as Van Mitchell.
If asked about his widely diverse work history, Van might joke and say something like, “This guy you are talking about must have had a hard time keeping a job.” The fact is, his varied and cumulative job experience make him ideally suited for his current job as a lobbyist in a firm that represents the alcohol industry. When Van speaks with legislators, he doesn’t speak in theoretical terms, he speaks with the authority of someone who has actually been there and done it. As the popular 1960s saying goes, “He can talk the talk and he can walk the walk.” And, in his numerous careers we can see examples of his use of best practices in running a business.
Van is a local guy born and raised in Southern Maryland. He grew up in La Plata and graduated from La Plata high school. After one year of college in North Carolina, Van joined MSI, Inc., the family hardware and lumber business in his home town. His father made him promise to learn to do every job in the company before taking the reins. After several years of experience loading trucks, taking inventory and stocking shelves, he took over as CEO from his Dad in 1985.
Most Difficult Business Decision
At that time, MSI was comprised of four retail stores, a lumber yard and more than one hundred employees. After becoming CEO, he experienced intermittent periods of prosperity and recession. But beginning 2006, he concluded finally the business had undergone a pronounced structural change. The business no longer had a healthy mix of retail and contract customers, but had become skewed 90% toward contractor business. Unfortunately, for his business, his success was intrinsically tied to the success of his contract customers whose success in turn was determined by the state of the economy. As he watched his business decrease each year for several years in a row, he recognized he had a major problem. As an experienced business person should, he defined the problem specifically, examined his alternatives and arrived at was to become his most difficult business decision. Faced with an uncertain economic future, and not wishing to continue to burn through family assets, he chose to close the company. He did so in an orderly way in order to service his contractors through the end of their projects, and to also help his employees find other jobs. He lived through and learned some very tough lessons from what is probably the most difficult a business owner can face.
In 1995, after several years of involvement in local Charles County politics, Mitchell ran for state office and began a ten year career in the Maryland House of Delegates. He soon realized that Annapolis and the Maryland Legislature was going to be an interesting and challenging experience. As a member of the House Economic Matters Committee, his business background proved useful in understanding the myriad business issues that came up for discussion. However, his real world business experience also would be a great source of frustration to him as so many members of the legislature had little knowledge of business and often lacked understanding of either the nature of entrepreneurial risk or the total effort it takes to maintain a successful business. He had already spent a career in business in which it was vital to have clearly defined goals and objectives to be successful. He knew firsthand about the need to hire and fire people on a regular basis and the mandatory nature of making a profit in order to stay in business. But, he found the legislature doesn’t often think or operate that way. Mitchell also observed during his tenure that over time the Maryland Legislature was changing and had become less collegial and more contentious and seemed to be more about politics than it was about solving problems. In 2004, he concluded, it was time to make a change and move on to do something else.
Deputy Director of the Maryland Department of Health and Hygiene
Mitchell, a Democrat, was appointed by Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich to his new position in 2004 as Deputy Director of the State’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In essence, he had become Chief Operating Officer of a governmental department with 8,000 people. The new job was a complete departure from selling drywall and building materials in Southern Maryland. But fortunately for the employees at Baltimore’s West Preston Street campus, Van’s business experience Mitchell had taught him some common sense lessons about people management.
He vividly recalls arriving at his office building the first day of his new job. When he got on an elevator he observed everyone stood silently with their heads down looking at the floor. There were no greetings among colleagues, no talking, any laughter or interaction of any kind going on. It was apparent, something was clearly amiss.
A first order of business was to learn more about this department and the people in it, so he began a daily practice of choosing a floor and walking it while talking to people for an hour. He would stop, greet people and ask them about their jobs and how they were getting along. He quickly came to realize, the widely held stereotype of the lazy state employee was a myth. The caricature simply wasn’t true. He firmly believes there are many dedicated hard working employees who work for the state.
It was also during these walks, he noted that the halls and walls were dingy, dark and inhospitable throughout the multi-story main building. One reason was several hundred light bulbs no longer were functioning. No wonder it was dark. He set out to relight the interior and repaint the walls in a brighter friendlier color.
He also discovered that, over time, personnel from many of the department’s sub branches had been split up and were located haphazardly throughout the building. After some thoughtful planning, Mitchell relocated personnel into logical departmental groupings, and was also able to free up space that would enable the state to reduce building rental expense by bringing personnel housed elsewhere.
A key takeaway for Mitchell from this experience is that when people are treated as though they aren’t appreciated, they will act accordingly. He felt he had begun to make an impact when people from within the department began to greet him, and he observed that no longer did everyone ride the elevator with his head down. It is quite amazing what small cosmetic changes and a friendly smile can have on an organization.
Van Mitchell was Deputy Director of the Department of Health and Mental Services from 2004-2007. The next state general election brought a change in administration, and he realized it was time to move on.
Beverage Alcohol Retailer
Somehow, along the way, Van Mitchell became a retailer for the second time. This time he, his brother and his sister became partners in a new Green Turtle Sports Bar & Grille franchise in La Plata. Owning one retail business in a career would be enough for most people but not in his case, as the saying goes he was out of the frying pan and into the fire. When asked which was more difficult, being in the lumber/hardware business dealing with contractors and the public, or owning and operating a restaurant/bar he replied without hesitation, “Owning a bar/restaurant.” Van said “No one outside the alcohol industry knows the pressures we face. It is certainly one of the most regulated industries I can name. It has all the same problems as any other business that hires non career type workers i.e. tardiness, absenteeism, a lack of genuine concern about the business you own and of course, we sell alcohol – a highly regulated product. This one product, alcohol, separates us from all other legal businesses. When I was in the home improvement supply business, I worried about employee accidents and potential product liability issues probably none of which would put me out of business, but with regard to the alcohol business, outsiders cannot appreciate the individual responsibility and liability an owner faces on daily basis. In addition, there seems to be a general lack of understanding and widespread misinformation about our industry. The body of alcohol regulation contained in Article 2B of the Maryland Code is chock full of nuances, intricacies and potential liability situations. As a simple example, as a retailer, if I run out of a particular brand of scotch on a Saturday afternoon, I can’t just go to a local liquor store and buy or borrow some until Monday. This would be a common sense practice in any other business but not the alcohol business. If there is one thing that causes me to lose sleep, it is unwittingly serving an underage person and getting caught doing it. In my case, the local Charles County Liquor Board is unrelenting and unforgiving in dealing with this problem regardless if it is a habitual problem or an innocent mistake by my employee or manager. A partial solution, but only a partial solution, is to continually train our staff.”
At the behest of Nick Manis, Van’s career path took a completely different turn in an already interesting journey when he agreed to join George Manis, Nick Manis and Mike Canning in January 2008 as an associate in their growing lobbying and government affairs practice. At that time, the firm represented interests in the alcohol business, the motion picture industry, tobacco, gambling, law enforcement, and the accounting profession among others. Still, one the firm’s goals for the future was to expand the firm’s expertise and reach into other areas of the business community. The firm now represents more than fifty local and national organizations.
Based on his experience in the health field, it was natural for Mitchell to join the firm and specialize initially in that area. His clients include Amerigroup, CareFirst and various other professional medical coalitions. He also brings firsthand knowledge and valuable perspective as it relates to beverage alcohol. With Van Mitchell on board, Manis, Canning continues to represent its clients with a tradition of candor, honesty and truthfulness throughout their lobbying efforts
It takes a good sense of humor and ample common sense to accomplish all that Van Mitchell has done in his various careers. A good sense of humor, a healthy dose of common sense and a keen sense of perspective is clearly important as he represents his clients. Van Mitchell is more than up to the task, and the beverage alcohol industry is lucky to have such a valuable asset on our side.