Miller Bros. Const., Inc. has a proud history stretching back 75 years. “We started out by digging ditches,” says President Brad Miller. Since then, the third generation, family owned business has grown from humble beginnings in Northwest Ohio to an industry leader licensed in 12 different states.
Miller’s grandfather, Dale Miller, and his brother, Floyd, began the company as a part-time operation on weekends and during the evenings – but they had a vision that went far beyond digging ditches in their free time. Before long, the brothers were building interstates full-time.
Over the years, the company expanded its scope into just about anything that “was dirt and drainage related,” Miller says. This includes heavy civil site work, underground utilities, building pad construction, mitigation and remediation, demolition and cleanup, SWPPP/erosion control plans, building pad construction, concrete paving, and sanitation projects.
Miller Bros. Const. (MBC) has managed to succeed where few businesses do – into the third generation. What is the secret to the company’s success? “You just put good people around you,” Miller says. “My dad taught me I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room; I just have to know how to hire that person. And actually, more important than their being smart is their character. Dad always emphasized, ‘if you hire good people, you surround yourself with good people, good things are going to happen.’ So we’ve got great people here and I guess we always have.”
The leadership team knows they can trust these people and does not limit them. “The Miller family, when they’ve hired people, they’ve given them the tools that they need and they’ve given them the freedom then to go out and do their job,” says David M. Lersch, Vice President of Administrative Operations. “They haven’t micromanaged their people.”
The Millers’ down-to-earth attitude has not gone unnoticed. “Brad is a very humble leader and I think that just goes miles in our industry,” Lersch says. “[He’s] a guy who doesn’t just sit behind his desk; he’s out on the projects. He knows his superintendents’ names – those are the leaders out in the field – and I think just knowing people by their first name speaks volumes. And he cares about their families and they know that.”
This pro-employee stance is core to the company’s values. “The Miller family has been known for that, for taking care of the families that work for them,” Lersch says. “I think that goes miles in creating a healthy culture.”
The family’s commitment to their employees has earned the company recognition multiple years in a row. The Toledo Blade named MBC a Top Workplace in 2017, 2018, and 2020. The award is based solely on employee feedback gathered through a survey administered by a third party, that measures 15 key components of successful company cultures including alignment, execution, and connection. Lersch believes that the employees answering the questionnaire “feel engaged. I think that’s a big part of the culture here. That’s from Brad giving away authority [to employees] to do their jobs. They feel like they are not just a number. So I think employee engagement is a big deal.” The company hosts regular events to remind employees they are appreciated, including construction appreciation week and an annual Christmas party. The team also posts regularly on social media to instill a sense of pride in their employees and their families.
The team wants to expand this sense of pride to the entire industry, which led the company to become a founding member of I Build America. “I Build America is all about sense of pride in the construction industry,” Miller says. “It really caught our eye when we heard about it.” This sense of pride, he adds, is a rewarding aspect of working in the industry, regardless of the project, because construction professionals build communities.
There is a “sense of pride that workers have,” Miller explains. From driving their families across bridges they have built, to using utilities they laid with their own hands, construction professionals enjoy tangible results from their work. “There is a huge sense of pride and that is what I Build America tapped into and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Along with I Build America, MBC recognizes the work shortage within the construction industry and works to recruit young people. It has become a grass roots effort. “I think our workers are our best recruiters,” says Miller. “They’re talking about it around the Thanksgiving dinner table and they’re helping recruit nephews and nieces, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles.” The company proactively recruits as well. “We have been really intentional the past two years,” Miller says. “We built a new equipment center and training center and we invite elementary children, junior high, and high school kids to come visit our facility. We’re going into the schools.”
The company is also involved in Constructor for a Day, which gives high school and college students a chance to experience a day on the jobsite. The team also reaches out to parents. “We need to get in front of moms and dads and let them know if their children don’t want to go to college there is a great career in construction,” Miller says. Too many parents have an inaccurate, negative image of construction, he explains. They assume “it’s just dirty and it’s cold or it’s hot, but there is a great living financially to be made.”
Lersch adds that it is important to reach parents early, while their children are still in middle school, before the pressure to go to college hits. “At the high school level, everything is, ‘you’ve got to go to college. You’ve got to go to college.’ You really don’t have to. The trades offer a great way to make a nice financial living and you don’t start out with all the college debt. And we have college students obviously too, but there is more than one path or avenue to get into the construction industry.”
College students working for the company have discovered an alternative to the typical office job. “We now have four-year college grads wanting to be out in the field running jobs,” Miller says. “So we are recruiting more on college campuses, just because people want to be outdoors [and have a] sense of pride in doing something. We’ve even changed our leadership model so college graduates are not just in the office anymore; they can be out in the field running work.”
Of course, the team is not relying on recruitment alone. “Not only are we are out recruiting them, we’ve got to retain them,” Miller says, so the team is enacting their own program internally to keep current employees on a solid career path within the company. “We are getting started on something called the Learning Management System. Because there is a labor shortage, we have trouble hiring people from the outside; they’re already working someplace. So we are going to have to develop our own educational process internally.”
The program will help employees map out their careers within MBC, “much like they would go to a four-year college and have different disciplines they have to pass as a freshman, a sophomore, junior, and senior,” Miller explains. “[Being] able to find people that want to be in construction is tough, so we have made a commitment to grow them internally. And that’s something brand new – just one of our strategic initiatives for 2020.”
MBC will rely on its well-trained workforce as the company continues to expand throughout the region. In the last year and a half, the team has hired more people and opened two new offices to meet demand. A new office in the Ann Arbor-Detroit area serves the southeast Michigan market, while a new office in the Columbus area put an end to the back and forth traveling to and from central Ohio for jobs. “We’ve done work down there for years, but did it remotely from three hours away, so we made a conscious effort to hire local people in Columbus and have them do the work down there,” Miller says.
Hiring local talent cuts costs and alleviates the headache of hauling equipment to an out of town worksite. Equally important, reducing travel makes the job much easier for the employees. “That’s back to the family values,” Lersch says. “It’s hard on people to be away from home. The leadership team here wants people to, as much as possible, be sleeping in their own beds at night. That’s why we want that workforce from central Ohio coming from there. We want that workforce from southeast Michigan coming from that area, so our people can get to their kids’ ball games, be involved in the communities. And that’s always been important to the Miller family.”
After three generations and 75 years of growth and success, MBC is ready to meet the challenges of the new decade. From new offices to new educational initiatives and a firm commitment to employees, as well as the industry as a whole, this family owned business is armed with everything it needs.