When Chuck Mitchell took over troubled GTO, he quickly realized that its most damaging inefficiencies were not in its processes or even its products. They were hidden in the hearts of its employees

He was only 12 then, but Chuck Mitchell can never forget it: he was tumbling through space, plummeting into a field with a fence around it, a pond, and -- peering through the dim light of dusk, he couldn't quite make it out -- either a horse or a cow. Feeling just seconds from death, with a cold sweat coating his chest, he let out a high-pitched scream for help.

It was just loud enough to wake him up. He sat bolt upright in his bed. For about a year he had been gripped by the same horrifying nightmare at least twice a week. Finally, his parents persuaded him to stop sleeping on his belly with his arms outstretched. "That seemed to make it go away," Mitchell says.

Until, that is, it happened.

He was a 19-year-old daredevil, taking his third jump of the afternoon. Though dusk had settled below, there was still plenty of light 15,000 feet above the ground. Mitchell jumped out of the plane and stretched out in a prone position, his arms wide and his legs spread. His two buddies had jumped just ahead of him, and the three planned to link hands across the sky. But when he looked down to find them, there was his childhood nightmare: the same pond, the familiar fence, even a grazing horse. "It was absolutely the field out of my memory," he says. "I froze up." He blew past his pals, so mesmerized by the field of dreams that he didn't hear their exhortations: "Open up! Open up!"

Less than 1,000 feet above the ground -- maybe it was divine intervention, or a deeply buried impulse for self-preservation -- he finally tugged the rip cord, giving his parachute barely enough time to inflate, so that he wouldn't be killed on impact. He took down a portion of fence, slitting his skin from heel to hind on both legs and fracturing his left leg. By the time his friends found him, lying in the soft, freshly plowed field, he had made up his mind: his skydiving career was kaput. "It was probably meant to teach me more than that," says Mitchell, now 42, "but I was too dumb to figure out what it was."

Not so. Actually, that very lesson -- a hearty respect for the world as a "mysterious place" in which "anybody who thinks they've got it all figured out is either a complete idiot or a liar" -- traveled with Mitchell from that day on. And the assumption that there was plenty he didn't know remained foremost in his mind late in 1993, when he took yet another daring leap into treacherous terrain.

This time he landed hard at GTO Inc., a deteriorating five-year-old maker of automatic gate openers based in Tallahassee, Fla. Only five months earlier, the company's energetic and charismatic 56-year-old founder, Lester M. Tabb, had suffered a fatal heart attack. Mitchell, a builder and real estate developer who had also invested $60,000 in his late friend's venture, stepped in at the behest of the 16-member board. He felt a heavy sense of obligation, he admits, because as a board member he had personally enlisted nearly every investor who had kicked in $25,000 or more.

He didn't have to know anything about manufacturing to see that this was one troubled company. In an average month GTO was raking in $250,000 in sales, $35,000 short of its break-even point. Dun & Bradstreet Corp. assigned its creditworthiness a ranking of 32; the average for the industry stood at 75. No surprise, perhaps, given the fact that GTO had no line of credit, and most suppliers would send wares only on a COD basis. Then there was the IRS, which had just stopped breathing down the company's neck after Tabb paid the back payroll taxes he'd eschewed for a year. From a financial perspective, notes chairman Laurie L. Dozier Jr., a retired cardiologist who has invested nearly $300,000 in the company, "I guess his death was a window of opportunity. I'm not sure what would have happened." Adds Wayne A. Payne, senior vice-president, "If Lester had lived another six months, GTO would have been bankrupt."

Things weren't good on the shop floor, either. Given Tabb's insistence that being an effective manager required him to bicycle through the factory while barking epithets at hapless workers -- commanding them to "work faster" or haranguing them for filing claims on the company's health-insurance policy -- employees avoided any interaction with him or simply quit. Jo Tubbs, who works on the assembly line, reports that "we saw quite a few people come and go. They left running, sometimes with Lester right behind them." W. Jay Payne, who worked as an outside designer for Tabb, recalls that "when you walked through, you could see that he managed by intimidation. He burned people out." So it was, too, with equipment. Tabb's budget for mold and machine repairs came to a nicely round number: zero.

Another person in Mitchell's position might have burnished the balance sheet by quickly lopping off 40% of GTO's 50 employees. Or he could have scoured the factory, looking to sell off equipment that was expensive to maintain. The computer insertion machine, for instance, could easily have fetched $150,000 in much-needed cash. Not only could GTO have outsourced its computer boards; it could also have stopped making its own motors. And surely it would have been prudent to restrict export sales, given their scrawny margins.

But Chuck Mitchell, again jumping into the unknown, found himself in the grips of another powerful vision that he could not shake -- one inspired not by buzzwords or best-sellers, consultants or convention, but by a much more powerful guide. He wanted to boost the numbers, sure, but the usual financial scorecard couldn't begin to capture the changes he had in mind.

To be honest, Mitchell wasn't even thinking about turning the company around. What he urgently needed to do, he knew, was to transform the culture.

* * *

"I want you all to know that I am going to be committed to making GTO a success," Mitchell said in his inaugural address to the company's employees, on December 7, 1993. "I am used to hard work, and I am used to success."

He paused for a moment and scanned the room. "They were shrugging with their eyes," he says. Soon a couple of hands shot up. Mitchell nodded at one of them. "How long?" the employee wanted to know. "How long will it take?"

Like investors and suppliers, employees had every reason to be impatient, as Mitchell well knew. When Tabb hadn't been "cracking the whip," as he labeled his rolling horror show, he'd been promising workers that they would soon be rolling, too -- in money. All those lifeless garage doors of an earlier epoch just craving automatic openers. And GTO offered the only version customers could install themselves. "It was his way of trying to motivate us," says Mark Deemer, a five-year veteran who serves as assembly supervisor. "But anybody in his right mind would know working in an atmosphere like this was not going to make you wealthy."

It wasn't going to make you healthy, either. Tabb, recalls Payne, argued against giving factory workers 10-minute breaks every two hours. They're already sitting down, he would protest. In 1992 the Department of Labor fined GTO for $18,000 in back pay, claiming Tabb had insisted hourly employees work extra hours without paying them overtime. And they weren't always filling gate-opener orders. Phil Wilkins, a former body-shop mechanic who now serves as director of research and development, assembly, and customer service, spent company time fixing Tabb's wrecked cars and restoring his antique-auto collection. Others mounted a basketball goal at his home, built a fence and a barn for his horses, and repaired his aquarium. "Lester would push you as far as you could be pushed," says Wilkins, who joined GTO nearly five years ago.

Now Tabb was gone, and the employees were pushing back. "How long?" The instant it was spoken, other hands immediately wilted. It was the one question everyone wanted answered.

Mitchell had presented as much of his blueprint as he felt ready to share. In essence, it amounted to this: "I do not have a 12-point plan," he said plainly. "But we are going to make things better."

Naturally, he had ambitions for GTO. He told the employees he hoped it would achieve the same recognition as the award-laden company he'd founded 20 years earlier, the improbably named Mad Dog Design & Construction Co. He spent some time lauding Wayne Payne, a popular manager who had brought several of Tabb's inventions to life, including Fan Fast, a device for hanging ceiling fans that for a time brought in $1 million a year, and the automatic gate opener that had launched GTO.

"You have seen more changes in the five months since Lester's death than you will see from me," Mitchell assured the employees. During that time, Lester's daughter Dana had stepped in; according to Payne, "We were running backwards faster than I could believe." Mitchell added that he wanted "to study the situation, get input from you all, and then make changes."

Later he would explain his speech -- which amounted to an appeal for help rather than a rah-rah rallying cry -- like this: "Many of us make the mistake that we feel as if we have to act like we know it all. But the bottom line is that you've got to look within yourself and within the people around you to come up with answers."

As Mitchell faced the GTO workforce, though, he wisely sensed that his audience was not feeling especially metaphysical. How long?

"Give us three months," he said.

* * *

Had Chuck Mitchell sought guidance in how to mend GTO, he might have hired Michael Heifetz, a consultant who specializes in organizational change.

"In a situation like that, you need to get people on your side," says Heifetz, who is based in Olympia, Wash. "You take an action that says to them, 'Hey, this place cares about you."

Or Mitchell could have hit the books, taking in modern management gospel from the likes of Tom Peters and Michael Hammer and maybe committing to memory the time-tested Harvard Change Formula: Ch = D x M x P > C, all of which boils down to saying that for change to be worth it, there must be plenty of discomfort, along with a vision of the future and some plan for getting there.

But by the time Mitchell arrived at GTO he had a much more commanding and unshakable guide: his own experience, which he firmly trusted. "Leaders who transform organizations are attuned to their own inner values," notes Jayme Rolls, a Santa Monica, Calif., consultant who has studied transformational leaders. "They see life from a higher plane. What drives them is seeing others grow and mature." Indeed, to Mitchell's way of thinking, the company's overriding inefficiency was its inability to tap into the inner reserves of its people. More than anything else, he needed to change that and to consult different measurements for his progress. (See "By the Numbers: A Cultural Turnaround," page 7.) It was a cultural turnaround, not a company turnaround, that interested Mitchell.

That distinction is not as subtle as it may sound. After all, GTO was riddled with inefficiencies. Check out, for example, the customer-service department -- if you could find him, that is. Is the finished-goods inventory running low? Nope. It's nonexistent. Tabb believed in a unique concept called just-past-time delivery, in which a large order from a demanding customer like Sam's Clubs would go out at the last minute, requiring everyone to work 24 hours straight. Hey, and how come salespeople are taking down orders for one gate opener rather than directing callers to a nearby dealer? Because with their base salaries, the salespeople need every cent of commission they can get.

Mitchell, a distinguished list maker, spent a few days identifying and prioritizing such obstacles and came up with 110 of them. How could customers take advantage of a 2% discount and still not pay within 30 days of invoicing? It was easy, since there were no procedures for keeping track of collection. Workers' compensation rates were sky-high because everyone in GTO's factory was classified as working with dangerous machinery. And general-liability and business-coverage insurance was 20% higher than it needed to be. Everywhere Mitchell looked, it seemed, he found waste. "I went home with my head in my hands," he says.

Another man might have slumped in his chair and cursed himself for diving into a veritable swamp of a company. Not Mitchell, though. He had, quite literally, lived in a swamp for two decades. And many of the lessons he had learned from the experience would come to bear as he sank to the task of remaking GTO.

When Mitchell, who is known to no one as Charles Burrell Mitchell III, searched for land in 1973, he chose a neighborhood frequented by snakes, wading birds, and alligators. (For confirmation of the latter's appetite, just whistle for Mitchell's three-legged dog, Joshua.) Mitchell says he picked the murky spot because "I knew it was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life."

Yet another visionary leap. Or was he stoned out of his gourd?

At the time, Mitchell was an antiwar activist with his hair wound into a ponytail. He came from a conservative family; his father served as an executive at Ford Motor Co. Despite the family's frequent moves -- or maybe because of them -- Mitchell had developed a portable identity as a serious swimmer, gracefully and speedily overcoming the resistance of water to set state records in the freestyle butterfly.

In fact, a swimming scholarship brought him to Florida State University, where he won a Wilson Fellowship to study for his Ph.D. in American history at Yale University. His goal: to return to Tallahassee to teach American studies, which had been his major. He was supposed to spend the summer of 1973, before entering Yale, in New Haven, helping to edit the papers of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

But a fateful meal at the old Sun Restaurant changed all that.

They were a bunch of kids -- some young professors, too -- and somehow they got to talking about buying themselves a big patch of land and working it like real pioneers: building roads, digging wells, pounding out houses. Mitchell, who had written his senior thesis on utopian communities, was absolutely enamored with the prospect. "For people involved in the environment and peace, the idea seemed like a very positive one," says Paul Elliot, then and now a biology professor at Florida State. "For a 20-year-old, Chuck had an amazing sense of knowing how he wanted to live." Farewell, New Haven. Howdy, Miccosukee Land Cooperative.

"Of course I was disappointed," says his father, Charles B. Mitchell Jr. "What father wouldn't be?" Indeed, Mitchell says his father did not talk to him for two and a half years. "It was real tough; we were very estranged," he recalls. His dad, who is known as Charlie, claims that Chuck is exaggerating. "I guess it seemed like a long time to Chuck," adds Chuck's mother, Polly, diplomatically. Responds Chuck, "My father just doesn't want to admit how pissed off I made him."

No one wins when a family splinters like that. Usually. Suffice it to say that Charlie Mitchell ultimately moved with his wife to Tallahassee and earned his real estate agent's license so he could work for Chuck. Brother John also made the move, bought a chunk of co-op land from Chuck, and now serves as a GTO vice-president and director of manufacturing support. "That's how forceful Chuck is," says Polly. "He is very definitely the leader of this family."

So it was that the boy who once convinced his fellow kindergartners that the apple juice they were drinking was actually beer came to serve as business coordinator of the effort to build a utopia just 21 miles from the Georgia border. Organized into work parties -- modeled on traditional Quaker barn raisings -- the group bought 240 acres and set the walls, rafters, roofs, and floors of 16 houses that first summer. Mitchell's was first, eventually incorporating such components as shrimp-boat keels, utility poles, railroad ties, and a cherry tree that was sculpted into a spiral stairway.

"Chuck was a leader by doing," recalls Elliot, whose home is about 100 yards away from Mitchell's. "He would just get on the tractor and develop a road, or set out working on his house. He elicits other people's involvement in a natural way. It's not a courtesy or a management style; it's how he is."

Laurie Dozier III -- son of GTO's chairman -- worked on Mitchell's house as a founding member of the co-op and later became his business partner. "Chuck could just will things into existence," says Dozier, a 44-year-old who confesses to having sported a basketball-size hairstyle in the co-op's early days. "His attention to every individual, his eye contact, the way he speaks directly to people, and the way he'll understand their plight and agenda make him a very persuasive person. He's a magnet."

Mitchell, for his part, chose to take lessons from the co-op not about his own power -- after all, he already knew there was plenty he did not know -- but about the capacities of others. "People intimidated by trusses and rafters were building houses, even when folks told us we were stupid," recalls Mitchell. "When you get people who never thought they could do something like that, and they do it, then they start thinking, 'Maybe I can do other things I thought I couldn't."

Further, Mitchell believed that the building of the co-op demonstrated that people with individual stakes could work together in teams to make unimagined progress. Although co-op members owned their own plots of land, they never lost sight of the larger aim: to create a community together and to live in harmony with big rats. Or with nature in general, which sometimes includes big rats in the form of beavers.

One day Mitchell's front yard flooded because beavers had built a dam in the creek that runs near his house. Instead of firing away at them -- and enjoying the pelts -- he tore down the dam and strung a transistor radio there, cranked up to a classic-rock station. All that loud music and all that mud; it was a virtual Woodstock '94 for aquatic rodents. "They moved on," reports Mitchell, who knew beavers were sensitive to sound. That kind of respect would form the foundation of the philosophy that Mitchell ultimately brought to GTO last year. But not before refining it with actual human beings.

Given the precision of Mitchell's construction skills, by 1974 he found himself in demand as a builder for hire. He slung a saw over his shoulder, grabbed a nail bag, and roll-started his 1962 pickup; "I was in hog heaven," he says. Make that dog heaven. Mitchell and a partner formed a construction business that would eventually be known as Mad Dog Design & Construction Co.

The company's competitive strategy was built on Mitchell's belief in teamwork through communication. Typically, building a custom project devolved into a finger-pointing contest between the architect and the builder, with each assuring the owner that the other was responsible for going over budget. But at Mad Dog, Mitchell insisted on working with architects and meeting with them regularly. He also sat down with the client once a week. "Everybody was on the same team, as opposed to the mentality of 'I'll make money out of every one of your screwups," Mitchell explains.

Within the company -- which grew to 75 employees and revenues of just under $10 million by the mid-1980s -- everybody gathered each Friday afternoon at 2 o'clock to talk about the past week and plan for the week ahead. Though Mitchell recognized that "the land co-op operated with more of a consensus than a business can," he wanted to replicate the feel of the co-op meetings, at which members had mulled over such matters as, say, the shape of the swimming pool. At the co-op all those who owned land -- even those who didn't live on it -- received a newsletter keeping them abreast of "the decision-making process," Mitchell says. Upon arriving at GTO, Mitchell installed a mosaic of meetings designed to promote communication between different levels and departments.

Mitchell firmly believed that it was not his job to coax people into working but rather to "make them comfortable" so they'd feel "we'll take care of you if you give us your best effort." In moves he would later duplicate at GTO, Mitchell offered Mad Dog employees disability insurance, and he gave many of them a personal stake in the form of company stock. Because he sought an "intelligent and committed workforce," Mitchell also encouraged carpenters to add new skills so they could earn their contractor's licenses. At last count 22 former Mad Dog employees had started their own contracting businesses. "I think it's neat," Mitchell says. "Of course, I don't think it's as neat when they take jobs from us." But, he adds, "you do the right thing, and that gets you stuff down the road."

And down that road Mitchell savors the view, surrounded by "dreams we had made into reality for people," as he puts it. One of those dreams, a few miles north on Highway 319, is Water Oak Plantation, an 80-acre site with a 7,500-square-foot home. It was 1979 when a Wall Street refugee came to Mitchell and his Mad Dog partner, the younger Laurie Dozier, and hired them to restore the place. He insisted on joining the crew himself, stripping shingles and digging ditches. There he was every day, loudly deciding and redeciding how he wanted that wall framed, or what color paint he liked. "Laying out a long-term plan and following that plan was never his strong suit," says Mitchell.

Even Mitchell's own lifelong plan -- which called for living in a swamp and managing "a business I loved" called Mad Dog -- would not survive his relationship with that man.

His name, of course, was Lester Tabb.

* * *

The Mitchell brothers were on their annual golf weekend when John Mitchell took the call. So groggy and unconvinced was he that he asked the caller to phone back and tell him again. The second time, it began to sink in: Lester had been struck by a heart attack while horseback riding. They had tried their best to revive him. "Chuck and I drove home in a weird, eerie silence," recalls John.

Five months later, in December 1993, Mitchell stepped in to run GTO.

By the time he did, he knew he had to come up with a new mission for the company -- not that he saw any need for a mission statement. "If you write it down, you feel you've dealt with it," explains Mitchell. "A mission is something you live and breathe everyday."

Certainly, he had a clear set of goals. Even before negotiating a salary with GTO's board, he insisted that it agree to put aside 5% of net profits in a profit-sharing plan. "But wait," protested accountant and board member Benson Skelton, "what if we make $1 million? That will come to a lot of money." Yes, it will, replied Mitchell, who got his way. Though he threatened otherwise, Mitchell admits, "I never even thought about not taking the job. This was a triage situation, and I was the handiest doctor standing around. Besides, they all looked at me like, 'You got us into this sucker. Now you get us out."

With his good name, he knew he could secure a $300,000 line of credit for GTO from the bank -- though he did not hesitate to tell folks that he had personally guaranteed it, believing that "people work off of guilt real well" -- and get a letter of credit, which would make suppliers more likely to deliver and would mean employees would waste less time getting checks cut. He could toughen up on collection by setting policies and hiring someone to follow them. A year ago 50% of accounts receivable were past due. Now that figure is down to below 30%. He could further improve the financials (see "By the Numbers: A Company Turnaround," page 7) by restructuring the company's building lease, paying off some high-interest bank notes, and purchasing in volume. He also raised prices, after beefing up the customer-service department.

Still, "any company in which there isn't trust is a company with one hand tied behind its back," Mitchell maintains. Not that he was na've about it. At Mad Dog he was horrified when a bookkeeper swiped $1,000 from the company. "My employees could personally hurt me because I trust them," he says. "But to have that kind of trust, you need to make yourself vulnerable."

That was, oddly enough, the exact opposite of founder Tabb's credo: "Once we hit the jackpot," he'd say, "I'm going to make it all up to you." "Until you start treating people well, you are not going to make big money," Mitchell contends. "We had good people who weren't being asked the right questions."

Immediately after taking over, Mitchell began asking them. One by one he trotted employees into his office for chats that ran as long as an hour. "What aspects of our organization and structure prevent you from being able to do your job better?" he'd ask, consulting one of his formidable lists. He asked about the company and its future, and he appealed to them for any advice or suggestions.

And talk they did. It helped that many of them knew of Chuck Mitchell's reputation at Mad Dog. Assembler Jo Tubbs, for instance, had two nephews and two grandnephews who had worked at Mad Dog. "He's never been anything else but genuine," she says of Mitchell.

Believing that, many reciprocated.

Hannah Allen, a sales assistant, told him that the GTO salesfolk were too commission driven, creating conflict between those who sold do-it-yourself-installation models -- the E-Z Gate and the Mighty Mule -- and those who sold the GTO/Pro, designed for professional installers. Eight months later Mitchell lowered commissions, boosted salaries, and created a bonus system based on overrides. Sales director Linda K. Williams, who had quit in June 1993 specifically because of Tabb (whom she describes as "strong willed, ironhanded, and hardheaded, and he wouldn't listen to reason"), returned after his death. She suggested to Mitchell that the company expand its product line and carry items made by others -- things that would be helpful to GTO's dealers, such as intercoms and safety loops. He told her to come back with specific recommendations; last year, out of the 15 products the company added, only 5 were made by GTO. And regional sales manager Karren J. Pitts made a pitch for a much more distinctive and cheaper do-it-yourself gate opener for the retail market, which Mitchell hopes to release in June.

Mitchell quickly gained a sense of some of the higher-priority items among employees. There were certain things he knew he could do right away. "The little things often mean more to people, and they show that management cares about everybody," he says.

So, for starters, Mitchell went out and bought coffee and sugar. Under Tabb, he found out, employees had to ask before they could buy supplies for the coffeemaker. And Tabb, a health zealot known for his 75-mile bike rides, didn't consume coffee. Mitchell found a steady supply, and he got the vending machine loaded up. Because the building leaked terribly, he also quickly hired a roofer to do some patching. To promote a sense of ownership, he told employees to feel free to bring their cars in so they could use some of GTO's tools to repair them over the weekend. And he enhanced a policy started by Dana Tabb -- who says only that she stepped down because she "wanted to do things differently than the people there wanted them done" -- that granted people flexibility with their schedules. "A little extra consideration goes a long way," says Mitchell. "And these are things you can do that don't cost a lot of money."

Not that Mitchell avoided all significant changes. Based on suggestions from his brother, John, from Payne, and from Wilkins, he acquired a hobbing machine, which cuts out grooves for gears. GTO had been paying $20 each for motors with gears; now it could pay $13 and add its own gears for $1.50. He also hired someone to handle quality assurance. Beyond checking tolerances on machines and making sure people keep their shirtsleeves out of Big Mo, the company's 100-ton metal-stamping press, "it's a hell of a sign that we consider quality important," Mitchell says. "They didn't know us, but they could see we were serious about putting out something good."

And everyone could see he was serious after February, when he raised workers' pay and promised to do so again by year's end "if we keep making money." As for the exact amounts, Mitchell mostly left that up to Payne. "I took a printout of all the employees' names and put down what I thought their pay should be," Payne recalls. "I went to Chuck, and he said, 'If this is what you really feel, then do it." He did. "I trust his judgment," says Mitchell.

He also, of course, supremely trusted his own instincts. Some matters would take time, he knew. Like raising GTO's Dun & Bradstreet rating, which now stands over 80. Or selling Lance-Austin, the Subchapter S corporation Tabb had started to sell Fan Fast. (After four attempts GTO sold it last December.)

But after Mitchell's initial meetings with employees, he assured them he would change their health-insurance policy when it expired the following June. Under the plan had Tabb chosen, which he changed frequently, employees wrestled with a $300 deductible and then, depending on the problem, paid anywhere from 60% to 80% of additional costs. The new plan -- "We keep our promises," Mitchell notes -- requires a $5 copayment and an extra payment for dependents. It costs $3,000 a month, doubling GTO's expenses. But "making people comfortable frees them to come up with ideas for making this business better. I need their help," Mitchell says.

Disability insurance, which Mitchell introduced last November 1, further frees workers from fretting. The cost: a "surprisingly inexpensive" $700 a month, Mitchell says. "We don't pay great salaries down here," he adds. "This is a way of giving people a good benefit that means a lot to them. I can't quantify it, but I believe we get it back in productivity. Maybe it doesn't make somebody work faster, but it makes people sure that every piece they work on is quality." He notes that returns have dropped from nearly 5% in 1993 to 1% last year -- despite an increase of roughly 10% in sales.

To a large extent, though, Mitchell's is a strategy made up of small gestures rather than sweeping moves. It's the way he freely gives employees keys to the building. And the blank check he hands over when an employee needs to buy a part. When he partakes of the abundant coffee in the break room, he trades jokes or kicks around ideas about, say, how the technology of refrigerator magnets might be applied to gate locks. "I don't want them to bring me just the highly refined stuff," he notes.

In December, when Mitchell handed out the much-promised profit sharing -- folding each check inside a gift bag with a T-shirt -- a couple of employees even cried. And when employees returned after a holiday break, Mitchell strode through the factory, shaking hands: "It's nice to see you," he'd say. "Did Santa find out the truth, or did you get some presents this year?"

"I hope it's because he cares," says Tubbs. But maybe he's just keeping his ego up."

Maybe so. Early last year, Mitchell had raise