Business Interview: Keith Miller, founder of Miller International

As Cramlington-based engineering firm Miller approaches its 35th anniversary, Michael Brown talks to founder Keith Miller about a "nightmare" last five years and why he believes he and his long-serving staff have finally turned a corner

Keith Miller, founder of Miller International
Keith Miller, founder of Miller International

Reaching 35 years in any industry must stand as a major milestone. But after the past five years you could perhaps forgive family-owned, earth-moving kit- maker Miller International – and boss Keith – for just being happy to still be in business.

The firm, which has a base in Cramlington, was one of the region’s highest profile victims of the recession, seeing sales drop by over 80% in only two years and having to lay off half of its 240-strong workforce.

Yet catching up with the former welding engineer on the eve of a party for staff, many of whom have been with the company for more than two decades, he’s in no mood to look back. Indeed with a book of order prospects that recently stood at £78m, of which it’s hoped at least 30% will turn into orders by summer 2014, the message seems clear – once again, it’s Miller time.

“We’re celebrating 35 years, but also coming out of recession,” says Miller, 56, who describes the period since 2008 as “a nightmare.”

“In 30 years – even during recession – we’d grown, and become a global company – but then in 2008 things started to taper off and in 2009 we entered free fall.

“Orders reduced by 83%. It was a disaster. But we did everything we could to save the business – and we survived.”

As a 21-year-old, Miller left a steady job as a welding engineer – “I asked my boss at the time where he saw my future and he said: ‘You’re a second-rate welder and that’s all you’ll ever be’,” he says – and set up on his own, repairing machinery buckets for quarries, mines, and the construction industry.

Within a year he had so much work he’d taken on younger brother Gary, and as the business grew – moving into bucket-building as well as repair – the pair set up a factory in Tower Street on Newcastle’s Quayside. Two years after that, in 1981, sister Jacqueline made it a true family affair, joining in a sales capacity. But the product that would shape the company – the Pin-Pick-Up Quick Coupler – would not arrive until 1989. A combination of a Kiwi idea and North East know how the Mag Seven, named for the “magnificent seven” seconds it took to couple and uncouple machinery.

After a slow start the Mag Seven went global, seeing the firm named a supplier of choice to Caterpillar Inc., allowing the move to the company’s current 150,000 sq ft Northumberland home and, in 2005, seeing a join venture set up with a foundry in China to deliver Miller’s designs to the Asian market.

Then the crash came – but since 2011/12 the company has been investing heavily in research and development, and as the construction industry has slowly recovered so, Keith says, have Miller’s fortunes.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been in better shape,” he says resolutely. “All be it, confidence levels are still recovering – but the demand is there and hopefully it is growing.

“I think we can feel bullish because new markets need to build infrastructure, while in the west they need to carry out repairs – which creates a need for our products, and in turn secures jobs in the North East.

“We’re very proud to be based near Newcastle and though we’re expanding abroad and looking to buy another company or two we also want to employ more North East people.”

To maintain the positive transition Miller is looking to the Far East and to invest further.

“I’ve just booked my flights to go to Shanghai and Korea,” says Miller, “and though we may in the past few years have had to batten down the hatches, sooner or later you’ve got to invest – it’s the only way you can grow.

“You could just sit back and be safe and stationary but if you look at the cycle of growth and recession then the downturn only usually lasts seven years max – so next year I think we’ll see growth again.

“North America is doing well and the UK is getting better and while a lot of people are cautious I don’t believe there’s any reason to believe anything else.”

To that end Miller is upping it’s staff numbers to between 200 and 220 employees and investing in plant machinery, ready for the orders to come.

And while sales may have dropped to just £8m in 2009, the company – which is headquartered in Gibraltar - is fighting back, increasing sales to £13m in 2010, then more than £17m in 2011, before topping £25m last year.

Of that exports currently account around 60% of its sales and so it is understandable that the firm is looking overseas to increase its market share back up to at least 70% from just over 50%, where it currently stands.

“The main opportunities are in Asia and Australasia, but while people talk about Europe as being ‘awful’ but it’s still a big area and most of the countries’ economies are stable or experiencing single digit growth – and that too still presents some opportunities.

But hitting the 35th anniversary milestone is not just about looking to the future, and Miller admits it is also a chance to celebrate with his loyal workforce, many of whom have been with the business for a very long time.

“I always knew we would survive and get back on the growth path sooner or later,” said Miller. “But I didn’t think the recession would last as long as it has.

“And so I’m very grateful to my loyal staff – many of whom started their careers with us and are still here.

“With our employees, if they’ve only been with us 12 or 14 years, then they are the new kids on the block. Many have worked for Miller for 20 years or more.

“It means there’s a great feeling of camaraderie in the business – you have to have been through what we have to fully understand – and now they are really looking forward to the future.

“It’s good to know you have people you can depend on if you find yourself in the trenches, and I’m a firm believer it’s important to have a great team.”

Miller hopes it will be that team that will help propel the firm to become a “one stop shop” for the “latest and greatest” equipment – but first they’re going for a well deserved nights clubbing in Newcastle to mark the 35 year milestone.

“We need to celebrate our survival – then we can concentrate on expanding the business,” says Miller. “And hopefully that can lead to significant growth.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer