Miller Products’ Core Strengths Endure

March 11, 2024 | Miller Products’ Core Strengths Endure Emery Styron, Cooridor Media Group,

Holding a copy of an ABI magazine from 1963 featuring his predecessor Jim McFarland on the cover, Miller Products’ new owner and President Kerry Richardson marvels. “It’s fitting and neat at the same time. The good things about the company haven’t changed. The core of what makes Miller special is still around.”

 “It starts with our people,” says Mr. Richardson, who joined Miller in 2008, serving 13 years as sales and marketing manager, then as general manager, before buying the 87-year-old, Osceola-based metal components manufacturing business in January. Miller, he says, also stands apart from competitors with its wide range of in-house capabilities, a catalog of stock products that allows steady production without ebbs and flows, and perhaps most importantly, a diverse customer base.

‘The King of Custom Pins’

“We don’t have a customer that’s more than 10% of our business,” says Mr. Richardson. “A lot of places, if their biggest customer went under tomorrow, they’d be out of business.” That’s not true for Miller Products, which prides itself as “the King of Custom Pins,” turning out an array of non-threaded lock pins, hitch pins, bent pins and tension lock hitch pins in diameters from 1/16-inch to six inches. The products can be found on everything from farm equipment to RVs to construction cranes and fire trucks.

 Miller, which started out as a bicycle dealer and kickstand manufacturer, machines parts from a variety of metals including carbon steel, alloy steel, stainless steel, brass and aluminum. Its in-house repertoire includes turning, drilling, threading, broaching, knurling, centerless grinding and zinc plating — processes most competing machine shops would need to contract out. “It lets us control our quality better and have a better grasp on our lead times,” explains Mr. Richardson.

It's not uncommon for Miller‘s 50-strong crew to have as many as 500 separate jobs — a mix of custom orders and stock parts production — on the shop floor at one time. The stock parts business enables Miller to keep its workforce and production flow stable, with fewer peaks and valleys. “If it’s slow, we can just put product on our shelves,” Mr. Richardson adds.

Advanced manufacturing capabilities

According to the company website, Miller has been a key part of the manufacturing base in Osceola since the McFarland family relocated there from Des Moines in 1964. The plant has continued to grow, adding custom lathe, CNC and Swiss CNC precision manufacturing capacity, as well as storage, warehousing and fulfillment services for customers across North America.

 CNC (computer numerical control) relies on preprogrammed computer software to automate control and movement of machine tools. Swiss CNC machines can produce small parts quickly and accurately. Precision manufacturing is one driver of the shrinking size of parts. “When he came here, Jack’s goal was to put $1,000 worth of products in a shoebox. Now it’s $10,000 worth of products in a shoebox,” says Mr. Richardson. “Everything is trending smaller. People want smaller diameter things.”             

 Why smaller? “Because they can,” he says. Manufacturers can machine at close tolerances and are better at making smaller versions. “Materials are so good you don’t have to have everything bulky. You don’t have to put in a half-inch pin to make it strong. Smaller means lighter weight, lighter means less shipping.”

 Advanced manufacturing calls for increasing automation and a workforce with up-to-date skills.

 “Automation and robots are definitely part of business,” says Mr. Richardson. “We’re probably not into robotics as advanced as some other companies. We are adding automation that replaces repetitive items people do every day.”

 Automating the most repetitive jobs doesn’t mean replacing people, he says. The same employees move on to more complex tasks. “It helps everything. The hardest people to hire any more are people who do repetitive things. People don’t enjoy those jobs quite as much.”

Home-growing the workforce

Miller is going through a shift in its workforce as longstanding employees wind down careers, Mr.  Richardson says. “We’ve lost about 300 years of experience in the last three years, mostly due to retirements. Only 20% of our workforce has been here more than 10 years.”

 Rather than relying on outside services, Miller leans on newspaper advertisements and a message board outside the plant for most of its recruitment. “Upper management gets involved in hiring very heavily,” Mr. Richardson says.

 Welding is not a big part of Miller’s operation, so the three on-staff welders are able take care of most of the plant’s needs. CNC programmers are the hardest for Miller to hire. “No matter how much we spend on STEM there aren’t enough people coming out with CNC skills,” Mr. Richardson says.

 Sometimes Miller is able to recruit CNC programmers from the Ottumwa area, but the solution is often to grow their own. “Most set-up people we can hire off the street and teach them to do the set-ups and the operations. We are training couple of set-up people to program. We’ll invest in their education,” says Mr. Richardson. “They can learn in-house or we’ll send them to DMACC.”

Growing with its customers

What does the future hold for Miller Products under new leadership?

 “My general excitement for this is very high. We talked about this happening when I was hired. We really have a good thing going down here,” says Mr. Richardson, whose wife and son are also part of the business. “We want slow, steady growth. “

 Covid brought a 30% sales increase in one year, but Mr. Richardson would prefer not to repeat the experience. “That was hard to swallow. You couldn’t get things from India or China. Manufacturers can’t go through that.”

 Business conditions have improved since Covid and many customers who turned to Miller as they broadened their supply chains have stayed on. “We do have a lot of confidence in the future. Over half of our top customers last year had double-digit sales increases. We are growing with a lot of companies,” says Mr. Richardson.

 “Our vision is to have steady growth and more opportunities with distribution, to make our product offering and stock line more robust. Our goal is not to change this place but to grow it in areas where we see opportunities.”

 Adding sizes to the product line is “low hanging fruit” and a couple of new products are in the works. There’s one more item on the new owner’s agenda, a goal that reaches back to 1936, when company founder Don Miller patented a bicycle kickstand. That patent that enabled Miller Products to quit selling bikes and start manufacturing kickstands full-time, shifting later to pins and other metal components.

 The kickstands line is history but “we honor the past,” says Mr. Richardson. “I do want to find at least one bicycle product to make. I’m really in tune with the bicycle shops in Des Moines. We’ll eventually make a product they can sell on their shelves.”