The University of Texas at Tyler Magazine - Fall 2010
Promoting Truth and Fairness
Mills Finds Her Niche
as Better Business Bureau President/CEO
As shoppers were lining up to purchase a sleek new tablet computer hailed as magical and revolutionary, scam artists were devising ways to take advantage of all the excitement. Mechele Agbayani Mills was busy too, alerting the public to iPad deals that were too good to be true – such as the bogus offer to receive the device free in exchange for testing one.
Through interviews with the media and public announcements, including her weekly column in a regional daily newspaper, she keeps East Texans informed about unethical marketplace behavior and offers advice for savvy consumerism.
Consumer education is just one facet of her work to promote truth, fairness and marketplace best practices through the Better Business Bureau of Central East Texas.
The University of Texas at Tyler graduate found her niche when she joined the agency as president and chief executive officer in September 2009. She combines her knack for multi-tasking with her business experience and university studies in journalism, public relations and business management to lead the organization, which serves 19 counties with headquarters in Tyler and a branch office in Longview.
“She is the exact combination of seasoned executive and savvy leader that the board was looking for, and we are thrilled to have attracted someone with her background to the BBB,’’ Jim Lozier, BBB-Central East Texas’ 2009 board chairman, said in announcing Mills’ appointment.
“The board is united in its view that her energetic leadership style, along with a proven track record of driving growth and operational excellence, will help the organization to reach its full potential.’’
Mills went to work after finishing high school in the late ‘80s in Houston, eventually managing an Austin pharmacy and Houston advertising agency. Promising her grandfather she’d return to school and earn a degree, she entered UT Tyler at age 33. One who enjoys new challenges, she not only pursued a bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis in public relations, but also joined the Patriot cross country team -- and was nominated for Athlete of the Year.
She graduated in December 2005 and was hired by the Smith County Appraisal District in Tyler. Working full time, she also pursued a master of business administration degree at Baylor University. And she found time to teach at Tyler’s Premier Fitness, where she still teaches indoor cycling.
Mills completed her master’s in 2009 and by then had advanced to director of administration at SCAD. But her dream was to work in the nonprofit sector.
“I’ve always been interested in nonprofit work and wanted to do something that would benefit society and be fulfilling, so working for the Better Business Bureau appealed to me,’’ she said.
“And when I learned they needed someone with a business background and some media experience, I knew it would be a good fit for me. Along with the financial responsibilities for which a CEO typically is responsible, I do the marketing and public relations for the organization, I write lots of press releases and articles, so all of my journalism comes into play and my connections with the media are very helpful,’’ said Mills, who went from intern to weekend news producer at a local television station while attending UT Tyler.
BBB-Central East Texas serves as an authority on trust in the marketplace. In addition to distributing consumer and business education, tips and alerts, the organization sets and upholds standards for ethical marketplace behavior and serves as a resource for information on businesses and charities. BBB reliability and wise giving reports help citizens make informed purchasing or donation decisions. The bureau also offers dispute resolution programs for consumers and businesses.
“We serve as a bridge between businesses and consumers,’’ Mills said. “We do what we can to protect our community from unethical practices. We make sure companies that come to our area are ethical and, if they’re not, we make sure the public knows.
“And I love going out and talking with people in our community, including our senior citizens. We have a large population of seniors in the area, and seniors are frequently targeted by scam artists and cons. We also are working more these days with young people who are transitioning from high school to college, because they also are targets. We want to help them make good decisions as they become adults,’’ she said.
“There’s a lot to do at the Better Business Bureau but the work is very rewarding, always worthwhile.’’
A Promise Kept
Born in the Philippines, Mills was 6 months old when her parents, Romeo and Myrla Agbayani, moved from Manila to Chicago. She was 8 when the family relocated to Houston. Both registered nurses, the Agbayanis instilled in their children a strong work ethic. Mills has one sister, Mariel, a Texas State University graduate in art who manages a women’s apparel retail store in San Antonio and teaches art lessons.
“My parents work so hard to this day. They’re retired now but they’re just as busy as ever,’’ said Mills. “I’m not the smartest person in the world but I work hard at everything I do and I don’t give up; my sister is the same way. We learned that from our parents.’’
Her grandfather studied auto mechanics in trade school and worked as a mechanic for the Philippine government for many years. He and his wife worked hard to see that their children received a good education. They wanted the same for their grandchildren.
Mills took some junior college courses in Austin and Houston before deciding to focus just on work. She enjoyed working in management and was paid well. Still, her grandfather urged her to return to school.
“Lolo (grandfather in Filipino) had a stroke in 1997 and when I flew to Canada to see him in the hospital, he made me promise that I would receive my bachelor’s degree. He passed away shortly after that visit, but I wanted to keep my promise to him. I knew how important it was to him.’’
She’s glad she kept the promise.
UT Tyler Memories
When a doughnut shop came up for sale in Gladewater, about 25 miles from Tyler, she saw it as her opportunity to attend school. Realizing UT Tyler was within driving distance, she moved from Houston to Gladewater and purchased the downtown doughnut shop to cover expenses while she attended the university.
“I bought the doughnut shop because I thought, I’ll shut the doors at 11 o’clock and then I’ll go to school. I tried that, but anybody who has owned a business knows that even though you shut your doors at a certain time, you never stop working. So I took courses part time for a while but finally decided I just needed to attend school full time and finish. I sold the business and lived mainly off of those earnings until I got my degree.’’
Mills enjoyed each and every class, especially those taught by former UT Tyler journalism professors Dr. Dennis Robertson and Dr. Joseph Loftin and former UT Tyler speech communication professor Dr. Yvonne Thrash.
“Dr. Robertson is the one who really got me interested in public relations. Dr. Conaway really made you want to learn and is such a great man. Dr. Thrash was tough but I learned so much from her about public speaking. And I believe I learned the greatest quantity of information from Dr. Loftin. He was extremely knowledgeable.’’
After selling her shop, she still found plenty to occupy her time outside the classroom, from working part time at the television station to teaching indoor cycling at UT Tyler’s Harrington Patriot Center, serving as a personal trainer at Premier Fitness and running cross country. She also handled advertising at the Patriot Talon student newspaper, all while taking 21 hours of classes.
While living in Austin, Mills took an interest in fitness and began running and lifting weights. She was running at UT Tyler one morning when cross country coach Bob Hepler approached her. “He said, ‘You run a pretty good pace. Want to join the cross country team?’ And I said, ‘Sure, why not!’’’ she recalled with a laugh.
“Being on the team was a good way to stay in shape because you had to run about seven miles a day. It was a good way to start the day, and I loved doing it.’’
She added, “I wasn’t the fastest runner on the team. I was definitely the oldest person on the team, which I did not make public information. But at my last race, one of my teammates came up and asked how old I was. I told her I was 35 and she said, ‘Wow, you’re older than my mom!’ In a way it made me feel good and in a way it made me feel … well, old,’’ she joked.
Mills made lots of friends at UT Tyler and keeps in touch with many of them. In fact, she married one of them last February.
Her husband Jeff, a 2006 graduate in journalism, worked with her at the Patriot Talon as a photographer. He now is the graphic designer for East Texas Medical Center Regional Healthcare System.