If you want to do business with Miller Industries, you’ll need to pick up the phone and have an actual conversation with an actual human being or, better, stop by the shop on Kalihi Street, where you can have that same actual conversation face to face with one of those human beings.
That’s it. There is no website. There are no social media accounts. They do have an email account — they aren’t Luddites — but how are you going to get it if you don’t talk to them?
Beyond that, if you’re looking for consumer intel on the family-owned tire repair and automotive service equipment company, there’s that five-star Google review one of their customers submitted three years ago, but that’s as far as it goes. There are no reviews on Yelp.
“There’s no flash,” admits Mark Miller, the second-generation head honcho of the company’s Honolulu location. “No advertising. No neon sign outside. We try to keep things simple.”
Talk to the right people, though, and the word of mouth is as good as it gets. Good folks, those Millers. Salt of the earth. Old-school, word-is-bond guys.
It starts with company founder Bill Miller, who spent an itinerant childhood shuttling from one island to the next with his family as his father plied his trade helping small businesses set up tire retread shops.
“We’d take tramp steamers between channels,” Miller recalled. “We’d get the crews trained and the businesses up and running.”
Work was fruitful thanks to the presence of the old plantations and their insatiable need to keep their transportation operations running smoothly. During the war years the business stayed afloat servicing the military.
As a teenager Miller would spend summers helping out. By then the family had settled in Hilo, where Miller spent long days along the ocean, fishing and collecting opihi and limu.
After graduating from Kamehameha Schools, where he was a standout athlete, Miller did a short stint at the University of Hawaii at Hilo before joining the Navy.
Returning to Hilo a couple of years later, Miller got a tip from his father that one of his father’s suppliers from the mainland was looking to set up shop in the islands. Miller wound up setting up the company’s local warehouses and handling sales for them for the next five years.
“It was easy for me because my old man trained most of the people I sold to,” Miller said. “These guys knew me when I was in diapers.”
Miller eventually started a new business with a partner. The arrangement lasted 11 years before the two parted ways and Miller took sole control of the company.
By this time Miller and his wife, the former Elizabeth Aiona, a Kamehameha classmate, were raising a brood of four boys — Marlon, Mark, Bradley and Mitchell, known within the family as M1, M2, M3 and M4.
“My wife did the most of the raising of the kids,” Miller said. “She brought up four boys the right way. No one does dope. None of them have been in jail. And she loved having people around the house all the time. Our house was a gathering place for all their classmates. Everybody felt comfortable there.”
Elizabeth died in November, just a few months shy of the couple’s 58th wedding anniversary.
With things secure on the home front, Miller guided his business with a steady and progressive hand, sagely reading shifts in the industry and forging long-term relationships with local dealerships who came to rely on his business not just for brand-name parts, but for ongoing maintenance and servicing that has allowed the company to survive online competition.
Miller has stepped back in recent years, handing day-to-day management of the business to Mark in Honolulu and Marlon at the company’s other location on Hawaii island. (Bradley is a training instructor for the Department of Defense/ Department of Public Safety Federal Police Academy, and Mitchell has his own trucking equipment rental company called, of course, M4 Services.)
Mark Miller said working alongside his father for many years prepared him to keep the business going with the same principles and values to which his father always adhered.
“No BS, pay your bills on time, old-school,” Miller said. “My dad was a workaholic, and he showed us how to work hard. He also taught us to respect everybody and treat them right.”
Jennifer Scott, who works in the Honolulu office, said she appreciates the “Miller work ethic” and the family’s emphasis on faith, family and community. Former employee Tim Bowden said the Millers pay for 100 percent of their employees’ medical and retirement benefits.
They’ve also sponsored numerous youth athletic teams and have provided help during times of crisis. In the wake of Hurricane Iniki, for example, Mark Miller loaded a fishing boat with generators, air compressors, repair material and other supplies and sailed to Kauai to help recovery efforts.
How far into the future the business extends could depend on Miller’s daughter, Lalea, who recently graduated with a degree in business and is being groomed to succeed her father.
“We’ll see how she likes the pressure,” he said.
For now Mark Miller still works his standard 10-hour days and keeps his cellphone close at hand on the one or two days he allows himself to take off. Bill Miller also continues to put in hours at the office twice a week.
“I still take orders from Pop,” Mark Miller said, laughing.
Reach Michael Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.