Mills was honored by the College of Business Alumni Association with its Distinguished Alumnus Award at the 48th Annual Spring Luncheon held in February, 2008. Paul O’Connor ’81, association president, reflected with admiration on Mills’ drive, humor, and competitive spirit. “Doug is a very engaging, passionate, and persuasive person. He has strong beliefs in what he and Busey stand for, which have not wavered in the years since I first met him,” he said.
Mills’ love of competition is something he nurtured as an undergraduate student and standout athlete at Illinois, where he developed “the idea that you had the opportunity to do something of your dreams.” While at the University, he played basketball, baseball, and football, winning six varsity ‘I’ letters, and was voted the University of Illinois Outstanding Athlete in 1962. Mills graduated with a degree in marketing from the College of Business in 1962 and is proud that his experience at Illinois “opened the doors to meeting people—significant alumni who were mentors, advisers, and who became friends.”
The person Mills would treasure most was Linda Mills ’78 MBA, his high school sweetheart, wife, and partner throughout his career. Hailed as an extraordinary woman of great vision and optimism, Linda passed away September 14, 2006 after working hand-in-hand with her husband for more than four decades, building a strong family and an esteemed business.
Together, the Mills would not merely step onto the path of success; rather, they would jump into it with brash optimism.
In 1971, as a correspondent banker, Mills called on the owners of Busey First National Bank in Urbana, who were looking to sell. He recalled the story with a smile: “I indicated that I wanted to buy the bank and they said, ‘But you don’t have any money.’ I said, ‘That’s right, I don’t.’ I had a net worth of $14,000, I didn’t own a car, and I lived in a house that cost $21,000 in Northbrook [Illinois]. I came home and told Linda that we were going to buy Busey First National Bank, move to Champaign-Urbana, and I’m going to be the CEO. She looked at me and said jokingly, ‘Have you had too much to drink?’
In 1971, as a correspondent banker, Mills called on the owners of Busey First National Bank in Urbana, who were looking to sell. He recalled the story with a smile: “I indicated that I wanted to buy the bank and they said, ‘But you don’t have any money.’ I said, ‘That’s right, I don’t.’ I had a net worth of $14,000, I didn’t own a car, and I lived in a house that cost $21,000 in Northbrook [Illinois]. I came home and told Linda that we were going to buy Busey First National Bank, move to Champaign-Urbana, and I’m going to be the CEO. She looked at me and said jokingly, ‘Have you had too much to drink?’ and I said, ‘No, I just think this is a great opportunity.’”
Mills’ unabashed optimism wasn’t plagued by concerns over risk. In those days, he said, “You looked at opportunities—you didn’t associate it with a high degree of risk.” Still, the maturation of Busey would involve years of hard fought success, steady leadership, and forward thinking.
Taking a page from his Illinois baseball coach, Lee Eilbracht, whose tenet was, “Don’t just be prepared, learn to think ahead,” Mills kept Busey ahead of the curve in local banking. He created a one-Bank Holding Company in 1980, two years ahead of Illinois legislation allowing multi-bank holding companies, making Busey poised for expansion. He drove an acquisition strategy in the 1990s that fueled growth and diversified the bank’s holdings. He pushed his board of directors to take the company public, and in 1998 Busey began trading on Nasdaq (BUSE).
Mills has never shied away from changing the environment in which the bank competes, and steadfastly maintains his optimism and passion for having fun. Greg Lykins ’69, vice chairman of First Busey Corporation, remarked, “Doug lives in the positive.”
In 2007, Mills doubled Busey’s size through a merger with its closest local rival, Main Street Bank and Trust. Of the merger, he maintains the philosophy of a sportsman: “We’re larger, but the game plan is still the same—to create a positive work environment for Busey associates, to provide the best in financial services for our customers, and to enhance shareholder value.”
Mills is optimistic that today’s bankers are getting back to the fundamentals of calculating risk correctly and lauds the academic approach of young professionals toward risk assessment.
“The world is bigger, and in the banking business we measure and calculate risk in everything we do. I think the young person who’s got initiative is smart enough that he calculates the risk. Thirty years ago, I don’t remember hearing that word,” he said. The world is bigger and truly a better place because of the Mills family.
Doug and Linda Mills have donated generously to their community and alma mater through endowments for faculty chairs in the colleges of Business and Education and for Illinois’ head football coach position. Their $10 million gift created the Mills Breast Cancer Institute in Urbana, which serves patients and collaborates with University faculty on breast cancer research. The Busey-Mills Community Foundation funds charitable and educational programs in the Champaign County community.
Mills takes great satisfaction in giving back to the people and institutions that he believes gave so much to him. Among its alumni and students, the College of Business lauds Mills not only as a professional success, but as an individual who fulfills his responsibility to society with great spirit and integrity.
Now approaching retirement, Mills faces it with signature thoughtfulness and a glint in his eye. “I’m taking my good ole sweet time evaluating what I want to do in the future. I have the wisdom to do whatever I want. I’ve learned a lot.”