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Alumni Profile: Karl Mills '84

Song in his heart
For Karl Mills '84, opera is a labor of love

By Raksha Varma

Karl Mills '84 expected the greatest challenge of his career to come from a money management business he co-founded in the Bay Area, but instead it stems from a very different source — opera.

As president of the San Francisco Opera Association, a volunteer job, Mills oversees the second largest opera company in the country. "This has been the most challenging and expensive work experience in my life," Mills admits. "But also some of the most valuable, and I have gotten to work with extraordinary people."

Mills was asked to join the board in the late 1990s and became president in 2002.

"My duty is to work with the general director, the board and the community to provide long-term leadership for the company and to help raise the enormous amounts of money required to keep the music playing," says Mills, who has helped to effect a dramatic turnaround of the organization since 2001. "This has been an extraordinary effort that would only have been possible with the commitment of thousands of people."

Originally from Montclair, N.J., Mills graduated from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 1982 with a degree in English. With this strong liberal arts background, Mills headed for business school.

"I chose Kellogg because of its culture and generalist focus," says Mills. "The Kellogg students, faculty and alumni were energized and optimistic."

While studying marketing and finance, Mills also was active with the "Special K Revue," the Kellogg School's popular musical and sketch comedy production. "It was one of my significant learning experiences at Kellogg, involving managing over 150 participants, he says. "It was also a blast and we were all very proud of the result."

Mills notes that his B-school insights have remained important. "At Kellogg, one learns the importance of personal relationships, and a set of skills and a way of tackling challenges that are vital later in life."

After graduation, Mills went to work in strategic planning for a division of Elsevier, a Dutch-based publishing company, in New Jersey. Later he joined the firm's San Francisco sales office.

"When the company wanted me to relocate to New Jersey in 1986, I chose to quit," Mills recalls. "I realized I was going to take a leap in a direction I didn't want to go in."

Instead, Mills eventually joined Jurika and Voyles, a small money management firm located in Oakland, Calif. With $130 million under management, Mills helped build the firm to $7 billion in assets when the company was sold. He left in 2001.

"I gained a lot of experience there, but I was ready for something new. That's why I got more involved with the opera and why I was eventually game to start a new venture in the investment business," Mills says.

In 2003, Mills helped create a new investment partnership, JMK Investments, with his former partner, William Jurika, which focuses on a concentrated number of very small public companies. "Building a business and investing in businesses from the ground up is an exciting process, especially with the right people," he says.

Mills describes his management philosophy as focused on values and people. "First of all, define the culture of your company," he explains. "Live and breathe that value system. Most importantly, work with people who want the same value system to succeed. Be collaborative, and see that your employees feel ownership."

Mills relied on these strategies when he started working for the San Francisco Opera Association.

"I always had a big interest in the arts," says Mills, who draws cartoons in his spare time. "Because I was exposed to this scene from an early age, I want to help make the opera available to a new generation. Kids today do not have the same exposure to music education as past generations, and this is some of the greatest music ever written. Though it can be trying at times, I've loved every minute, especially watching all our work behind the scenes materialize in stage productions that really move people," says Mills, whose favorite productions have been "Billy Budd" and "St. Francis of Assisi."

"In my work for the opera, I have learned so much," notes Mills. "Though life can get messy, it's important to carry on, step by step, and to have a vision of a better future and how to get there. If there's a collective will, much can be accomplished."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University