Posted on Sep 22, 2014
Now & Then: Miller Industrial

Sometimes it seems that almost every family business succession story leads with the trials and tribulations, but not Jeff Miller’s story. The transition of Miller Industrial from Bob, Jeff’s father, to Jeff was exceptionally smooth, and can be attributed to three main elements: communication, planning, and help from the outside.

Jeff’s grandfather, Sam Miller, started the family business in 1928 on the Southside of Chicago. Sam was a pioneer in the hardware industry; in the 1950’s he was the first to have a hardware store where customers could shop behind the counter. Sam’s entrepreneurial spirit carried through his whole family with Jeff’s father, Bob, being the sixth family member to join the business in the mid-1960s.

Bob had the insight to expand the business to the suburbs. With the help of outside resources, such as John Ward, Bob also had the foresight to implement a plan for bringing the next generation into the business. The basis of that plan included mandatory college and work outside the family business before joining. Above all else there was (and still is) NO EXPECTATION and NO GAURANTEE to be employed in the family business. Another part of the plan that Bob implemented involved having family meetings with his children early on to keep them updated on the status of the business.   At one of those meetings in 1990 he let them know he would need advance knowledge if any of his children were interested in ownership of the company, in the next three-to-five years. These elements were key in starting the successful transition that would take place with Jeff in the future.

The transition truly started in 1987 following college graduation when Jeff joined ACE Hardware in a management training program and was quickly promoted to a regional position in New England, expanding his knowledge of the hardware industry. From Ace, Jeff went back full-time to earn an MBA double majoring in marketing and finance.  He then worked in the marketing department for Schwinn Bicycle, another family business. After two years of working at Schwinn, the company filed for bankruptcy just shy of their 100 year anniversary. Jeff declined an offer to stay on with Schwinn and decided it was time to join the family business on February, 1, 1993.

As Jeff officially joined the company, he meticulously planned his entrance relying on his MBA education and the many conversations he had with John Ward on how to implement the transition. It was decided Jeff would manage marketing, computerize the business, and take over HR so he could build his own team. He also had the opportunity to open a second industrial store location on his own. Searching for properties, negotiating with landlords, and managing the store from its inception was a priceless learning experience for him.

When Jeff reflects on the transition and buyout phase he says the biggest challenge was understanding which hat his dad was wearing when talking to him. Jeff explains that his father wore three hats, each with a different role: consultant, banker and father. Most of the time, Jeff felt that it was his dad talking to him rather than a trusted consultant giving him advice. In 2006, when Bob officially left the company and was no longer in the office on a regular basis, Jeff was able to see his dad as a mentor, consultant and resource instead of his father talking to his son.

By 2006, Miller Industrial was bursting at the seams and needed more space. Jeff’s father was still the landlord of the building and agreed to fund the expansion of the building, a win-win for everyone.

With the business growing, Jeff also realized that he needed to let go of the day-to-day management and step into the owner role (working on the business versus in the business). Again Jeff relied on his MBA and several outside resources such as the Great Game of Business, John Ward and the Chicago Family Business Council (CFBC).

The Great Game of Business encouraged Jeff to implement open book management at Miller Industrial and empower his leadership team. Jeff also retained his close relationship with John Ward, an expert in family business, who he credits as an integral resource.

Another resource, The Chicago Family Business Council (CFBC), gave Jeff a consistent place to meet with fellow business owners. Unlike other peer groups that Jeff had joined, he found that the CFBC demanded accountability. Forum taught him how to be a better leader by making people accountable for their actions and being accountable to himself.

As if that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, in 2006 Jeff also launched his own consulting company, GLB (Helping Grow Lasting Businesses) Consulting LLC. As an expert in B2B sales for the retail and industrial hardware industry, Jeff created the firm as a way to help others. By 2009, Jeff set up a consulting model with ACE Hardware conducting around 20 consulting visits a year. Today, he primarily conducts seminars across the country, training ACE teams and store owners to be better leaders. Jeff is passionate about his consulting business as yet another outlet to do what he loves.

As one would expect, as Jeff’s children get older he too has a plan in place to discuss the opportunity of taking over the business. He wants to emulate the process he went through with his father, letting his children know that there is no expectation and no guarantee for ownership. He plans to have the discussion this year with his oldest son, a senior in high school, that if there comes a time when he’s interested in owning the business, they can talk. Communication was key with Jeff’s transition and he is adamant the same will be true for the next generation.

In 2028, Miller Industrial will celebrate its 100th Anniversary. And as fate would have it, Jeff will be the same age as his dad was when he retired. After seeing Schwinn go bankrupt just shy of their centennial, Jeff is adamant that his family’s business will not suffer the same fate. He, along with the next generation of his family if they so choose, will celebrate Miller Industrial’s 100th anniversary as proof that some successions do indeed go smoothly.

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