Robert "Bob" McMillan says he doesn't worry about anyone who calls him a capitalist — he takes pride in the title.
A West Virginia native, McMillan says he has always leaned toward the world of business. Several years ago, he was given the opportunity to return to the state where he has used his talents as a businessman to leverage himself into a position where he could finally live his dream — owning a business, and a beer business at that.
McMillan owns Jefferson Distributing Co., an Anheuser-Busch distributor that serves the Eastern Panhandle of the state. Originally from Charleston, McMillan said he had been seeking a place in the adult beverage industry, but landing in the Eastern Panhandle was an accident that simply proved fortunate.
"I am a beer drinker. I've always been a beer drinker," he said when asked about his favorite drink. "I'd get shot if I didn't say that a cold Budweiser is the best drink. I always like to salute anyone with a cold Bud."
Jefferson Distributing is a middle man between brewers and sellers of beer in the Panhandle. Breaking into the business can be difficult. Often distributors and even many brewers are family-owned operations that date back to Prohibition.
In the mid-1980s, McMillan was looking for an opportunity and a friend just so happened to know someone looking to cash out of an 18-year stint owning Jefferson.
"We got together and I was able to buy that business back in 1986," McMillan said. "From '86 to the present, I've been the owner and I've been blessed with wonderful employees, and we've had a good run."
A willing buyer is not all it takes to get in the business. The brewer associated with the distributor also had to approve. McMillan's challenge was convincing it that a background in real estate and insurance still qualified him to get into the world of beer.
"After being persistent, I was approved and was able to buy the business," he said. "In my opinion, it's a wonderful industry to be involved in."
McMillan maintains a business philosophy that focuses on three major points — customers, employees and community. Take care of those three things, he said, and shareholders can sit back and watch the profits follow.
"The number one most important asset you have is your employees," McMillan said. "Employees are a time-consuming entity, and you spend a lot of time cultivating your mission for your company."
McMillan said his mission is quite simple.
"Our mission is very succinct — to be the best beer distributor in our area," McMillan said. "Without a profit, you don't stay in business long."
Charleston was where McMillan would begin his education.
"Back at the time, it was a great place to grow up," McMillan said. "I was fortunate to, at the right time, have an opportunity to get an education."
His father, a physician, was able to provide McMillan with even more education from the University of North Carolina. He then took his education even further, including a stint in the Navy lasting a little over four years.
"At that point, the real world was in front of me and I thought a business career would be the best for me and getting a graduate degree and an MBA was important," McMillan said. "I've always had a business bent. The business world was always my first choice. I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do."
After getting out of business school in 1971, he went into real estate and mortgages in Atlanta. After spending some time in real estate, things got tight in that industry.
Feeling the squeeze over real estate, McMillan said he took a job at Mobil Oil, where "unfortunately" they liked to move him about.
He eventually was promoted and sent to Miami. Then he was promoted again and sent back to Atlanta. In the process of moving to Atlanta, McMillan got a call from a man who, at that time, was in the insurance business in West Virginia and had been a fraternity brother.
McMillan worried that he didn't know much about insurance and felt he probably wouldn't get the job.
"I said, ‘I can't even spell insurance, let alone sell it,'" he said.
But his fraternity brother — Gaston Caperton, the man who would later take governorship of the state for two terms — wanted McMillan back in West Virginia and was persistent. In a matter of months, McMillan moved himself north from Miami to Atlanta and then finally "back home" to West Virginia in 1977.
"Sometimes, luck's better than being smart, and I was lucky," McMillan said.
While he worked with Caperton, McMillan was also accumulating equity toward fulfilling his own dream.
"I had been in various other businesses prior to that, and he was in the insurance business, so he gave me a great opportunity, and I stayed with him for about eight years," McMillan said. "At that time, I had a desire to strike out on my own and start my own business, so I started looking."
He says without Caperton's help, Jefferson Distributing might not be his own today.
"Without (the job with Caperton), I would have never had the wherewithal to even think about buying into a business that I bought," McMillan said. "Business has always been an interest to me. I'm interested in creating jobs, I'm interested in the people and I'm interested in being profitable. I'm not concerned about describing myself as a capitalist. There's nothing wrong with that in my opinion."
When he first spotted the opportunity to buy Jefferson, he said he wasn't very familiar with the Eastern Panhandle. When he got there, he said he enjoyed it and wanted to stay.
"Up until the downturn of 2008, this was a pretty good place to be in West Virginia," McMillan said. "We're one of the growth population centers of the state. Once I got here I realized just how wonderful this part of the state and the world."
"The area continues to grow," McMillan said. "We've had our difficulties with the real estate crunch, but I think these are looking up now. Our business has always had positive growth trends over the last 26, 27 years."
His love for the region flows back into the community he serves, a practice he describes as essential to doing business.
"I look at the community as part of our business culture," McMillan said. "We feel like giving back is very important."
From Shepherd University to United Way, McMillan said, Jefferson Distributing tries to send some of its good fortunes back to the people who support it.
"You name an organization in our area, and Jefferson Distributing is involved one way or another," McMillan said. "That's just a part of being a good corporate citizen. If you're not giving back to the community you're in, you are missing a great opportunity. It's how you become successful."
McMillan said his wife, Tia, has been another major key to his success.
"She's been a real partner in this whole experience," he said.
Both love to travel and play golf and tennis, and she helps run the business. Tia, he said, has been essential to a number of business efforts, including first digitizing the business.
"My wife and I are just recently returning from a trip, around the world, basically," McMillan said. "I think it's the best way to learn about outside your environment, to see how other people live in other parts of the world."
He said he's loved his travels to places like England, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Thailand.
His children, now adults with experience in a variety of fields including NASA and Coca-Cola and even having children of their own, have proven a source of pride for McMillan.
"I consider myself one of the luckiest guys on earth to have a wonderful wife and family and to have great friends," McMillan said.
"Most importantly I'm lucky to be a West Virginian."