As Stewart C. Mills Jr. entered the final chapter of his 93 years of life, he never stopped embodying the maxim he inspired so many others to live by: to be the best he could be.
Those who knew the business giant best said his generosity knew no bounds, yet he remained humble. He set high expectations, but exuded love and kindness. He found great joy in the outdoors and world travels, although perhaps nothing fulfilled him quite like a good day’s work. He was a steadfast patriot and a devoted family man, an outgoing and likable character whose charisma left lasting impressions on everyone from his closest friends and loved ones to his thousands of Mills Fleet Farm and auto dealership employees.
Born in Brainerd, Mills spent his formative years in the city and surrounding lakes area. While based here, he and twin brother Henry “Hank” Mills II built over 61 years what would become a retail business empire sprawled across four states. His philanthropy boosted countless organizations and worthy causes in Brainerd and beyond, the vast majority of his donations made anonymously. And on Sept. 24, surrounded by loved ones, his life came to a close where it began, in the community he so cherished.
“You just can’t say enough about that man and what he has done in his career, what he did for his company, what he’s done for this community and what he did for all the people that work with him,” said Bruce Buxton, a retired consultant with Widseth Smith Nolting whose business relationship with Mills evolved into a 35-year close friendship. “He’s special, he’s one of the patriarchs of this community. He’s probably the last one that I know of in the area that’s been here and done as much for this community as anybody. So this community will miss him.”
Daughter Marisa Mills, who worked closely with her father throughout her life and considered him her best friend, said one of his most admirable traits was the ease with which he demonstrated what he expected from others around him, including her and her two brothers, Stewart and Travis, both publicly and privately.
"He really acted out the great character that he was also wanting from others around him."
— Marisa Mae Mills, daughter
“He was kind, compassionate. He was fair, he was loving. But he was very firm and wasn’t going to tolerate us being any less than our best, and wasn’t going to tolerate us not having a certain code of character and a certain code of conduct, a certain code of values that we were to live by,” Marisa said. “And I really embraced that. I deeply, still and always will, admire my dad. I always did, since I was a little girl.
“The things that he told me and shared with me and the things that he demonstrated — forget just what he told me, but the things that I witnessed — I had the great blessing of living my life very close to him for my 46 and a half years … and I got to see how he really was behind the scenes. He really acted out the great character that he was also wanting from others around him.”
Former Minnesota Vikings head coach Bud Grant, 94, shared the love of football and the outdoors with Mills, and together they went on a number of hunting and fishing trips while “solving the world’s problems,” Grant said.
“He was a down-to-earth person and a really good person. I mean, you have a lot of friends or acquaintances in your life and some of them, they’re your friends or you work with them in spite of. Well, Stew was not that way. He was a good friend just because of,” Grant said. “ … If ever I asked Stew for anything, he would always provide. He was just a good person. The world needs more Stew Mills.”
A strong foundation
Born Sept. 8, 1928, to Stewart C. and Helen K. Mills in Brainerd, Stewart C. Mills Jr.’s early years were defined by two foundational relationships — the one with his father, who demonstrated the values of hard work and integrity after starting the Mills family dynasty in 1922 with auto dealerships in downtown Brainerd, and the one with his grandmother Nana Mae, who taught him to respect and thrive in the outdoors and set high expectations for her grandson he would later epitomize throughout his life.
The young Mills lived with Nana Mae for a period of time as a child, splitting his time between Nisswa in the summers and during the school year in Brainerd, where he attended Whittier Elementary School, Franklin Junior High School and Brainerd High School.
“His family was so important to him, and his heritage and knowing his family, and being with his family, and doing right by his family, and carrying on a legacy for his family — all of that was so important,” Marisa said. “ … He just loved and adored both of them, and I think he truly just wanted to be the best he could be for them, too.”
He was a talented Warriors football player but a self-admitted poor student, skipping classes to go hunting and getting in trouble for pulling pranks. Buxton said Mills often regaled friends with amusing stories of his teenage years, including the time he and some classmates placed an outhouse on the roof of a school building in honor of Halloween.
Despite his penchant for mischief, he graduated from BHS in 1946 and continued his education, graduating from Brainerd Junior College in 1948 and attending the University of Minnesota from 1948-49 before taking some time off to explore Alaska. He completed his college education at Hamline University, graduating in 1951 with a major in business administration.
"The world needs more Stew Mills."
— Bud Grant
Carl Boberg of Nisswa, who at 91 years old said he’s likely one of the few people left in the area who knew Mills and his brother as teenagers, recalled Mills as a regular party host and purveyor of good old-fashioned fun. He was gregarious, mesmerizing guests with his quick wit and magnetic personality. The two remained friends throughout the decades, with Mills calling upon Boberg and his brothers to ride in a steamboat float in Nisswa parades and later serving as a pallbearer for both of Boberg’s brothers’ funerals.
“Everybody loved Stew. It didn’t make any difference if the ladies were 19 or 90, they just loved him,” Boberg said. “He was the life of the party.”
Yet, even in the midst of youth, Mills remained focused. Boberg said no matter how much fun there was to be had, Mills would be in bed by midnight, ready for work the next day.
Mills was also a member of the 194th Tank Battalion and the Minnesota National Guard before enlisting in the Army, where he served until 1959. He graduated from the U.S. Army Adjutant General School and was selected to represent enlisted men at the official lighting of the Christmas tree by President Harry Truman at the nation’s capital. He worked as an Army drill instructor in Fort Riley, Kansas, and spent two years stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, where he directly served a two star general.
In 1955, in pursuit of a business of their own, the Mills brothers settled on farmers as their customer base and looked to the dairy mecca of Wisconsin as a starting point. After driving the countryside themselves and speaking directly to those tending their herds in Marshfield, Wisconsin — home to the largest dairy cow population in the country at the time — the pair opened the first Fleet Wholesale Supply.
Mills told the Dispatch in 2016 that in the beginning, they started buying and advertising merchandise farmers said they needed and went on to begin leasing stores. They were known for going out and jumping on tractors to learn what their customers used and what they wanted and needed.
In 1959, the business became Mills Fleet Farm and by the time the family sold it to global investment firm KKR in 2016, 35 retail locations hummed along in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota.
"It wasn’t just trying to make sure everybody else could be the best they could be, he was well into his high 80s and he was still trying to be the best version of himself he could be."
— Bart Harmer
While he earned a degree in business, Mills attributed his acumen to what he learned by working for his father. Throughout his life, Mills struggled to accept praise or take credit for his success. For him, all roads led to Stewart Sr. In 2016, upon receiving recognition as the first recipient of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber Business Legacy Award, Mills questioned whether he truly deserved the honor in an interview with the Dispatch.
“With my dad, it had to be honesty and integrity and you will do what’s right,” Mills said at the time. “I look back ... there is no story. I am no story, because it’s my dad. The only thing I was, was smart enough to listen to him and get to work.”
Friends and business associates of Mills’ would disagree with this personal assessment. Those who witnessed him in action pointed to an unmatched attention to detail and an uncanny intuition about what customers wanted.
“He was a hell of a retailer,” said Bart Harmer, who first met Mills as a young businessman and a member of the Brainerd Jaycees before he went on to work for the Mills Automotive Group. “You’d go to a convenience store and you’d spend two hours in the convenience store, because he’d walk up and down every single aisle looking at what they have and what they’re selling and why they’re selling it and how they’re merchandising it. He just never, ever stopped thinking about that kind of stuff.
“He was always trying to get better himself. It wasn’t just trying to make sure everybody else could be the best they could be, he was well into his high 80s and he was still trying to be the best version of himself he could be.”
Buxton, who spent countless hours on the road with Mills traveling to potential future store locations as well as visiting existing stores, said he was a prolific note-taker who noticed even the smallest of details and was intimately involved in the designs of his buildings, both the Fleet Farm locations and the auto dealerships.
“He’s a wonderful man when it comes to seeing things that nobody else will see,” Buxton said. “When he built that store, as an example, in Baxter, everybody said it was a tribute to his father and he was going to fail. Obviously, it was a tribute to his father, but he sure didn’t fail.”
Mills’ success in business didn’t stop at how he filled the shelves — it extended to the culture he cultivated. He set high standards and expected his employees to treat their customers with respect and fairness. He returned that respect and fairness to his employees as well, listening to their ideas and recognizing their efforts.
"He’s probably the last one that I know of in the area that’s been here and done as much for this community as anybody. So this community will miss him."
— Bruce Buxton
During the 1997 Red River flood, with generators and pumps at a premium in Fargo-Moorhead and other retailers raising their prices, Mills refused to go with the flow. Buxton said Mills asked him to fill a van with merchandise from the Baxter store and drive it to the Fargo location, where it remained at the typical prices.
“He sold it at exactly what he would have sold it anyway, and in so doing, he cemented his relationship with that town over there. Before, it was just another store and they had many choices and everything, but because he maintained his prices and didn’t try to gouge everybody, he was fair,” Buxton said. “And that’s what he always wanted to be was fair. He said, ‘Be the best you can be. Always be fair and do what’s right.’ And that’s the way he was.”
Harmer said when he trains new employees at Mills Automotive Group, Mills’ philosophies flow through the process from the beginning.
“I always talk about the responsibility and the accountability and the honesty and the integrity,” Harmer said. “ … There’s just so many stories that can teach somebody a life lesson on how to operate, not only personally but professionally. I don’t miss an opportunity to say what we call ‘Stew-isms’ around here. … He would always say, ‘Get it done.’ ‘Do what’s right.’ ‘Be the best you could be.’”
More to the man
Outside of the office, Mills was a regular Renaissance man. He voraciously consumed books on history, especially those related to the military. He was excellent on a pair of skis, whether by water or on the slopes. Hunting was a lifelong fascination that took him all over the world, from hunting snow geese in Canada to big game in Africa. He served on the board of directors for the Green Bay Packers and Lambeau Field bore the Mills name on one of its gates.
His travels often focused on trips to historical sites, including Civil War battlefields and a trip to the Philippines. There, in 2007, he and daughter Marisa drove along the same route as his 194th Tank Battalion forebears did in the Bataan Death March. Marisa said her father took extra care to visit every one of the markers and gravestones of the Brainerd men and women involved in that dark chapter of World War II history.
“That’s how sensitive and passionate about those things he was, and emotional about those things — he had to go and it was a way for him to also pay respect,” Marisa said. “ … He grew up in that era where he saw what these people really did for our country, and knew that some of them didn’t come back.
“ … My dad is like the equivalent of, as far as age wise, he waited until a lot later to have me. So he’s kind of like an equivalent age of a grandfather. What a blessing for me to know and to get all that history directly from my dad.”
“I can say this with some real authority — people here will never know how much he did in this community, because he was quite a humble person, really."
— Terry McCollough
Former Brainerd Dispatch Publisher Terry McCollough, who grew up family friends with the Mills family and later became close friends with Stewart Mills Jr. himself, pointed to Mills’ comfort with showing his emotion as a perhaps lesser-known facet of his personality.
This was especially the case when it came to honoring the troops. While handing out thousands of American flags during Fourth of July parades was a hallmark of Mills Fleet Farm’s presence and a number of Mills’ donations supported military-related endeavors, that was just his public patriotism. At barbecues he hosted for friends and family, the bonfire conversation would inevitably turn to storytelling of the heroism of his guest’s family members or even themselves. McCollough recalled sharing stories of his own parents’ service in World War II at these events.
“He would always say, ‘Let’s talk about why we’re here. Let’s talk about the people that defended this country and made sure that we can celebrate the Fourth of July, and that we’re speaking English rather than some other language — German, Japanese, whatever,’” McCollough said. “ … He invariably would have tears running down his cheek when he would be talking about the military, what they did, and how important it was to him. So I think that was an emotional side that the average person might not have seen from this tough businessman — you know, the ability to cry over something that was really important and really meant a lot.”
McCollough noted Mills reached out to him when his son Col. Bill McCollough was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, asking what he and his battalion of 1,200 Marines needed. When he learned a good pair of boot socks would be helpful, Mills wasted no time dropping off 1,200 pairs at the Dispatch offices. Mills’ longtime girlfriend Andre Margaux, a businesswoman in her own right, contributed to the effort as well, providing 1,200 neck coolers for the troops.
This was just one of perhaps hundreds of examples of Mills’ philanthropy for which he did not seek accolades.
“I can say this with some real authority — people here will never know how much he did in this community, because he was quite a humble person, really,” McCollough said.
‘I owe everything to him and to God’
Of everything Mills was, his role as a father stood out to his friends and associates — his love for his children was clear in how he went about his daily life.
Marisa, who is carrying on the family business as an owner of Mills Automotive Group, said she could never thank her father enough for his influence, how he always treated her equally with her brothers and the example he set for how to conduct oneself in business and in life.
“When somebody does so much and gives so much — and I don’t mean external, material things — when they give so much of themselves in teaching and values and foundation and thought processes, and really sets you or orients you a different way than maybe you would’ve landed on your own, you just have all of this debt of gratitude,” Marisa said. “ … I owe everything to him and to God, and I know my dad felt that way, too. He owed everything to his dad, his Nana and to God. He didn’t take a lot of credit, even though he deserved it. He was the driving force behind all of it for all of those years, and that’s just the truth.”
Mills is survived by his children Marisa Mae Mills (Gus); sons, Stewart C. Mills III (Heather), and Travis D. Mills Sr.; grandchildren, Travis D. Mills Jr., Christian S. Mills, Stewart C. Mills, IV, and Jade D. Mills; longtime girlfriend, Andre Margaux; and dog, Max.
Memorials are preferred and appreciated to the Salvation Army or Shriner’s Children Hospital.
A celebration of life will be at a later date.