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Updated: March 18, 2019 / 2019 Business Leaders of the Year

Waterville's Bill Mitchell, guided by late father's example, is making an impact on his hometown

Bill Mitchell PHOTo / Tim Greenway Bill Mitchell, owner of GHM Insurance and PJM Property Management LLC, loves Waterville and its history. As a commercial developer, all of his projects are in Waterville and are helping to advance the city's economic momentum.

Bill Mitchell started working at his father’s Waterville insurance agency in 1982, when insurance advertising was word of mouth and the Yellow Pages.

His father, Paul Mitchell, would “drive around and see people.” It was a marketing approach that worked.

But the younger Mitchell wanted to try direct mail marketing.

“My father mentored me in accounting, business management, he taught me the inner workings of an insurance agency,” Mitchell says. When it came to direct mail, “My father and I fundamentally disagreed.”

But his father also “completely understood” why Bill, the youngest of his four children, wanted to do it. He gave him the go-ahead.

“He was a true entrepreneur, a visionary,” Mitchell says. “For any small business to survive, you have to adapt. He allowed me in my early 20s to test the waters, to find my way on my own.”

Direct mail and other marketing and advertising Bill introduced worked, increasing the company’s business.

Mitchell, 57, now owns GHM Insurance, which has grown from seven employees when he started in 1982 to 30.

He’s still applying the lessons learned from his father, who died last year, at 92.

“My father and I worked together for 35 years, up to his passing,” Mitchell says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better business partner, and the great thing is, he was my father, too.”

Innovating in both careers

There have been some recent developments at GHM — sort of to 2019 what direct mail marketing was to 1982.

Mitchell’s company last year launched GHM Craft, which fills an insurance gap for craft breweries, brewfests and related businesses. The creation of GHM’s James Sanborn, it has worked with 200 businesses in 21 states on insurance needs.

That spirit of adaptation Mitchell learned from his father is still strong.

Sanborn is a craft beer aficionado, and his knowledge of both craft brewing and insurance put him in a unique position, Mitchell says.

“I’ve tried to encourage my team to take something they personally enjoy and identify needs,” he says.

The company is developing a similar program for campgrounds, spearheaded by agent Martha Wentworth.

Paul Mitchell also had a side hustle as a residential property developer, and Mitchell carries that on, too, with PJM Property Management LLC, specializing in commercial development.

Side hustle doesn’t do it justice. Mitchell owns 12 properties with 18 buildings, comprising 130,000 square feet with 43 commercial tenants.

His projects have attracted businesses that have added more than 100 jobs, according to the Central Maine Growth Council, which named him “Developer of the Year” last year.

Hometown impact

All of Mitchell’s developments are in Waterville. “I love Waterville,” he says.” I love its history. I’m thankful to be part of it.”

Mitchell understands the importance high-impact projects have on the character of the community, says Garvan Donegan, executive director of the growth council.

Donegan cites Mitchell’s downtown projects and his “continued investment in the broader community” and their importance to Waterville’s economic momentum.

After a decades-long decline in population, the city’s economy is turning around, with a big boost from Colby College’s focus on downtown. But Mitchell was investing in the city of 16,600 long before Colby’s recent investment.

Mitchell fell in love with commercial development when he and his father partnered on a commercial project in 2001.

A few years later, the younger Mitchell bought GHM’s Main Street building.

Over the years, he’s bought and rehabbed distressed property across Waterville.

A recent project was last year’s addition of a 13,500-square-foot building at Penny Hill Park, a commercial complex on Kennedy Memorial Drive that he bought in 2012.

He is also renovating the 27,000-square-foot former American Legion post on College Avenue into an event center than will accommodate 500, space the city has lacked.

When talking about his projects, Mitchell frequently says, “It’s a great property, it just needed a little TLC.”

Mitchell is “bullish on Waterville and its citizens,” says Kim Lindlof, executive director of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce. “He believes in a bright future and has invested accordingly.”

Mitchell also created the Boys & Girls Club-YMCA backpack program, which provides weekend food to 125 children, and last year led a fundraising effort to make funding sustainable.

A full circle

Lindlof says Waterville wouldn’t be what it is “without the influence and business acumen of the Mitchell family.”

“Billy Mitchell has not only continued his family’s tradition, but built upon it with thoughtful investment and community-oriented economic development support,” she says.

Mitchell recently answered the city’s request for qualifications for a mixed-use development at Head of Falls, a long-vacant 20-acre lot along the Kennebec River.

The area was once part of the Lebanese neighborhood his father’s family grew up, including Bill’s uncle, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

Mitchell’s father was the city’s urban renewal director from 1966 to 1978, when the mill on the Head of Falls site was razed.

The city has yet to make a decision about a developer. Mitchell says his project is “ambitious.” Even if he’s not chosen, he wants some role in developing the site.

When he looks at it, he sees “beautiful green space about to be redeveloped.”

He also sees a full circle — his father’s old neighborhood and the lessons he imparted to his son. “It all helped me get to where I am today,” he says.

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