It’s Miller Time
By Jackie Rosselli
Ask any dealer what distinguishes his brand, and chances are the response will be very familiar: service. Service is the uniform industry’s mantra, what sets it apart from a run-of-the-mill department store or big box outlet.
Service is certainly an important component in the overall customer experience, and nobody does it better than this industry. But if everyone is doing it, the question remains: what makes one dealer unique compared to any other dealer?
At Miller Uniforms the answer is simple: “We do it better. We provide the customer with service above and beyond the ordinary,” says co-owner Bob Miller. Service helped establish them, and service continues to be a large part of their success.
Want proof? Walk into Miller Uniforms in Austin (or Houston now) and chances are someone on the sales floor will be ready with a personal greeting. But employees don’t just start their career as a sales rep here; they are first cross-trained in multiple job functions to better service the customer. Typically, all new hires spend time in several other departments – first, in shipping and receiving, where they get to touch and feel every item stocked and get a taste for the company’s POS and online ordering system. Next, they’ll move to what is known as as the hold area, where products are prepared for in-store pickup. Not until there’s demonstrable knowledge of the process, product lines and customer base are employees moved to the sales floor.
Miller also has a healthy relationship with manufacturers and brings them to the store to further train staff on specific product lines. Two shirts might appear the same, but subtle differences in quality and fabrication need to be understood. “You can’t sell anything unless you know what you’re selling,” says Bob Miller, one of four brothers who own Miller Uniforms.
Such attention to detail may not be for everyone. Miller Uniforms is notoriously picky when it comes to new hires. Applicants simply looking for a job are frequently turned away; those who are eager to learn and seek a career are encouraged to apply.
Of the 60 employees – a fairly large number considering that Miller Uniforms is a two-store operation – 20 are seamstresses and tailors. These aren’t just some part-timers who walked in off the street; they are experienced, highly skilled folks who don’t just like to sew but can do it with speed and exceptional quality.
“They have probably over 250 years of combined experience,” Miller says. Same with their in-house embroidery and heat transfer operators. “Our leads in these departments both in Austin and Houston have 15 and 18 years of experience respectively. All customizations, like tailoring, are done in-house. We possess 26 heads of embroidery and have multiple heat transfer and CAD cutting machines, all to create the expeditious deliveries we are known for. We don’t really concern ourselves with the competition, but we know they don’t employ nearly as many seamstresses and tailors and the levels of customization equipment and employees locally in-house,” Miller says.
When it comes to order fulfillment, every item touches multiple hands. “We put inventory on the shelf so that, if we’re contracted with an agency, the inventory is pulled, patches are pulled, pants are hemmed, items customized and checked and rechecked to make certain they go out the door correctly,” he continues. “We’ve made the commitment to stocking and having the adequate staff in place. Anybody can take an order and buy the product and deliver in six to eight weeks, but we’re known for accepting an order, getting it right and turning it around quickly.”
Of course, this level of service doesn’t come cheap; in fact, they are known for not being the cheapest price is town. But that hasn’t stopped this retailer from growing into a multi-million-dollar-a-year business. From the Valley to the Panhandle to East and West Texas, business is booming.
Not a Typical Family Business
Miller Uniforms isn’t typical of the family businesses seen in the uniform industry. For starters, the business wasn’t passed down from a previous generation, and none of the brothers had prior experience in the uniform industry. Sure, their father sold women’s clothing, and their grandmother was a seamstress, but neither influenced the decision to sell uniforms.
What did? For the Millers – Keith, Marc, Stephen and Bob – the decision wasn’t personal. It was strictly business.
Bob moved to Texas from the East Coast in the late ’80s, determined to start a business with his siblings who had previously moved to the Lone Star State. Stephen and Bob hired a business broker and looked at many potential prospects but remained skeptical. “If a company showed us a profit and loss statement that was making money, we said ‘Great,’ but then we asked to see tax returns,” recalls Bob. “Many would not, so we moved on.”
During this time, the brothers met the unrelated Sam Miller, who just happened to own a three-year-old uniform store bearing the Miller name. And it was up for sale. Sam wasn’t doing a ton of business but was profitable and had nothing to hide; his taxes matched up with his P&L. “I turned to Stephen and said, ‘This has opportunity written all over it,’” says Bob.
What the brothers lacked in uniform expertise they made up with business know-how. Keith was a successful owner of an HVAC business, Bob had a background in sales, Marc was a purchasing executive, and Stephen had the production and management experience. As part of the sales agreement, Sam was given a six-month contract extension. But the brothers were quick learners; they wound up only needing him for three.
The new owners were also eager to implement new strategies in order to grow the business. “Sam was old school. He’d run an ad in the Yellow Pages, but never knocked on doors to generate leads,” says Bob. “By contrast, we went after every municipality, every city and state agency, and every authority in Texas. Sam was happy making a living. We wanted a future.”
The original Austin facility was only 800 square feet, but with success came growing pains. In 1997 they moved to a 3,500-square-foot facility. In 2003 Miller Uniforms relocated to an 11,000-square-foot building, and in 2014 moved again, this time into a space boasting more than 23,000 square feet. The stand-alone building sits on two acres of land with plenty of parking and ample space to expand if necessary, and because it’s purchased, not leased, they have full control.
Largest County in Texas Home to New Store
In late 2016, Miller opened another store, this time in Houston. Why Houston? For starters, Houston sits in Harris County, the most populous county in Texas and the third-most populous county in the United States. “Why wouldn’t we want to be there?” Bob Miller asks rhetorically.
A nephew was brought in from the Austin site to manage the store; he was joined by several other Austin employees. The remaining hires did a four-month stint at the Austin location, cross-training and getting personalized product information from manufacturers. They also had spacious digs in which to live; the brothers rented a home nearby to assure their comfort. “It’s an expensive way to train, but it’s the right way to do so,” adds Keith Miller.
The owners intend to expand the Houston store just as they did in Austin: incrementally, step by step. For now, the 10,000-square-foot space is equally split between retail and warehouse space. Inventory used for its contract customers is kept in the back; product on the floor is for retail, impulse customers.
Public safety is Miller Uniforms’ main niche, and it stocks quality products from many familiar brands. Blauer products are in high demand, according to Bob, with ArmorSkin being the hot item at the moment. He says, “Blauer has always been the innovator, and they’re changing the way law enforcement wears uniforms. [They are] often imitated but never duplicated when it comes to quality.”
There have been other changes since Miller Uniforms opened its doors. Back then, Class A uniforms were the norm; today, they have been replaced by Class B, C, and even D uniforms, a result of the increase in specialized units within each agency and the desire for more comfort and functionality. “Every special ops team wants their own look,” notes Bob. The retailer represents about five different brands of tactical pants and other items to give the customer good selection.
Without question, the ability to not push paper, to have a POS system, and to find answers with a few clicks of a mouse is the greatest change seen by the Millers. The retailer uses NetSuite, a business management system that streamlines the online ordering process. The user-friendly solution is tailored to specific customer specifications and has reporting capabilities as well. Miller Uniforms also relies on the UniformMarket Store System for informational data purposes.
Yes, Miller Uniforms is known as a public safety dealer, but there’s more to Miller Uniforms than just public safety accounts. In recent years, this retailer has been making a bigger splash in the non-public-safety arena as well. In 2014, Miller’s signed a contract with the City of Austin to provide garments for almost all of the city’s non-public-safety sectors. This was a multi-million-dollar, five-year contract with an optional five-year extension. Keith Miller manages this area of the business.
No Customer Too Small
There is no customer too small for Miller Uniforms; the 5- to 50-man agency is what put them on the map. After all, there are only so many large agencies. Whether asked to present to a 200-member department or fit a two-man agency, they will meet with the customer. That’s how it’s always been; that’s part of the reputation.
How can they make a trip to a two-member agency profitable in a state the size of Texas? Planning. Miller Uniforms has customers across the state; if a current or potential customer calls, they can always visit others in the area or on the way there or back. They’re able to make most jaunts worth the effort using this strategy, but sometimes the plan backfires.
“It’s important to make your margins of course, but it’s also important to take care of the customer,” says Bob. “And if we can get that 20-member agency for the next 20 years, we’ve done a great job.”
What’s next for this family business? They’re already grooming the next set of Millers. Keith’s son-in-law is the company techie and part of the management team. Nephew Kyle is running the Houston operation. Nephew Ryan is a key account manager.
Not everyone wants to pay for quality and service, the brothers readily admit. Over the years they’ve lost customers over price, only to see them return once they realize that a durable product is also the most cost effective. “You have to stand for something,” says Bob. “Everyone touts service, but Miller Uniforms walks the walk. We’ve been patient. And it’s paid off.”
11707 S. Sam Houston Pkwy
W. Houston, TX 77031
826 Rutland Drive
Austin, TX 78758