Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh once described his legendary plane like this: “The Spirit of St. Louis is a wonderful plane. It’s like a living creature, gliding along smoothly, happily, as though a successful flight means as much to it as to me, as though we shared our experiences together, each feeling beauty, life and death as keenly; each dependent on the other’s loyalty. We have made this flight across the ocean, not I or it.”
In talking about St. Louis-based Milford Supply with its President & CEO Tim Milford, that same type of sentiment is literally palpable. His father founded Milford Supply when Tim was a young boy, and he and the business literally grew up together. Tim spent countless hours as a kid pitching in at his dad’s fledgling company. As the company grew and expanded and Tim was in college, he took on greater responsibilities. He joined the company full-time in 1981 after getting a business degree at Benedictine College, and worked the city counter for six weeks before his dad told him that he was going to be the controller.
So, he moved into an office in the accounting department and went back to college to pursue a Masters degree in business. “It was a great opportunity to learn about Receivables Payables and Human Resources,” Tim said. “And keep in mind this was all before we had a computer, so literally everything we did was by hand. Tracking the paperwork in itself was monumental. One of my biggest frustrations were accounts that were regularly late with payments — or wouldn’t pay until we got our attorney involved and threatened to take them to court. I got tired of paying attorneys to collect our bills; that’s when I decided to go to law school.”
He added, laughing, “Plus, my dad was concentrating on sales, my oldest brother Tom was the president and my brother John was branch manager. I was third in line and figured I should have something to fall back on.”
It also led Tim, literally, to the doorstep of Rita — who’s now been his wife for 30 years. She worked in the office of her dad, a local plumbing contractor. “Our records showed they were late paying, so I went down to her office to collect their bill. She was quick to point out that it was because Milford hadn’t billed anything correctly for about six months and she wasn’t going to pay until it was all straightened out. So I basically went out of there with my tail between legs. When I got everything corrected, I went back to see her, and fortunately was able to get a second chance — and a date.”
After graduating from St. Louis University’s School of Law, Tim was able to get to what he considers the root of the collections issue — helping contractors get paid from their jobs. “I had found that usually the contractors were late paying weren’t doing it because they didn’t want to pay us; it was because they couldn’t. They aren’t sitting on a pile of cash, and they were having trouble with their own collections. It’s amazing how much uncollected debt there is in the construction industry. So now I help my customers collect their bills and give talks to the local plumbing industry on mechanics liens, bond claims and lawsuits. I truly love being an attorney, and it’s been a great benefit to our company and our customers.”
Tim credits attorneys Garry Seltzer and his son Kevin Seltzer of the law firm that has represented Milford Supply all these years. Specializing in collections, their website is www.mechanicsliens.com. “I am forever indebted to Garry for asking me to join the firm the day I passed the bar exam. He is the finest collections attorney in town. Period.”
Tom Milford Sr. co-founded Milford Supply in 1969 after a 20+ year career with Grinnell. He handled the sales, his brother-in-law Bob Allan ran the warehouse and his cousin Dan Riordan drove the truck. Their first facility was in an old parking garage that had been abandoned by the St. Louis Cardinals after the baseball team’s move to Busch Stadium a few years earlier. As Tim described, the neighborhood was so dangerous that they kept the doors locked all day long.
“Nothing was safe — cars, equipment or people,” he said. “In fact, on one occasion thieves broke in and stole our truck that had been parked inside the building, filled with copper and driven right through the overhead door. When my dad showed up, the garage door was just laying in the street with the entire warehouse open!”
It was sometimes tough on their family in those early years as well. “As is often the case with upstart businesses, my dad was working around the clock. My mother took me to all the Father/Son events that my dad was supposed to attend. But we all really pulled together and my brothers, sister and I would help our dad out every spare minute. And eventually, we all worked for the company full time.”
Tom Milford Sr. passed away in 2001. As Tim describes “Dad worked as long as he could and would be here today, working, if he was still alive. Dad loved this industry and the company he started. I still miss him every day.”
Around that time, Tim’s siblings Tom Jr. and Donna decided to leave the company and pursue other career paths, so Tim and his brother John took over ownership and management. Unfortunately, illness led John to retire in 2009, at which time Rita joined Tim in the business and they acquired full interest in the company.
Milford Supply relocated their headquarters to suburban South County in the mid-1970s, and they now have four locations and 45 employees:
They serve the Greater St. Louis area and surrounding counties, and will direct ship orders to other markets for customers. Most of the inventory is housed at the South County location, but as Tim described, “We like to keep our branches well-stocked because we want contractors who come into the counters to be able to pick up what they need. You can’t be everything to everybody all the time, and obviously products like special finishes or colors have to be ordered. But a plumber will pick up anything he needs to get a job going at any one of our stores.”
At the same time, however, the recession several years ago led Milford Supply to take a careful look at their inventory. St. Louis was hit very hard from 2009-2012; in fact, Tim estimates that between 50% and 75% of the area builders in existence then went out of business. “It’s very important that we have the product on hand that customers need – but need is the key word. We can no longer sit on inventory thinking it will move at some point. It doesn’t. So we’ve worked very hard at re-evaluating our inventory so it is valuable to us and to contractors. We found ways to liquidate some of the inventory that had just been sitting on our shelves for way too long — donating through World Vision’s Storehouse and selling at a discount on Craig’s List and e-bay. We also implemented the Epicor software system, which has been a tremendous help in streamlining the processes and paperwork.”
They also credit much of their success on a diverse offering of commercial, industrial, institutional and residential quotations and service. Expanding that even further has been the opening of its HVAC Division and full-time salesperson who focuses on school districts, hospitals, property management firms, and apartment complexes. Currently, their business is roughly 35% residential, 35% commercial, 15% Showroom, and 15% split between institutional and HVAC.
Their showroom, which is run by Rita, is currently located in a very busy shopping center, and will be expanding to a new location this fall to keep up with demand.
“We have three designers on staff with her and are always busy,” Tim said. “This is a Kohler Showroom and we sell cabinets as well. The showroom business is so different from the wholesaling business. Its customers are typically remodelers rather than home builders. The latter are often looking for inexpensive product to keep their price as low as possible, while remodelers are looking for ‘WOW’ and will spend as much as they can afford. I try to stay out of the showroom world so I don’t get in the way. I love this part of the business though, because I just let Rita take charge and run with it.”
Milford Supply also owns the website Waterheaters911.com, a 24/7 365 commercial water heater delivery service that was developed for them by Rich and Jen Schmitt at Schmitt ProfiTools.
Tim is known throughout the industry for taking on volunteer leadership positions with a number of organizations, including Embassy Group Ltd., American Supply Association and MidWest Distributors Association.
Being a member of Embassy since the early 1990s has helped elevate Milford Supply to the next level. In fact, Tim described joining Embassy as “the single best thing we’ve ever done as a company. I have met the finest business people in this industry and learned so much from them that I could write a book. The sharing of information and the networking is invaluable. The friendships are one of a kind, and I now know someone in every state in the union that I could pick up the phone and not just call, but have a meaningful conversation with. Executives from these very successful companies are very open and share their best practices among each other because they want to make everyone in the group better.
“We feel very lucky to be included in this group. We try to support Embassy vendors with every order. They are the preferred vendors and always will be. We were just a small, local St. Louis wholesaler. Being a part of Embassy has lifted our stature in the eyes of our vendors, and ourselves.”
And to ensure that Milford Supply’s team is as strong as it can be, the company utilizes various ASA Education Foundation courses for employee training. Among the areas of priority are cross training, products and legislation such as lead free and NAECA.
“We hire smart, capable people,” Tim said. “They are our strength and greatest asset. We have quite a few long-term employees — including one with over 40 years, four with more than 30 and several at 20+. Our employees have the authority to make on-the-spot decisions, and I insist that they use that authority. I trust their judgment.
“And our customers rely on them to be knowledgeable and nimble. Customers call us because we react quickly. We solve problems. Everyone who works here can personally make a delivery, quote a price and place an order — including me. At the big boxes, you don’t get that attention.”
Relationships continue to be at the core of Milford Supply, and they have customers that are on their fourth generation of contractors doing business with them. Tim and his team plan a lot of fun activities that gives them the opportunity to interact in a more social setting — Cardinals baseball games at home and road games to cities like Chicago and Milwaukee, Blues hockey games, and Rams and Mizzou football. Often, they incorporate a vendor visit when they are on the road; for example, taking customers on tours of Sloan or Elkay in Chicago, State Water Heaters in Nashville or Sioux Chief in Kansas City.
An eye on the future
It’s obvious that Milford Supply is solidly rooted, and now the third generation of Milford family members has joined the company.
“I’m thrilled that our son, Tim Jr. has come on board last year as an inside salesperson. The industry is changing in some ways, but in many ways it’s still the same. One of the greatest challenges is getting people into the industry because there isn’t a lot of glitz. But it’s a vital industry that always has a necessary place.”
“Tim was a business major in college, but grew up working here part-time. He always told us he wanted to join the business. I’m starting out having him deal with me as little as possible because I think he can learn a lot more from our veteran team who are dealing first-hand with customers day in and day out. I want to give him a taste of all the different aspects of the company.”
For Tim, it’s been an exceptionally rewarding career — and he’s proud of the Milford legacy.
“I think about what my dad started for our family, how good the industry has been to us and the relationships I’ve built with people at all levels of the supply channel,” he said. “I could have been an attorney and probably made more money. But I get so much more enjoyment out of this. Our customers are not people we deal with one time, send a bill to, and never see again. We earn it every day. The people I come in contact with are loyal and salt of the Earth. You don’t get that in very many other places.
“I believe we’re on firm ground, and we’ve got an eye on the future. We are looking at opportunities to grow by adding branches and product diversity. We see a lot of potential for Milford Supply.”