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Wm. J. Mills & Co. grows through the generations

Awnings & Canopies, Feature, Management, Perspective | November 1, 2012 | By:

A three-generational take on the Wm. J. Mills & Co. family business.

As IFAI celebrates its 100th anniversary, it’s clear that the association is only as strong as its members. For more than 100 years, many current member companies have been shaping their businesses, the association and the industry. Changes in the industry that span the past 100 years—such as the introduction of synthetic fibers, advances in technology, the Internet and global access to markets—have also changed the way companies do business. Those companies that are forward thinking and willing to take risks—bolstered by common sense—have stood the test of time right along with IFAI. As the association has weathered the fluctuations of the economy, environmental concerns, advances in fibers and production practices, and changes in leadership, it has always found new ways to meet the needs of its members. And its members have found new ways to meet the needs of their customers.

Wm. J. Mills & Co., established in 1880, is only one of many IFAI member companies that have grown along with IFAI over the decades—these family-run businesses that have been passed from generation to generation.

Wm. J. Mills & Co., like many IFAI members, embodies the resilience and innovation that has resulted in new product lines, new business plans and new marketing strategies—with timeless values that build customer loyalty and satisfaction.

Passing the Torch

“My father had a ‘tough love’ approach to transitioning me into a leadership position at the business,” says Jamie Mills of Wm. J. Mills & Co., Greenport, N.Y. “He threw me in the water and said: ‘Learn to swim.’” Jamie (Wm. J. Mills III, MFC) is current president of the family business that manufactures awnings, custom canvas and sails—and his brother Bob (Robert L. Mills II) is vice president.

Like their father Bill (Wm. J. Mills II), many of Jamie and Bob’s childhood memories revolve around the shop, which was established in 1880 by—you guessed it—Wm. J. Mills I. Playing on the sail loft floor as children (Bill remembers playing hopscotch there), watching the manufacture of sails, bags and awnings, listening to the elder family members and employees solve design, manufacturing and installation problems—this served to pave the way for each of them as they stepped into their respective leadership roles at the company. “There was no formal transition when I took over,” Bill says. He describes the shift as simply as: “In 1950, I started signing checks.”

Division of labor

At 91 years old, Bill still goes in to work every day, but focuses more on special projects rather than day-to-day operations, and Jamie and Bob value the breadth of knowledge he brings to the table. “Our father has always been one to think outside the box,” Jamie says. “He’ll throw a different angle on a problem … a solution that we may not have thought of.” But mostly, Bill still prefers the hands-on, custom side of the work. “He likes to spend time in the machine shop—with the lathes and milling machines,” Bob says. “At times we might need a specific type of jig, and he’ll develop it for us.”

The division of labor between Jamie and Bob happened somewhat naturally. They set company direction and manage HR issues and marketing together, but they divide project management by product type. Bob leads the production division for bags, sails and rigging, and custom marine canvas—more of the inside work. Jamie handles the awning side—more of the outside work. “For years I was heavily involved with the production side,” Jamie says. “We used to provide all the canvas for Boston Whaler, but when that account went away I saw the need to develop the awning side of the business more. I think it’s important to diversify—when one area of the business is slowing down, another is picking up.”

Managing growth

Perhaps the most surprising area of product development for the company is that of the Wm. J. Mills Canvas Bag line. Though the company has been making the canvas totes since 1951, it only recently expanded the line, as well as the marketing strategies. “When I came onboard in the late 1970s and started to run the company, we only had five bag styles,” Jamie says. “I saw some potential there, and we expanded the styles and put together a catalog—but still, for a long time we looked at the bags as fill work.”

Now it’s a substantial niche portion of the business, with sales in 15 countries, and in high-end boutiques in the U.S. Jamie and Bob assign much of the credit for the product line’s expansion to Tom Beatty, who joined the company in 2007 as the marketing director. “An interesting observation I’ve made in the last few years is that in small business—especially in tourist areas like the East Coast and Long Island—a lot of times your business grows based on the people you employ,” Jamie says. “We were fortunate to find a person with a background in marketing on a worldwide level, and connections with the fashion industry. We had recognized our bags had value, but he took them in a new direction for us.”

Adding a new product or expanding a product line brings challenges as the product(s) are refined, which consist of prototypes, mistakes, more prototypes—and documentation along the way. Even for large custom projects, documentation and streamlined production can mean the difference between profit and loss. “Four or five years ago we made 3,000 cushions for a major worldwide company,” Jamie says. “I give my brother most of the credit. He developed most of the steps to build the cushions efficiently, and documented the production run step by step so we could make money on the project.”

Bob points out that their company is a combination of custom and production work, but that production influences the custom manufacturing strategies. “For instance, our marine canvas division and awning division both do mostly custom work,” he says. “However, within those two divisions our knowledge of production comes into play in that we will do the same process over and over again the same way. In a canopy frame on an awning, we do the front bar truss the same way every time. You can go anywhere on the east end of Long Island and point out which are Mills’ awnings by the way we build our frames.”

The next generation

Jamie and Bob have been careful not to pressure their children, Jay (Wm. J. Mills IV) and Rob (Robert L. Mills III), into following in their footsteps, but the option is there if they want it. There were two stipulations: the children would have to graduate from college first, and then work elsewhere for a while. “We want them to find out how the world really is before they come into the family business—if they choose to,” Bob says. “They’re finding their own way, which is an invaluable experience.”

Whatever they choose, their observations of the way the family runs the business have shaped the way they view the business world. Jay helped with marketing and social media for the canvas bag line a couple of years ago, and now is working as a financial advisor. “A lot of the values that I learned by watching how my father ran a business is the way I run my business here,” Jay says. “Integrity, and going above and beyond for service. My father and uncle sometimes joke that they lose money on prototypes because they spend so much time perfecting them. But they believe—and I do, too—that that’s the cost of doing business and having loyal clients. You get paid on the back end with longevity of clients.”

Rob is a senior at Ithaca College, Ithaca, N.Y. (where his father, uncle and older sister attended), and is pursuing an integrated marketing communications major with a concentration on public relations. “As my experiences in college have become more professional in nature, I am constantly thinking of ways to apply what I’m learning to the family business,” Rob says. “I’ve had some deep conversations with my father about ways to help improve aspects of the business, specifically about the increase in the shop’s online business.”

One of the values Jay and Rob acquired from their experiences at the company was an appreciation of the people who work there. Life comes first, business comes second, Bob says. “My dad always told me to respect the shop’s employees because without them the business would not be where it is today,” Rob says.

And where the business is today is that it’s a longstanding success story, interwoven with a long family history. “There’s never been much advice; it’s been more action,” Jay says. “It’s the one thing I see in all three—my grandfather, father and uncle—they will not compromise on quality.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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