Millionaire gun guru was talked into running for governor by opponent
Published: April 30, 2010 at 7:06 am
There are several answers — he’s a National Rifle Association board member. He’s a successful communications tycoon. He’s the owner of Gunsite, a tactical firearms training school in Paulden. He wants to be Arizona’s next governor. And he’s willing to spend a lot of money to get there.
He’s also a businessman who was found by a judge to have defrauded a former business partner. Mills said no fraud took place, and notes that the lawsuit was ultimately settled out of court. This interview was conducted before that information came to light.
Mills has spent more than $1 million introducing himself to voters with a television advertising blitz. But compared to his well-known opponents, most of whom have been part of Arizona’s political scene for decades, he is mostly unknown. Mills sat down with the Arizona Capitol Times to discuss the millions he made in the business world, why he left it all behind and why, after 66 years, he decided to try his hand at politics.
First of all, how did you get the nickname ‘Buz?’
My mother’s brother, my uncle, was a Navy pilot in World War II, and he brought that name home with him on one of his trips. It just stuck.
In the early ’90s, I had been called that for almost 50 years … so I went down to the court and signed up to get it made an official name. The judge said, “Since you’ve had it that long, you can keep it.”
Does anyone actually call you “Owen?”
No. Only people who don’t know me. When you have salespeople call up in the office and they ask for Owen, you know that’s someone hustling something.
You started off in the construction business after you got out of the Marine Corps. Did you go to college?
I went to college for a couple years. And I didn’t have any money. And I wanted to get on with my life. So after two years — and I was down to like 175 lbs. — working eight hours a day and going to class full time and not eating, it was a pretty good grind, so I just passed on the rest of it.
Where did you go to school?
In Virginia at a little private school. The name of it was Frederick College, and it was a private school operated by the Beazley Foundation. And what happened, they lost their … accreditation, so I decided I would go on and get on with my life.
You made millions in the telecommunications industry. How did you get your start?
I started working evenings and weekends out of my garage, maintaining communications equipment out of my garage for contractors and fire departments and police departments, stuff like that. We were in a rural area, and there wasn’t any service available, so I was able to start up a little service company. That was in 1971 or ’72.
That grew from one business to the next to the next to the next. It was really exciting because the industry back then was vacuum tubes, so I was in it from vacuum tubes to Blackberries.
How did you move from the construction industry, where you were working before you started your business, to telecommunications?
That’s all I knew how to do. The heavy construction industry, the bridge-building industry, it would be an understatement to call it capital intensive, but my vocabulary is inadequate to express more than that. It’s just gazillions of dollars for boats and cranes and equipment like that, whereas what I started doing was relatively inexpensive from a capital standpoint to get into.
How did you learn the trade?
Since the mid-’50s I had been into amateur radio. It had been a hobby. And I just self-taught, if you will, electronic theory and that sort of thing.
When I was a youngster we were in Norfolk. My dad had a shortwave radio and I used to listen to the Navy, the ships coming in out of the harbor. I listened to the airplanes at the naval air station. We lived right next to the base, so I could hear all that kind of stuff. And I thought that was kind of neat. And then I wanted to be able to communicate with other people, and so I got interested in amateur radio, got licensed and learned that stuff. Again, it was all self-taught.
Did you ever think your business would be as successful as it turned out to be?
I think so. … From the mid-’50s, when I first got involved in amateur radio, you could see the direction. And so what you have to do, you’re in an industry here that’s unique — and I’m sure you do the same thing — you learn everything there is to know about your industry and the trends and the directions and the projections.
In that industry you could see what was coming … so what I tried to do throughout my time was stay ahead of the curve, stay ahead of knowing what’s coming down the road, be in a position to take advantage of the opportunities as they presented themselves.
You left Florida and the telecommunications business for Arizona when you bought Gunsite. Why did you want to buy the firearms school?
I had been a competitive shooter all my life, and in the early ’90s, late ’80s I came out and I trained at Gunsite. I had met the fellow who started it, Jeff Cooper, who started it in 1976.
He sold it to another guy … and then in ’99 he called me up. My wife was about to disown me because I had gotten out of the communications business on Jan. 1, 1999, and she figured I had been hanging around the house long enough by June, when this guy called.
I knew the business. I knew the people. And I had the opportunity to look at it and decided that it was a worthwhile investment.
But why leave the telecommunications business?
A company came to town. They decided they wanted to buy my assets in the communications industry. I said OK, so I sold it to them and I was looking for something to do. I just figured I can do this and live here on the ranch and finally get to Arizona, where I always wanted to get to. Everything just lined up right.
When I got out of the communications industry I had a non-compete agreement that was going to go on for five or six years. When you start off into these things, you have to have a business plan. So we had an exit strategy. It was a normal business plan, a normal, routine course of events.
What’s your daily routine look like — when you’re not running for governor, of course?
I’m usually in the office around 6:30 on the ranch. We train people in self defense and we train soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen. Small unit tactics and marksmanship, safety. We train a lot of civilians in those issues as well. And I usually come in around 6:30 and greet people when they come in in the morning.
I spend a lot of time training employees to represent the company and to become trainers, to teach people to do business. Then my day would end around 4 or 4:30. I would trek back up the mountain, go home and spend the evening with my wife and (my cocker spaniels, Raven and Hugin).
How different is that from when you were in telecommunications?
There you’re up at 4:30 or 5, and every day you’re somewhere else. You get home at 8 or 9 o’clock every night. And that was seven days a week. I did that for five years down there.
So when did the idea of running for governor first occur to you?
Last October, or November, somewhere along in there, I was talking with a fellow who turned out to be an opponent about what’s going on — why are we in such a mess? Why is Arizona, with unlimited sunshine, the finest climate in the world, all of our assets, why are we having such a budget problem?
So I got to looking into it a little bit more and a little bit more. I have friends in the Legislature, people who I’d worked with during their campaigns and stuff like that, and I said, “Tell me about this more. What is this?”
So they started explaining some to me and I said, “Well you know, I think I can fix this.” The only reason they can’t balance the budget is they don’t have the will. No guts.
Everybody knows that we have 2006 revenues and we need to have 2006 expenditures. And that’s the solution to the problem. How many times do you sit around your kitchen table and say, “Well, I made $20,000 this year. I think I’ll spend 30.”
That’s what it was. The bottom line is I don’t see anybody out there who can fix it. It’s not good for business. It’s not good for Arizona. It’s unhealthy.
You said you got the idea to run while talking to one of your current opponents. Which one of them inadvertently pushed you into the race?
I’ll tell you what — I will let you speculate on that. There’s only 19 of us signed up on the Republican side, you know.
You’ve never run for office before, but what kind of political activities have you been involved in?
I always donated to candidates who I thought were worthy of my hard-earned money.
I was a delegate to the straw poll in Florida in ’96. They had like a convention, a state convention, and the different county organizations would send delegates. I was a delegate for Sarasota County in ’96 to the straw poll. I think I voted for Phil Graham.
You went from political unknown to hot commodity in January when you put $2 million of your own money into your campaign. How much of an advantage does it give you to have those kinds of financial resources at your disposal?
I’m a real guy. For decades, I honest to God really worked these hands bloody, many, many, many, many days, from the time I was 20 years old. I was fortunate. I knew my industry, and I knew where I was going, and I had the ability to stay ahead of the curve, if you will, and I made a couple of bucks at it. There’s no question about that. And if my opponents don’t have the same depth of resources that I have, maybe they should’ve done something different. I worked really hard to get to where I am.
There was a reward there. But I’m going to spend a little bit of it for this job to give a whole lot back to the state … that I adopted.
UpCloser with Buz Mills
A lot of famous people have trained at Gunsite. Who were your favorites?
On Sept. 12, at about 7 o’clock in the morning, in 2001, when I got out of my pickup and walked to the door of my office, I had an FBI agent sitting there. And he said, “I want to see the records of everybody you have trained.” And I said, “Nope. You give me a letter from the judge. and I’ll show you the records.”
My point is, I’ve got a confidentiality that I’ve got to maintain. But let me tell you this — all the big-name Hollywood stars that you’ve heard that have been to Gunsite, that’s true. They’ve been there. Heads of state, kings, princes, crown princes, queens have been to Gunsite. We have trained flag officers from every service. We have trained special operations people from every service.
What’s your favorite gun to shoot?
I’ve competed with rifles and pistols and shotguns, and my preference is I like pistol shooting because it’s the most difficult. It requires the most work, the most dedication of all of it.
What do you usually carry?
Bigger is better. It depends on the occasion. Probably a .45 automatic would be the most common.
Who’s your favorite historical figure?
Probably the founders. Pick one – Jefferson, Adams, Washington. One of those guys. These guys started with nothing, and 235 years later, here we are.
What’s the last book you read?
The last book I read was probably “Atlas Shrugged,” for the third time.