From Banker to Food Entrepreneur: Jim Millican ’83 Finds His Passion
By Lea Hart
When Jim Millican graduated North Carolina State University in 1983 with a degree in economics and business management, becoming an entrepreneur was still considered the road less traveled by most.
“At the time, you went to school, you got a degree, and you found a job,” Millican recalls.
Millican went to work for United Carolina Bank in eastern North Carolina as a management trainee, but he didn’t feel he’d found his passion.
“Working as a banker was fine; it never felt like that was what I wanted as a career path,” he said. “I felt there was something more, and it was a matter of finding out what that would be.”
In the 1990s as the Savings and Loan crisis was coming to a head, he found himself on the verge of being out of a job. His younger brother was moving to Chicago and asked Millican to move there, which he did, going to work for a bank and then changing paths to work in medical sales.
Starting down the entrepreneurial path
When their mother became ill, the brothers moved back to Greensboro, NC to help tend to her care. That’s when Millican’s path took a turn that eventually led him to where he is today – an award-winning food entrepreneur.
As he and his brother tossed around the idea of opening a business together once they returned to North Carolina, they ultimately settled on starting a retail smoothie bar business. The two owned and operated a small chain called Smoothieville in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.
“It became a great learning experience,” Millican said. “We did a lot of things right, but at the end of the day, we grew too quickly and ended up burning ourselves out.”
His brother decided to go to work for their father in the construction business, but Millican continued with more entrepreneurial endeavors.
He began developing food products to take to market. The concept of the “spouted pouch,” now popular for products such as applesauce, was still new in the United States at the time and he thought there were food products that could be developed for those pouches. First he tried a juice drink, then a puree-style product with a sweet potato base called “Tater Man.”
“People looked at me like I had three heads,” Millican recalls with a laugh. “I was just too far ahead of the curve on that one.
“I’ve tried things that worked and I’ve tried things that didn’t work; it comes with the territory.”
I’ve tried things that worked and I’ve tried things that didn’t work; it comes with the territory.
It was around 2016, working out of a community kitchen in Hillsborough, NC, that Millican developed his version of a sausage dip. A regional Southern favorite in homes for decades, Millican was among the first to bring a product to market.
Food production comes with its own set of challenges. Any product containing meat, such as sausage dip, must be manufactured in a USDA inspected plant. Millican went through the process of meeting those standards and securing a co-manufacturer. By 2019, he finally had a product that could be sold in retail locations.
His brand, Big Delicious, now produces not just their Carolina Sausage Dip, but Original Hot ‘Cue Dip and Pineapple and Country Ham Spread.
Big Delicious Brand is the winner of two recent awards. It was recognized as a QVC Big Find Winner, something Millican applied to but didn’t take too seriously during the initial contest stages.
“An old friend in the food business strongly suggested I get my act together, and so I did once I studied the numbers more closely,” Millican said. “QVC has a phenomenal business model; they reach so many people worldwide.”
In fact, he noted QVC reaches about 92 million households in the United States and 380 million worldwide. Recognition as a Big Find award-winner meant international recognition.
Closer to home, the North Carolina Specialty Foods Association recently recognized his Carolina Sausage Dip with a first-place finish in the competition’s Deli/Dairy category.
Getting to where he is today was both about an entrepreneurial spirit and a love of food for Millican. Growing up with a father who owned his own business meant the idea of entrepreneurship wasn’t a foreign concept, but Millican also recognized it can have its ups and its downs.
People are passionate about food, and it allows for a creative outlet in addition to an entrepreneurial path, he said.
It’s difficult for Millican to say exactly what’s next. He notes that, in entrepreneurship, one can have big plans but end up going in a totally different direction. He expects to add one or two more products to his line and grow distribution as well.
“We sell in specialty food stores from Atlanta to Richmond and we ship nationwide,” he said. “We’d like to put a little more emphasis on shipping and will look for other retail opportunities as well.”
Laying the foundation at NC State then, and giving back now
He credits his time at NC State with providing the foundation for his success today.
“All those years ago, I was so excited to get into State,” he said. “I knew I would be a business major because it would provide multiple opportunities, but I found it was also the perfect place for me; it allowed me to flourish.”
I knew I would be a business major because it would provide multiple opportunities, but I found it was also the perfect place for me; it allowed me to flourish.
His classroom experiences and involvement with organizations such as the Economics Society and as a founding member of the NC State chapter of Alpha Kappa Psi, a business fraternity, laid the groundwork for his future.
“It sometimes shocks me, the things I recall learning about now,” he said. “Things like elasticity of demand and point of diminishing returns.”
He’s supported the university over the years, giving to both the Wolfpack Club and to Poole College of Management.
“I love NC State University, and I want them to be the best that they can be – in academics and in athletics,” Millican said. “My experience there as a student was wonderful, and I want to help the university in any way that I can.”
Millican said he also hopes to become more involved at NC State in the future and share his story, now that entrepreneurship is becoming a more and more popular career path.
It’s not going to always go your way, the idea is to not let your failures stop you.
“I probably should have given up on this a long time ago, but persistence is key,” he said. “It’s not going to always go your way, the idea is to not let your failures stop you.”
He encourages students today to follow their passion.
“Passion keeps you going with it,” he said. “If you’re passionate about what you’re doing and you believe it will work, then you’ll find a way to make it happen.”