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AFP 2015 Preview: W Mitchell on Preparing for What’s Next

  • By Andrew Deichler
  • Published: 9/8/2015
Mitchell2Treasury and finance professionals have become familiar with black swan events over the past several years. They come out of nowhere, and sometimes, they have the potential to wipe out everything you’ve achieved.

If anyone knows a thing or two about overcoming devastating incidents, it’s 2015 AFP Annual Conference speaker W Mitchell.

As a young man, W. Mitchell served as a U.S. Marine and later as cable car gripman in San Francisco. But two devastating accidents just four years apart—a motorcycle accident and a plane crash—left him with burns over 65 percent of his body and paralyzed from the waist down. Determined to maintain control over his life and move forward, Mitchell became an internationally acclaimed mayor, a successful business man and a congressional nominee from Colorado.

AFP recently spoke with Mitchell about his experiences, and what to expect from his session.

AFP: Can you talk a bit about your session at the AFP Annual Conference? What would you say is your primary message?

W Mitchell:
My universal message is, it’s not what happens to you; it’s what you do about it. There are six key words that I touch on during a talk, which include choices, responsibility, perspective, focus, courage and honesty. Basically, those are the areas that I cover. It’s really a message about changing your focus from what’s past to what’s next. The less time we spend looking in the rearview mirror, the more time we have to spend looking out the windshield of life and determining not only where we are but where we’re going.

It’s a message about putting yourself back in charge. We wander off sometimes, and even when we’re wandering, sometimes the most successful people are the ones who can enjoy the scenery on a detour. Obviously, I’ve had the two experiences in my life of being burned and being paralyzed, and I’ve also had the experiences of being a mayor, running for Congress, running a very successful wood stove company, I drove cable cars in San Francisco. And so I’ve had lots and lots of experiences, a great deal of which has to do with personal choice.

AFP: You’ve worked in a number of different fields, becoming very successful in business and in politics. Can you tell me a bit about how you made those career transitions and how you became known as the “mayor who saved a mountain”?

I was living in Crested Butte, Colo. I had moved there from San Francisco after I was burned in 1971. I cofounded a business called Vermont Castings. Initially, our products were wood-burning stoves. This started in July of 1975. And then that November, I broke my back in an airplane accident and was paralyzed. I came back to Crested Butte and a couple years later, they asked me to serve on our town council.

The AMAX Corporation, now Phelps-Dodge, discovered a huge molybdenum deposit in Crested Butte and were exploring the idea of building a mine there. It would have torn down the mountain behind the town and we were a very successful ski resort/environmental/wilderness economy. Creating a boomtown didn’t seem like the best idea to me, so I ran for mayor. I won by 20 votes. In a town that size, it’s not as amazing as it sounds. So the next two terms, I announced that I would go into negotiations with the CEO of the world’s biggest mining company to share ideas and see what was appropriate and what wasn’t. In other words, I led the battle to tell them, “No, thanks.”

Four years after my election and garnering national and international attention, the mining company announced that they weren’t going to build the mine after all. A headline ran that I was “the mayor who saved a mountain”. I always loved that, and I love to brag about that. But of course, the headline’s not true; it was the community that saved the mountain. It was a whole bunch of people who cared passionately about their homes, their families, their schools and their recreation industry.   

AFP: We've seen people get knocked down and out in life at times by health issues and other life-altering events. For example, I’m sure that some treasury and finance professionals out there wanted to just give up after the 2007-2008 financial crisis. But here you are, a man who has survived two life-altering incidents, and you've accomplished so much and are such an inspiration to so many people. What advice can you give to people who are struggling? What do you say to them to help them keep going?

There are a lot of people out there in mental wheelchairs, and there’s no visible indication. There are a lot of people with internal scars. There aren’t many of us who go through life without getting whacked somehow; whether it’s the end of a relationship, a business failing or the economy going nuts. A whole variety of challenges can appear in someone’s life and some people say it’s not fair and it shouldn’t happen, but life’s not fair. Life is life. And in my experience, life is wonderful. Sometimes you hit potholes and bumps. Sometimes the bridge is out. Something you thought was going to be a certain way didn’t turn out that way. That’s just part of the ride.

Was being burned awful? God, yes. But that’s a long time ago, and I don’t have any memory of the pain or the difficulties in it. There were some, of course. But there has also been some interesting, great stuff. But—and I’m not saying this is easy—what if you can find ways to learn some lessons from it? What if it can become a building experience?

I’m sure a ton of people at the AFP Annual Conference have been through some rough stuff—a business failure, a displacement from their job—but that’s life. Life’s a rollercoaster. But overwhelmingly, it’s a wonderful rollercoaster. The bottom line is that life is filled with choices. Frequently, we land where we are because of choices we’ve made. And sometimes, it has nothing to do with the choices we’ve made; it just happened. But the most important thing is, we get the power to choose what’s next.

Don’t Miss W Mitchell at the 2015 AFP Annual Conference. Register for the conference here.

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