Technically speaking

Technology can be a blessing and a curse.

According to Mills/James Productions Co-founder and CEO Cameron James, the company’s market has expanded thanks to the Internet, but keeping up with technology means continually reinvesting in equipment and software.

“We can work with clients anywhere in the world and post the work on the Web,” says 55-year-old James.

And it takes a big chunk of money to stay current — the company spends about $1 million a year on technology.

Technology also allows the Columbus-based company to collaborate with people around the world, adds Ken Mills, co-founder and president. But it is this capability that has raised customers’ expectations.

“The Internet keeps things moving at lightning speed,” says Mills, 58. “Customers want that pace. They want you to be creative and work quickly.”

The company’s geographical market isn’t the only one that has expanded. Technology has also had a big impact on the services the company offers. Mills/James offers corporate customers audio/video solutions for meetings and events, video teleconferencing, and training and marketing videos, and also serves independent producers and institutional clients.

What technology has had the biggest impact on your industry and your company, and why?

James: Fundamentally, technology allows us to work at a distance. The Internet has fundamentally changed how we work with our clients.

We can work with clients in another state or anywhere in the world. We can post the work on the Web, whether it’s animation, graphic design work or scripts. It’s opened a large number of markets to us.

And because of the Internet, the speed of working has changed. When we lived in a postal and fax world, we worked at a slower pace. Now we can collaborate with teams of people around the country and tie the work together via computer.

It keeps things moving at lightning speed. And clients want us to be creative and work quickly.

Mills: We are doing an increasing number of distance meetings. Companies are seeing more advantages to letting meeting participants stay in their own cities and get connected via satellite the Internet or video conferencing.

How do you stay ahead of the technology curve?

James: We have a staff of talented people who want to work with the latest technology. They stay in touch with what’s out there through their peers and trade shows, and they are aware of the trends.

They are the ones that push us. They want the latest technology and push it in our faces all the time. To keep us up-to-date, we traditionally spend $1 million a year in new technology. The only way to keep up is to constantly reinvest.

We just spent $300,000 on a new control room. It’s easy to spend $500,000 on editing. We’ve always taken money out of our profits and put a big chunk in technology to stay current. For at least the last five years, we’ve been involved in a transition to digital. Any new investments we are making are in digital technology.

Mills: The speed of change in technology is faster than it used to be. It used to be that we were purchasing a lot of new hardware. Now technology is becoming more software based, so changes come faster. Digital drives everything these days, although there are certain analog solutions that customers still want to use.

How has technology changed your role with customers?

James: Technology speeds up the work, allowing us to do more, quicker, and with a larger number of clients. Most of our clients have the in-house ability to create videos, but they come to us looking for a particular talent or creative ideas.

Mills: It’s a speed issue for the most part. Clients want the work done faster and cheaper. Everything moves much faster in Internet time.

Is it hard to find employees who have the technical skills needed for the work you do, and are schools keeping up with the changing production technology?

James: We started a program called Pre-Pro. It gives a six-month paid job to a person right out of college. We work with a number of colleges and universities and get a lot of resumes from people getting ready to graduate. We pick talented people to see if they have other talents and client skills we can use. Then we can extend the program another six months or hire the person full time.

Mills: We now have a generation that has grown up digitally from a technology perspective. There’s a young work force that is technically savvy. Schools are doing a good job with that, and they are turning out technically smart people these days. The people/client skills we can teach.

Has technology changed the company’s plans for the future?

James: We have access to technology only dreamed about years ago, and as costs come down, we can use tools that previously only the West Coast or New York City could do. We can do amazing things that were only done in Hollywood before. It’s fun for us to be able to do that, and it gives you great opportunities.

Mills: Technology changes so fast, it’s hard to plan too far out — that’s one of our biggest challenges. Who can predict in the next five years what tools we will use? Many of the tools we’re using now weren’t conceived five years ago.

At some point, we developed a culture that embraces change. We have some broad ideas, but new solutions are being developed all the time. Clients are looking to us for a solution to a problem, so we’ll use current technology or new technology being developed.

What are the company’s biggest challenges in the next five years?

James: It is hard to project out. The industry is in the midst of a revolution. Lots of things are challenging. Long-held beliefs are changing — understanding where they are taking you is the biggest challenge. But some things don’t change, like providing solutions to problems.

Technology is the tool we use to do that. We generally get the best and brightest people in the company together and evaluate new technology together.

We have enough bright people that we don’t make too many wrong decisions.

Are there plans to expand into other markets?

James: There’s growth potential in many of the areas we’re good at — audio/visual, Web site development and interactive kiosks. We have one of our kiosks at the Jack Nicklaus Museum and another in CNN’s world headquarters.

There’s huge potential for more business in just that area. We will continue to market all our services and focus on the ones that have the best response.

Mills: I think we’re always weighing where the opportunities are geographically and otherwise. We created a new pledge program for PBS that is running nationally and is getting very good feedback.

We’re branching into areas that are not what we’d thought we’d be in. We feed the Fox television network the show “From the Heartland” and that is creating other opportunities in broadcasting.

One opportunity leads to another, and you never know where it could lead. We have expanded our audio/visual contracts with major hotels and launched a series of training programs. Seventy percent of what we do is for an internal audience of a company.

There are things we’ve done that we weren’t planning on going into, but we did them because a customer asked us to.

What are your biggest personal challenges in running the company?

James: Both identifying and hiring the right people. We view ourselves as a service business, and we want employees to have good client skills. All the talent in the world is not enough without good client skills.

So finding the best, brightest people who are also fundamentally nice is a constant challenge. And my other big personal challenge is dealing with Ken.

Mills: Personally I have no challenges. I sleep like a baby — I wake up every two hours and cry. Just trying to balance everything — staying on top of a number of industries, each with its own issues — is a tremendous amount to keep up with, especially when change is so rapid. How to reach: Mills/James Productions, (614) 777-9933 or