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CEDA: Business founded by Auburn man in recovery continues to grow
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CEDA: Business founded by Auburn man in recovery continues to grow

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Charlie Mills

Charlie Mills, pictured in 2017 at a house in Auburn he was working on, is a recovering drug addict turned business owner who started his own company, Handy Skills with Mr. Mills.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted businesses and individuals alike in various ways. While staying distant from others has been part of the solution to “flatten the curve," we can see in the news and the data that this very isolation has had negative and sometimes tragic impacts on people living with addiction and people in recovery. Addiction and recovery are a journey, with ups and downs and successes and failures. So in a time that might feel like more of a struggle, it seemed fitting to share a success story and some resources.

You may recall the story of Charlie Mills, who opened Handy Skills by Mr. Mills in 2015. In an article on May 12, 2017, The Citizen covered Charlie’s story, from falling into the grips of addiction as a teenager, to getting clean at 27 with the help of Unity House programming, to volunteering at and working for Auburn Public Theater, to starting his own business. When he started Handy Skills by Mr. Mills, Charlie mostly provided general handyman services. Early on, Charlie hired Matt Carberry, another recovering addict, as a foreman/project manager. Since then, the business has grown significantly. Building his portfolio of business and a reputation for quality work opened the opportunity for Charlie to acquire RT Painting out of Skaneateles, which he did in 2018. This acquisition expanded Charlie’s work both in geography and scope of services, as well as added three additional employees. This new painting service brought both a new product offering and a new referral source. This launched Handy Skills into doing projects of a larger scale, like remodels.

In the midst of all of this, Charlie also began collaborating with Dan Liebman, who is also in recovery. Dan had a passion for landscaping, a gap in Charlie’s suite of services, and wanted to start his own business. So Charlie and Dan started to make referrals to each other and work together to help each other’s businesses become more successful. Dan and Charlie are now going all in on this partnership. The two recently set up an LLC as co-owners of The Garden Drs., a full-service landscaping and lawn care business specializing in landscape design and installation. Dan and Charlie hope to bring on another employee soon, and would be thrilled to hire another person in recovery.

This desire to continue hiring recovering addicts is twofold, according to Charlie. First, he finds that people in recovery are often motivated and hard-working. According to Charlie, he and Dan are “looking for people with ambition and a vision. We, as recovering addicts, know what it is to work hard.” Second, he and Dan just want to help people realize their passion. “We are passionate about what we do, and being able to help other people has only been a bonus of exploring what we love to do and making a living out of it,” Charlie said.

Moving forward, the combo of Handy Skills, RT Painting and Garden Drs., with its dream team of Charlie, Dan and Matt, aims to become a one-stop shop for lawn, painting or construction needs. They want to open a physical location with a shop and office. They also have a goal to continue hiring so that they can better keep up with demand. Charlie said the demand isn’t a problem; they are getting more requests than they can handle and are busier than ever.

Charlie credited the community for getting him to where he is today. He described a sense of triumph in his recovery, from having nothing and being in the grips of addiction to turning things around. “We didn’t do this on our own, and our stories are not unique. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the support of the community and like-minded people who wanted to do good things.” He, Dan and Matt want to be part of that community of support for others.

But there is also a broader community of support, and a variety of resources locally, to help individuals struggling with addiction. The Cayuga County Sheriff’s Office and Auburn Police Department recently released a list of resources available to residents throughout the county, including CHAD, SRS, East Hill Medical Center, Cayuga Counseling Services, Cayuga County Mental Health, Helio Health, Wayne Behavioral Health Network in Lyons and The Council Open Access Center in Ithaca. Also on the list was Nick’s Ride 4 Friends, a local nonprofit focused on peer recovery services. Nick’s Ride also keeps a list of services and support groups on its website,, and can help an individual find the service or support s/he needs in their journey to recovery. LifeWorks of Cayuga County also works hard to create a recovery community and offers activities and events for healthy and safe socialization and support.

There are also resources for employers to help employees, and to hire individuals in recovery. Employers might want to consider offering an Employee Assistance Program, which is generally a good tool for worker well-being and retention. Most EAPs can also help your employees with referrals to addiction services if needed. The Cayuga County Chamber of Commerce offers a low-cost EAP to its members through HelpPeople at Crouse Hospital, and we are happy to talk to your business about what an EAP is and how it works. Another resource for businesses is the New York State Recovery Tax Credit (unfortunately, nonprofit employers are not eligible). This program offers a tax credit of up to $2,000 per eligible employee hired since April 12, 2019. Eligible employees must be in recovery from a substance use disorder, and eligible employers must be committed to providing a supportive environment to these employees. There is an application for employers to become certified for this tax credit and additional information online at

Charlie added one last piece of advice for other entrepreneurs, in recovery or not: “Continue to be teachable. Leave ego to the side, because failure is part of the process.” He admitted having failures of his own, but acknowledged that failure is a motivational and educational part of the process of starting and owning a business. He said, “Anyone who has ever had any level of success knows what failure looks like. I wouldn’t know what success looks like if I didn’t know what failure looks like.”

Tracy Verrier is the executive director of the Cayuga Economic Development Agency. For more information, visit or call (315) 252-3500.


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