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Necessity is the mother of invention. But what does it mean to really invent? Sometimes it comes in the form of a product, but other times it’s simply meeting a need through service.
In the late 60s, Tom Milford was working for a local supply house in Saint Louis and wanted to break out on his own. Tom understood that customer relationships were key. One must foster and maintain respect and uphold customer service , to stand out and move ahead. He thought long about going into business for himself and was encouraged to follow through when his employer’s customers said they would follow him wherever he went.
Tom, at the age of 42, along with his brother-in law, Bob Allan, opened Milford Supply on June 1, 1969.
The company was a single storefront plumbing and pipe distributor in Saint Louis, Missouri. With a vision to create the best customer-driven supply house in the area, the partners set forth to build a thriving business. Eventually Tom acquired 100 percent of the company and has since made it a family business celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Today, the company has 6 locations in the greater St. Louis area, with two Kohler Showrooms. Milford Supply also hosts a website called Water Heaters 911 that services commercial emergencies with 24-hour fulfillment and delivery. CEO and President, Tim Milford, Sr., who happens to be Tom’s son, runs the company, which is today part of the Embassy Buying Group. Tim’s wife Rita is a showroom manager for its Kohler stores, and Tim, Jr. started with the business a few years ago. The company has more than 40 full-time employees, and as Tim, Sr. says, “All of our employees are homegrown, St. Louisans so to speak.”
Milford Supply is as true to the mission today as it was when it started. “We are known as your hometown supply house. Our mission is to keep the customer happy by doing it right every time,” Sr. said.
We talked with Tim Milford, Sr. and asked him to share about the history of the company, its success, and what makes it best in class.
Ruth Mitchell: Tim, when did you join jump into the family company? What was your path to be becoming president and CEO?
Tim Milford, Sr: I graduated college in 1981 with a business degree and started full-time with the company as the controller. That put me in touch with customers, as well as other small supply house owners. While working, I went to grad school for my master’s in business, and then on to law school at St. Louis University.
RM: Who is your customer?
TM: Our strength is in the fact we have a wide variety of customers. With two showrooms, we service designers, remodelers, and home owners. With our commercial quotation department, which was a cornerstone to the company when it opened, we supply products to the biggest homebuilder in town. So, residential and commercial plumbers are important. Hospitals, school districts, building management companies, and repair plumbers are also thrown in the mix. Add to that HVAC, we have a wide variety of customers.
RM: Can you talk about the company culture?
TM: MSC is all about getting the job done. We are customer focused. We have some customers that have been with us since we opened—that’s loyalty! Our company culture encourages all our employees to learn the business, and then learn how to help the customer and keep them coming back.
We are also focused on our employees, many with long-term service. Bob Miromonti is celebrating his 46th year as a salesman. His customers won’t talk to anyone but him. Ron Kaup is in his 41st year as a salesman, and my cousins Jack Milford and Dan Milford have both been with the company for more than 35 years. These guys run rings around me when it comes to plumbing knowledge. I like to say, “they have forgotten more than I have ever known about plumbing.” In addition, Jim Ahrens, Sherry Milford, Betsy Keith, Dave Graham, TJ Militzer, Gary Payne, Stan Noll, Clarence Ponzer, all with more than 25 years in the industry.
RM: Wow! It sounds like incredible loyalty to the company and the Milford family. This loyalty goes back to when the company was started. Tell me about your dad.
TM: My father was not a manger; he was a natural salesman. He did not have a formal business education, but he sure had sales experience and that is what he used to manage the company the first few years. He led by example and by being a man of integrity. My dad was smart enough to hire good people, and that is what he taught me. Hire good people and then get out of their way.
RM: How do you attract new talent to your company?
TM: There are a couple different approaches. My son Tim is active in recruiting through networking. Rita recruits for the showroom through an online jobsite. Attracting new talent to our company and our industry is critical and it’s difficult to find the right people. Word-of-mouth works too, but there is not one tried and true way to find talent.
RM: When the company was founded your father wanted to create the best customer-driven supply house in the area. He focused on personal relationships and excellent service. How do you accomplish this, and what tools/support do you provide to your employees to create this magic?
TM: This is still a relationship business. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be working in it. My father always had a lunch scheduled with a customer to thank them and try to do more with them. We learned to treat customers the same way. He couldn’t drive a nail through a bar of soap, but he could sell. He never wanted to look at the books, but he took every phone call he could and made the other person on the phone want to buy from him. We give our employees whatever tools they need to make the sale, but it comes down to the relationship. Either you have them, or you don’t.
RM: In what type of educational opportunities do you encourage your employees to take part?
TM: ASA’s Education Foundation is a big part of our training, and they are far and wide one of the best resources for content and delivery. In addition, we have weekly lunch and learns with reps, and have P.E.U.’s for plumbers and employees. We also take part in factory trips. We must remember that education separates us from the internet and big boxes. People will pay you if you know what you are talking about.
RM: How do you encourage interest in the trade?
TM: I was president of ASA in 2016, and during that time, I spoke about the problem of attracting interest to this industry. Today, we (collectively as an industry) are still not meeting the number of applicants needed. We need to do a better job explaining to our youth that this is a vibrant and lucrative career path. As a plumber, you can start out making a six-figure income! Even with this opportunity, still can’t get enough applications for the jobs out there.
RM: What initiatives did you implement when you became president and CEO?
TM: Modernize! When I started, there were no fax machines, no internet, no websites, no cell phones, no fiber optics, and no computers. I made sure we got onboard as soon as we could and continue to do so to this day. I told our team, “I’ll keep our heads above the water, you go out and sell.” We’ll figure it out as we go.
RM: What technology has been incorporated into the showroom/warehouse/business?
TM: Technology is vital to success, so I look to those in the industry that are the best at what they do and try to emulate them. We use Eclipse (Epicor) and Phocas, and they’re both very important to our business. All our employees are trained on our system and provided remote access and a smart phone. Designers in the showroom use 20/20, and they have big screens to show results. I really enjoy watching the showroom designers help someone redo a kitchen or bathroom. The goal is that we never stop improving.
RM: What new initiatives are being implemented at the company to keep it moving toward the next 50 years?
TM: I won’t worry about the next 50 years. The next generation is implementing what is needed for the next 50 years, not me. I am looking at them for answers, because I don’t have them, and they will. They are bright, resourceful, and ambitious, and I am getting out of their way.
RM: What are some of the key factors that helped you learn the business?
TM: Number 1 was my father. He and I were like-minded, and I spent a lot of time with him at and away from work. I also joined industry organizations and learned who was who in the business. I joined the plumbing industry council, the plumbing suppliers and rep council, and participated in HBA, NKBA, AGC, ASPE, MCAA, ACA, HARDI, and more.
RM: How has being a part of a buying group helped you in business? What does the buying group provide that you cannot find elsewhere?
TM: If I had to name the best thing my father did to help MSC, it was becoming a member of the Embassy Buying Group. There isn’t even a close second. The members and vendors are second to none. We are constantly told that we do it right, and I believe it to be true. Thank you, Embassy Group. The networking and best practices are priceless, and the discussions with the technology committee and the vendor committee are so useful. I just can’t say enough. The friendships are real, and I believe I know a distributor in every state in the union because of Embassy. Mike Lepley, Maureen Cousins, and Shari Kelly are special people that make Embassy run smoothly.
RM: You’re are a past president of ASA. Tell me why it was important to serve.
TM: ASA is an awesome organization that is so important to our industry and is indispensable to achieving prosperity in the industry. ASA brings together the biggest wholesalers and the smallest wholesalers with equal voices. They are awesome. It was important for me to serve to give back to this great industry and to help other companies grow and succeed. Together, we make a stronger union.
RM: Talk about a lesson your father taught you both personally and professionally.
TM: I learned so much from my father, and first and foremost is to appreciate what you have and help others in life and in business. My dad’s older brother was disabled and died at the age of 14. My dad always helped those less fortunate physically, mentally, spiritually, or economically. I learned that is what is most important from my dad. The business came second.
After that lesson, I realized some other valuable items:
I learned by doing what he did, others I learned by doing what he didn’t do.
Work hard, every day. He said in this business it’s today that counts, nobody cares what you did for them yesterday.
He worked hard and let you know who your friends in the business were and who weren’t.
RM: What is your greatest achievement?
TM: I don’t know about my greatest achievement, but the company’s greatest achievement was keeping the doors open after 2008 recession. I was not prepared and had to scramble daily to keep all the balls in the air for several years, but it was a valuable lesson, and an important one. Business is always changing, be prepared.
RM: What do you love most about this industry?
TM: It’s the people. Period. I love working with employees, vendors, reps, plumbers—everyone! The industry is like an old pair of blue jeans—whenever you put them on, they just feel good. The people are salt of the earth. It is an honest industry with opportunities to contribute to making this a better place. After all, the plumber protects the health of the nation.
RM: What sets Milford Supply apart from your competition?
TM: Simple, our people. Long-term employees know the business, and mentor the others. Our team builds great relationships with our customers. That’s what our business is all about. Employees that like what they do…and it shows.
RM: What are your keys to success?
TM: Knowing that what we do is important. We do jobs that put people in houses and put products into the world to make it a better place. We keep schools functioning, businesses running, and all things plumbing in our city working. It’s confidence in our leadership to know that we are still accomplishing good for the area.
In addition, we take care of our customer, who in turn takes care of theirs. They can make a great living and it’s all because they trust us with their customers. I tell my employees that everyone needs to make money or else the system breaks down. If we cost our customer money by misinforming them, not delivering on time, not having it in stock, or not billing correctly, then they will go elsewhere. People deal with you if they can make money. If not, they will go elsewhere. We all need to make money and provide great service at the same time.
RM: What community-based initiatives are you /the company involved?
TM: As an active member of the South Side Lions Club, I am past president and a Melvin Jones Fellow, and proud of my 30-year membership. Along with many plumbers and businessmen, we strive to help others that are less fortune. The Southside Lions Club is very active with charities in the St. Louis area, especially helping the blind and deaf.
RM: In 10 words or less, tell me how you would describe your company?
TM: Fun, transparent, involved, productive, challenging, dependable, organized, reliable, adaptive, dedicated, progressive, outside the box.
RM: Tell me a story about the company that you like to tell. It could be a hard lesson, exceptional customer service, or “this could only happen to me” story.
TM: I will never forget when Joplin, Missouri was hit by a devastating EF–5 tornado in 2011. More than 100 people died, and the city was at a standstill. Nothing was functioning, and everything was flattened. It was total devastation. Milford Supply’s employees responded by filling our trucks with water, food, and clothing to join a caravan from St. Louis to Joplin. We drove 285 miles each way on a Saturday, and I had to tell some people that wanted to help that we had no more room; we had packed trucks. I felt good about that selflessness shown by my employees and this is the way our industry responds when people are in need.
RM: What lasting impression do you want folks to have of your company, and how do you go about making sure that is accomplished?
TM: We aren’t the biggest and don’t try to be. But we are honest, and we think a great place to work. Helping people is what we enjoy, and that involves selling plumbing, cabinets, HVAC, and doing it with a smile.