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"The best advice I ever received was to learn to serve others,” says Mike Mitchell, Executive Director at the S. Dale High Center for Family Business at Elizabethtown College. “But the real power comes when you learn to bring out the best in the people you work with, as opposed to becoming self serving.” Good leaders encourage others and they don’t just think differently, they act differently. At Elizabethtown College, “Educate for Service” is more than just a motto—it’s a secret for lasting peace and joy.
Growing up, Mitchell was influenced by his father, a sales and marketing executive at Weaver Chicken. “He was always coming home with really cool stories about projects and commercials they were developing.” Mitchell graduated from Elizabethtown College, class of 1984, with a marketing degree. He appreciated the small school and getting to know lots of his fellow students and professors, crediting his practical education to a mixture of leadership and internship opportunities.
Immediately out of school, he took a sales job with General Mills. Mitchell decided to continue his education and get an MBA in marketing and entrepreneurship—thinking he might one day start his own business. He finally got that Fortune 100 job he wanted and started working in the marketing department at Heinz. “You start out low on the totem pole. You’re a marketing assistant, doing a lot of data analysis to earn your stripes. But I was there seven years so I got to be product manager of several different brands: pickles, soup, ketchup,” he says with a smile. Two things happened that changed his life: he and his wife had their first child, and he was diagnosed with Lyme disease.
Mitchell says Lyme disease was a turning point in his life, adding that he had become career driven and focused on climbing the corporate ladder. “The disease changed my perception on life. I needed that. God knocked me back a peg and reminded me that someone else was in control,” he says humbly. With the combination of a new baby and a new outlook on life, he decided to move from Pittsburgh back to Lancaster County to be closer to his family.
“That’s where Amelia’s comes in.” His father had worked for Weaver for 40 years, but in 1989 Tyson purchased Weaver and his father’s future changed. At age fifty-nine, Mitchell’s father bought two Weaver Chicken outlets and brought his brother-in-law into the business. Mitchell was just beginning his career at Heinz but after seven years in the corporate world he had an idea. He asked his friends at Heinz and General Mills what they did with their closeout products. He learned they sold them to a company on the West Coast called Grocery Outlet. With little competition on the East Coast, Mitchell and his family sat down and wrote a business plan. “In 1996, I joined the family business and we repositioned it as Amelia’s. It was my mother’s middle name and my great grandmother’s first name. We wanted to continue to have a family legacy.” he says. Customers loved the expanded grocery outlet concept and business took off. Amelia’s grew to fifteen stores and four hundred employees. Mitchell served as president and CEO from 2001 until they structured the sale of the business in 2012 to Grocery Outlet and a private equity firm. “They made us the proverbial offer that was difficult to refuse. And that’s how Amelia’s came and went.”
While transitioning Amelia’s to Grocery Outlet, Mitchell was approached about the executive director position at S. Dale High Center for Family Business at Elizabethtown College. Mitchell was not interested at the time, but in 2013 they contacted him again. “The more I thought about it, I realized it was consistent with what I enjoy doing. What I began to love in my role, as Amelia’s got bigger, was people development—empowering, training and coaching people to be the best that they can be. That’s what good leaders should do—but it’s also very enjoyable. It’s what this job is all about,” he says.
The High Center was founded in 1995 by a group of business people, family business owners, and Elizabethtown College representatives to fill a recognized need in the region. The center serves and strengthens families in business through succession planning, leadership training, and legacy building.
Today, Mitchell and a team of directors assist almost eighty family businesses. The High Center offers its members valuable services including best practices surveys and consulting, leadership seminars led by nationally acclaimed speakers, and executive peer groups. Guest speakers like John Maxwell and local leaders like Dale High, Phil Clemens, and Roger North share their knowledge. Peer Group facilitators like John Reed and Joanne Ladley help navigate unique issues family businesses face—dividing leadership groups into CEOs, key executives, and next generation members. Mitchell was a member of The High Center when he owned Amelia’s and values peer groups tremendously.
“I get a lot of satisfaction out of serving now—both God and family business executives.” Service to others takes dedication. It takes time and effort. It takes accountability. Looking back on his journey, he says there are so many things God has blessed him with, and being thankful and serving others brings him peace. “E-town’s motto is ‘Educate for Service’ and they live it. They train you for servant-leadership, which is the key to success and significance. The sooner you find that out, the better.”