This is a story of four brothers. It begins as a tale of two unrelated Miller families. It ends as one fine reminder that the tortoise can surely beat the hare.
Fred and Marianne Miller happily raised their four sons in the East-Coast spirit of Boston, Mass. The couple never imagined they would retire in Texas, after watching their sons migrate one-by-one to Austin.
Keith was the first to move here, says Bob Miller, president of Miller Uniforms & Emblems Inc. Then my brother Steve was next, a few years later. When I got out of college, I worked as a salesperson for an electronics firm in New England. I used to visit my brothers in Texas and tell them that some day I would move here and somehow get into business with my family.
Mark was the last to make the move.
Bobs vision turned into a success story that will affect the Miller family for several generations.
As children, all four brothers watched their father run several Boston-based womens clothing stores. It is not a stretch to see how Bob and his siblings ended up working in a retail apparel operation.
In 1987, Bob followed his brothers Keith and Steve to Texas. Initially, Bob went to Austin hoping to go into business with his brother Steve.
Sam and Ruthie, a Texas couple with the last name Miller (no relation to the Miller brothers), had opened a uniform store in Austin in 1984. As it happened, they were not opposed to selling their enterprise. Bob Miller had found what he was looking fora small, successful business he could purchase. Plus his family name was already on the door. Perfect!
He acquired the three-year-old uniform store, which had two employees at that time. Steve was a partner in the deal with Bob from the beginning but was not quite ready to leave his other job. Steve waited for Bob to get the business rolling.
With my sales background, I began hammering every city, county and state agency I could, recalls Bob.
The business started growing. The modest 900-square-foot store was located in downtown Austin. By the time Steve came on board, the business was busting at the seams. The brothers were storing inventory at home in their garages. There was also no parking to speak of at the locationthey made a deal with the local college a few blocks away where customers could park, but that was far from ideal.
Yes, we were growing, and while we needed more space, what we really needed was more people.
Hey, how about Keith and Mark, the other two Miller brothers?
At the time, Mark was a purchasing executive with a $50 million budget at a big company in the perishable grocery category. He was still living in Boston.
I begged him to move his wife and kids and to Texas, laughs Bob.
The real dream, the compelling personal vision, that Bob impressed upon his brother Mark was that if he moved to Austin then surely Mom and Dad would follow. Mark was, at that point, the only one of the Millers four sons not living in Texas.
After Bob made him an offer he couldnt refuse, Mark brought his family to Austin and joined his brothers at Miller Uniforms.
Time marched forward. There was more growth and even more opportunity.
Things were just going crazy, says Bob, and so I continued begging Keith to join us.
Ironically, Keith was the first to move to Texas but the last brother to join what was quickly becoming the family business.
Keith explains, I moved here to attend the University of Texas. Instead, I ended up starting an HVAC (heating and cooling) company. After 15 years, I had built a decent sized business. But Bob finally convinced me to join him and my brothers in the uniform business.
Well, the operation now had people. But there were only two desks for four brothers. Time to get back to that space problem.
Keith had the construction industry background, so it was his job to find a suitable new location. In 1997, Miller Uniforms moved to a spot four times as largea reasonable 3,500-square-foot storefront.
That worked great for about five years. But we were again growing and busting at the seams, says Keith.
The store needed more staff, and now Bob had run out of brothers to recruit. Lucky for Bob his dream had come trueMom and Dad did in fact move to Texas to be near their children. So, Marianne became the next family member to work at Miller Uniforms. Marianne was a former executive assistant to the owner of the hugely successful COMDEX computer trade shows, so she took on the roles of bookkeeper and office manager for the uniform company.
What woman can get up, spend all day with her children, and get paid to do it? She is on cloud nine, says Bob.
Then Keiths wife, Robin, came to work at the business. She manages the showroom floor staff. And there are younger family membersthe next generationthat will likely be jumping on board soon enough.
We are definitely a family operation, and we love it that way, says Bob. The security we have in knowing that everyone is on the same page is tremendous. There is no need to motivate anyone. But even the non-family members on staff are motivated, and really want to please the customer.
Their spirit and hard work paid off. In January of this year, Miller Uniforms moved againthis time to a well-planned 11,000-square-foot facility.
THE NEW STORE
Miller Uniforms current location helps the Miller brothers better manage their business. The company now occupies a freestanding building most recently used as an office warehouse. The interior layout is divided into office, retail and warehouse areas. The brothers converted the interior to accomplish their retail goals.
The showroom area in the store is finally separate from where all the product is stored. We also now have a decent sized, 2,300-square-foot showroom, explains Bob.
There is knee-height to ceiling slatwall displays along the outer walls of the rectangular shaped showroom. Merchandise is neatly arranged in product groupings using a variety display devicesfrom hanging polybags to thin white shelves.
Supplier banners featuring leading brand names in the uniform industry adorn the upper portions of many walls. The occasional educational product poster also fills in between the slatwall displays.
There are two distinct areas in the new Miller Uniforms layout where alterations are handled. The first is up front in the building, near the showroom. The seamstresses here can handle the walk-in traffic, taking care of customers visiting in person who may require alterations. These employees also sew on the occasional leg stripping for police trousers.
There is a second location for seamstresses in the back of the building. This section has four employees that primarily do all the patch applications. This crew also alters the hems for customers with which Miller Uniforms has contracts. These items are then delivered to departments or shipped to individuals.
There is also, finally, a couple of thousand square-feet devoted to offices, says Keith. We have 15 employees now, including the brothers.
The balance of the 11,000 square feet of space is dedicated to product storage, shipping and receiving.
Best of all, this building offered something the previous locations did notroom to grow. Miller Uniforms finally has extra space. Several thousand square feet stand waiting for the new business to come. And new business has always come to Miller Uniforms. The reasons for that are well articulated by the companys management.
SERVICE BEATS PRICE EVERY TIME
We are pleased to say we have such a great reputation that it is almost easy to get new customers, says Bob. We hear all the time that, unfortunately, there are companies out there not cutting it service-wise. And we think, My goodness, it is so easy. Just follow through. We are a very hands-on type of management team. We are moving around all the time. If you have something to tell us, you better be moving while you are talking. Were checking on inventory. Were following through on ordering. It takes a lot of work, but it is fun. It is fun because we see pleased customers all the time.
Miller Uniforms is primarily a public safety dealer. The firm also handles a fair amount of industrial and casual workwear sales.
The company has local contracts they service. They also have contracts 60 to 80 miles away, and they even have accounts that are hundreds of miles away for which they provide a two-day delivery program.
Our customer base is local, central Texas and the state of Texas, says Keith. But, the truth is, we are particular and selective about where we do business. We do not want to get into a situation that would harm the reputation we have built over the past 19 years.
Bob, Keith and key employee Laura Reimers handle the majority of the companys outside sales.
You must constantly be pursuing new business, says Bob. We advertise, and send out catalogs.
We also take pride in our product knowledge. You have to know it to sell it. We attend manufacturer-sponsored training sessions, then come back and hold a mini-version for everyone on staff. I may attend a seminar at the annual NAUMD convention, for example, and bring the information back and train everyone here. We even recently cosponsored a seminar with suppliers [a garment and fabric manufacturer] to educate our customers on the latest technologies.
The firm admits finding that some customers, public agencies in particular, are on tighter budgets. But the Miller approach is to constantly be bringing in new customers to offset any decrease in sales to existing accounts.
Bob offers this summary of their business approach:
We did not start out trying to become the big guy overnight. We have enjoyed a very methodic growth year after year, controllable growth. And you cant do that without continually pursuing new business. But we are careful about it. A lot of people can go out and sell a whole lot of business based on price. They put a lot of sales on the books but for some reason scratch their head and wonder why profit is not following. We always try to make our margins. We believe you cant service your customer in the way they deserve if you are unprofitable. Somewhere along the line you will have to cut back your overhead, and who is going to suffer but the end-user?
We are a service company. That is what we stand for. And a company needs to stand for something. Anybody can write the business. But we make a profit, and we are sure to meet our obligations under contract before we pursue the next one. We make sure of things first before moving on. For this reason, we are in proper financial shape. We are organizationally in shape.
One piece of valuable advice Bob offers is that there is no such thing as getting your foot in the door in this business. He stresses that firms must make money on every single order. To show that you can service an account does you no good unless you are making money. This is one reason the Millers are not overly concerned about their competition. They try to stay focused on what their core business philosophies are what their foundation blocks are, and they stick to them.
And they pay particular attention to growing their customer base at all times.
We often tell our staff that when a cadet walks in the store, treat him or her the same as a chief. The reason is that cadet could be a chief of police somewhere in 10 years or, at the very least, a sergeant responsible for buying uniforms.
Bob also stresses the axiom to never burn bridges. He relates tales of local police chiefs who leave one job, accept another and then call Miller Uniforms from 300 miles away to place orders.
Its because we have been taking care of him. The average chief of police only stays in the position 2 1/2 years. Themovement is usually political or something, but these guys bounce around so the impressions we make on them can help us tremendously as they change departments.
Miller Uniforms is proud to have progressed in a positive growth pattern for 19 years by engaging in steady forward movementthey are calculated in their business decisions, rather than trying to race ahead of the pack using shortcuts. Their story is a living example of the classic tortoise and hare story, proving slow and steady can win the race.
I think we are in a rock solid industry, summarizes Bob. Yes, the economy is a little weak. Sure, budgets are tight. But the foundation of our business is steadyyou are always going to need police, fire, sheriff and EMS. You will always need uniforms. You will always need security. The business environment is only going to turn around in this industry, and sales are only going to get better. We are prepared to continue to grow at a methodic pace. We feel we are in a great industry.
Miller Uniforms & Emblems Inc.
|Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Fall & Winter 2003 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
|Halper Publishing Company
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Northbrook, IL 60062
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