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Mitchum '75 pays it forward

February  27, 2013

To show his appreciation for the life-changing internship he had as a senior at Augustana, Robert Mitchum ’75 extends internships to students at the $10 billion distribution services company where he is president and CEO. Last spring, he planned to hire one summer intern from Augustana but was so impressed by the students he interviewed, he hired five. Three of them are now full-time employees.

“Robert Mitchum is very bullish on Augustana,” according to Karen Petersen, the college’s director of business internships.

At Augustana, Mitchum’s mentor was S. James Galley, the beloved accounting professor who taught thousands of students from 1952 to 1986. “Something clicked at our first meeting,” Mitchum remembered. “I had a two-year degree from Black Hawk College, I was married, and he under-stood that I was different from the average Augustana student. He was the epitome of a great teacher.”

Galley encouraged Mitchum to find an internship with a public accounting firm his senior year. Mitchum’s first choice was Arthur Andersen LLP in Chicago, and he was Arthur Andersen’s first choice. Before completing his three-month internship during winter term, he was offered a full-time position.

Landing first 'real world' job

As graduation drew closer, Alexandra Hartigan ’12 was unsure of her next step. When Network Services Company offered her a paid summer internship in marketing, she didn’t hesitate. That internship led her to a permanent position in sales and marketing.

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“Two years prior, I had no thoughts of leaving the Quad Cities, and no idea I’d be working in accounting,” said Mitchum, who grew up in the Quad Cities and was the first in his family to graduate from high school. “The internship changed my life. I found something I was good at and something I liked.”

For 18 years, Mitchum began his workday at Arthur Andersen’s down-town Chicago office. He worked exclusively in the firm’s small business division called the Enterprise Group, helping primarily family-owned, closely held and fast-growing companies. He helped these entrepreneurs efficiently use resources to support growth, obtain financing and go public.

For Mitchum, however, it wasn’t just about the numbers. He enjoyed working with aspiring businesspeople, who often were second- and third-generation managers of family-owned businesses. In 1986, he became head of the Chicago Enterprise Group.

“I understood the evolution of a company going from a startup, selling out of the back of a car, and the owners mortgaging their homes to keep the business going,” Mitchum said. “I admired that kind of sacrifice and passion, and that’s what got me interested in business.”

In 1993, Mitchum left Arthur Andersen to become the CFO of Discovery Zone, a fast-growing chain of indoor playgrounds for children. He was part of a management group that helped Discovery Zone grow from 400 to 8,000 employees in three years and complete a successful IPO (initial public offering). After the company was sold to Blockbuster Video in 1995, APAC Teleservices in Chicago came to Mitchum for his help with its public offering.

After two years as APAC’s senior vice president of finance, Mitchum felt it was time for a change. He brought his expertise and experience home and helped his wife, Beverly, start a clothing resale business in the Chicago suburbs — initially one store, then a move to a bigger store and finally a second store.

“I worked 60 hours a week for a year, and it was a great experience, but it didn’t pay well,” Mitchum joked.

He joined Network Services Company as its CFO in 1999, and was elected the company’s CEO in 2008. To date, Network has grown into a $10 billion organization with operations throughout North America and Europe.

Network is a distribution and supply chain management company made up of more than 70 member-distributors of janitorial, sanitation and foodservice disposable supplies that sell to companies in industries that include commercial real estate, healthcare, foodservice, industrial, commercial printing and the public sector.

In Mitchum’s words, “We’re the largest buyer and seller of toilet paper in North America and Europe.”

What Mitchum likes is that Network has brought him full-circle to his roots in the accounting and business world. He’s again involved with growing businesses and helping them find success in a competitive marketplace. Plus, he can help Augustana business and accounting students land that all-important internship in a tough job market, and find quality employees at the same time.

“Augustana was such an important part of my life — a great school,” Mitchum said. “I want to do what I can to give back.”