ST. PETERSBURG — His imprint on the Tampa Bay area is as massive as the concrete and steel buildings he erected. William Mills Sr., who founded what was once Florida's largest construction company and built some of the area's most visible landmarks, died Sunday. He was 98.
His companies, Mills and Jones Construction Co. and Federal Construction Co., built power plants, hospitals, colleges and airports. Among his projects are the Anheuser-Busch brewery and part of the original Busch Gardens, WestShore Plaza, a renovation of Al Lang Field, and part of the Bay Pines VA Medical Center.
With an Eagle Scout's ingenuity and sharp business sense, Mr. Mills turned Federal Construction into the city of St. Petersburg's go-to contractor and a model for other companies around the state.
In 1946, he opened Mills and Jones at Fourth Avenue S and 23rd Street with just 10 employees. His $400,000 bid as general contractor of the Maas Brothers building won the job, worth $5 million to his company. He pulled it off while supervising 150 workers, battling heavy rains and learning new techniques.
Other Mills and Jones projects include the construction of Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College) in the early 1960s and a renovation to Albert Whitted Airport.
His biggest successes came in the mid 1970s, after he formed the nonunion Federal Construction Co.
"We were essentially the last major company in Central Florida to go nonunion," said William Mills Jr., 69, Mr. Mills' son and a former Federal chairman.
Mr. Mills and his son phased out Mills and Jones, and Federal started managing construction jobs for the city of St. Petersburg in 1980, starting with the Salvador Dali Museum. Federal oversaw the conversion of a city-owned warehouse near Bayboro Harbor.
That job led to many others for Federal as the city's preferred contractor and seemed to spawn new projects. The company's contracts in the early 1980s included an addition to St. Anthony's Hospital; an air cargo building at Tampa International Airport; a space-booster building at Cape Canaveral; and the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport.
The Federal resume also lists a $116 million project for the Bay Pines VA Medical Center, and projects for the St. Petersburg Times, the Tampa Tribune, Florida Power Corp. and Eckerd Drug Co.
His civic activities were equally diverse. Gov. Ferris Bryant in 1964 appointed Mr. Mills to the Florida Council of 100, and he stayed active in it for 30 years. He was the first Floridian to be named to the board of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and also served on the boards of banks and hospitals. A friend of August Busch Jr., he sat on the board of the St. Louis Cardinals and owned two World Series rings as a result.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., Mr. Mills came to Tampa in 1914 and graduated from Plant High School in 1928. He graduated from MIT in 1934 and moved to St. Petersburg two years later. His first major job with the R.E. Clarson construction company was St. Petersburg City Hall, completed in 1939.
Mr. Mills partnered with Clarson to form Clarson and Mills, which built military facilities during World War II.
"Bill Mills was a high-spirited, abrupt and irreverent achiever who must have been one of the more rough-and-tumble personalities to come out of starchy MIT," Eugene Patterson, editor emeritus of the Times, wrote in an e-mail. "In addition to being a can-do buccaneer in business, he was a rewarding and reliable friend."
The late 1980s were hard on Federal. Competition reduced the available jobs, and the company came under fire for late work on several projects. Trafalgar House, a British construction firm, bought Federal in 1988. William Mills Jr. continued the family business with University Housing Services.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.