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From Tragedy Comes Healing

From Tragedy Comes Healing


Karl McMillen admits he has the Midas touch. His ability to turn business ventures into gold is the result of his sheer determination, personal integrity, long hours and providing excellent service to his customers. A self-made millionaire, McMillen made his fortune in real estate investments and by creating one of the largest plumbing supply wholesalers in the United States.

He came from meager beginnings—a child of the Great Depression. His parents instilled in him the importance of honesty and hard work as the best route to achieving the American dream.

As a young man, he worked in plumbing and joined the Marine Corps. Later he earned a business degree from USC. The work ethic he developed as a youngster, along with the business acumen he learned in college, helped him develop the skills necessary to build his fortune.

His business, Todd Pipe, has a logo that states “Legendary Service.” McMillen says they do just that by providing outstanding service that exceeds the levels provided by their competition. This helps Todd Pipe maintain the competitive edge.

They are one of the nation’s largest plumbing supply wholesalers and are known to have the highest fill rate of orders, compared to their competitors. McMillen states, “One-quarter of the cost of labor is due to no supplies (waiting for late supplies). We strive to complete and deliver our orders on time, which is good for business.”

Carol McMillen, his wife of six years, confirms McMillen’s distinctive approach to business. She was previously employed by him for 27 years. She interacted with many of the customers and worked alongside her fellow employees during this lengthy period of time.

She says, “Karl values both his customers and employees. He creates a family-like atmosphere in the business. People can feel that. He makes everyone feel like they are part of one big happy family. The staff also works well as a team and has that team spirit.”

For the last 10 years, McMillen’s goal has been to share his touch for corporate success and turn it into gold for philanthropic endeavors designed to treat people who are battling addiction. His generous donation of $5.3 million to Torrance Memorial Medical Center in 2003 became the gold bricks needed to build the Thelma McMillen Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment.

The creation of the Thelma McMillen Center was an augmentation of the existing chemical dependency treatment program at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, which began in 1992. “With Karl’s generous donation, the hospital bought a new building, and we were able to greatly expand our services. We also added an adolescent program, as per Karl’s request. We went from a staff of six to a staff of 25,” states Morris Gelbart, PhD, director of the center, which offers treatment for both alcohol and drug abuse.

Dr. Gelbart says that McMillen’s unique characteristics include having high standards, requiring quality service and being concerned with patient outcomes. And he continues to provide the Thelma McMillen Center with financial support.

“A portion of the original funding we received from Karl is held in an endowment which will go on in perpetuity to continue to help fund the center for years to come,” states Laura Schenasi, executive vice president of the Torrance Memorial Health Care Foundation.

The center, which is now warmly referred to as Thelma’s Place by many of its patients, is named after Karl’s devoted late wife of 48 years. She passed away from cancer in 1999. Soon thereafter, Karl wished to do something significant in memory of Thelma and at the same time help the community.

His choice regarding where to direct his philanthropy was the result of painful and traumatic personal experiences that greatly affected his and his family’s lives. For several years, Thelma had volunteered at the South Bay Free Clinic, where she saw the ravages of chemical dependency. But she also saw them within her own family.

“Both Thelma and I were drinkers,” says McMillen. He proudly states that he has been sober for 17 years. And as parents, both Karl and Thelma saw how addiction could thrust a family into an abyss of constant emotional turmoil and destroy lives.

The McMillens had two sons, Mark and Chris. Their oldest son, Mark, died from a drug overdose in 1986. Their youngest son, Chris, also struggled with long-term addiction problems. Chris was on his way to beating his addiction but died from cancer in 2010.

The McMillens raised their sons during the 1960s, when American culture was floundering in a sea of tumultuous change. The availability of illicit drugs became pervasive, giving young people access to a cocktail of chemicals to get hooked on.

The McMillen family lived on The Strand, and their sons loved to surf—all at a time when the drug scene was becoming popular with the beach crowd. It was the perfect storm for Mark and Chris: easy access to drugs, associating with folks well-steeped in the drug scene, and plenty of spare time on their hands.

McMillen says that initially there were no early signs of drug use in his sons. They were using drugs for some time before he and his wife knew about it. They were able to keep it under the radar for a long time.

Many years later, while writing his book, Triumphs and Tragedies: A True Story of Wealth and Addiction, McMillen was surprised when he discovered that his sons had sometimes stashed drugs in the family’s garage. This fact was revealed to him by one of his nephews during the course of his interviews.

All of these personal experiences led to McMillen’s decision regarding where to focus his philanthropy. His goal was (and still is) to work toward preventing addiction and to help others who find themselves in the throes of chemical dependency, before it is too late.

McMillen requested the creation and implementation of an adolescent program as one requirement for Torrance Memorial to receive his generous donation and funding for the Thelma McMillen Center. When his sons were using drugs, there were very few treatment programs or resources in existence regarding substance abuse as a whole. The few programs that he did find did not appear to be comprehensive or useful.

In addition, McMillen saw that there was a great need for a treatment program geared specifically for kids. He describes that even years later, in 2002 when he began his search for a location to donate his money, there was not much available for teens. Today, in addition to the work done at Thelma’s Place, Torrance Memorial has outreach programs in 11 area high schools that include drug counseling and educational programming.

McMillen ultimately chose to donate to the medical center because, he says, “When I visited Torrance Memorial, I saw real team work being practiced amongst their staff. Their staff also displayed a lot of enthusiasm for helping others—those who are addicted as well as their families. I also felt that Torrance Memorial was and still is the #1 hospital in the area.”

McMillen describes that early on, he and his wife had no awareness of the severity of their sons’ drug problem or the extent to which drug abuse was prevalent in their neighborhood. “My wife and I did not know one drug from another. It was all foreign and new to us, as with many other parents at the time. We were busy working and building a business. Thoughts about drug use did not even enter our minds,” he says.

As time went on, McMillen says that as parents, they ended up becoming enablers. Their sons would get into trouble and land in jail, and he and his wife would bail them out. Every time this occurred, they would switch gears and try another plan to help them stop using drugs and keep them out of trouble.

Sometimes, McMillen would take them out of town or out of the country for family trips to Baja—to remove them from their friends, hoping that would help. Nothing seemed to work though. Soon one or the other would be off to another jail sentence.

Drawing on the exasperating and painful journey McMillen experienced with his family and addiction, he advises, “There is no single answer to preventing substance abuse. Every situation is different. In my case, I had hoped that keeping my sons busy, removing them from their environment and not being too easy with money would have helped, but it did not.”

Carol McMillen agrees that every family is different, but she feels that if an addiction can be caught early, before a teen’s alcohol or drug use becomes a long-term addiction, it may be helpful. “Let the kids see the unpleasant side of addiction,” she says. “They only see the glamorous side from most of the media, especially with coverage relating to celebrity addictions.”

She adds that one of the goals of Thelma’s Place in the schools is showing kids the unglamorous side of addictions, such as the seizures and other dangerous side effects of alcohol and drug abuse. She says that if teens can see these types of things early on, they may think twice about even trying drugs.

McMillen’s one piece of advice for someone who suspects that they, a loved one or a friend may be battling any type of addiction? “Get help. There is so much help out there now.”

In 2008, McMillen decided he wanted to support additional organizations dedicated to helping people affected by substance abuse. He achieved this by creating the McMillen Family Foundation, along with Carol, who also serves on the board of directors for the Foundation.

Today, the McMillen Family Foundation has donated more than $15 million to their grantees for this cause. Karl’s philanthropy is far-reaching and touches many lives and organizations in Southern California.

Karl McMillen’s personal portion (20%) of the profits of his business Todd Pipe goes directly to the McMillen Family Foundation forever. He has also directed that his personal fortune will go to the Foundation. All proceeds derived from the sale of his newly released book are also channeled to the Foundation.

McMillen’s choice to leave his legacy to the McMillen Family Foundation is a testament to his dedication to help those affected by alcohol and substance abuse. His ability to turn his personal tragedies into a positive force and provide pathways to help others can serve as an inspiration to all.

Categories: Feature

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