Family-owned company dives into robotics.
Many companies talk a good game about “giving back” to their communities. But Grand Rapids, Michigan-based welding and industrial, medical and specialty gases distributor Miller Welding Supply Company puts those words into action.
Each year, the team at Miller Welding Supply holds a barbecue as a fundraiser for Hospice of Michigan, an organization that helps families cope with the impending death of loved ones. At the one-day event, which runs only from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., the company typically raises between $4,000 and $8,000. Miller Welding Supply also is heavily involved with the charity’s 5K Walk and Remember event, securing pledges from family, friends, vendors and customers. All told throughout 2007, employees of Miller Welding Supply raised nearly $35,000 for Hospice of Michigan. “It’s really an incredible charity, and we strongly believe in giving back to our community,” says Miller Welding Supply Treasurer and Hospice of Michigan Foundation Board Member LeeAnn Ryan.
Giving has always been part of the company philosophy. In addition to the hospice fundraisers, Miller Welding Supply supports local churches, schools and athletic teams. Last October, the company helped a Cub Scout troop earn badges by teaching them to weld their initials into a piece of steel. Such an attitude makes sense for the company; after all, the company itself was something of a gift from wealthy Grand Rapids industrialist J.C. Miller to his friends Cecil Cooper and Harvey Voshel after World War II.
History in the Making
The plating business operated by the J.C. Miller Company had turned to selling some welding equipment during wartime, but once the war ended, J.C. Miller wanted to return the company’s focus to plating. He spun off the welding side, leaving Cooper and Voshel in charge. The company was incorporated as Miller Welding Supply Company in 1946. Another partner, Art Hedges, bought into the business in 1947.
In 1959, Jerry Clay, a friend of Art Hedges, began working in Miller Welding Supply’s warehouse. Clay had been earning good money as a union milk truck driver, but didn’t see much growth potential in that job. He took a substantial pay cut to join Miller Welding Supply, and quickly fell in love with the business. Clay worked himself up through Miller’s ranks, working in the warehouse, on delivery trucks and in sales until he was able to buy the business in 1968.
Though Jerry Clay retired in 2003, his legacy remains in the next generation of family management—his children: President Michael Clay, Vice President Patrick Clay and Treasurer LeeAnn Ryan. Though the two brothers took to it fairly quickly after college, it took their sister a little prodding. Ryan worked long hours (nights, weekends and holidays) in retail management on the East Coast for about eight years following college. “My parents told me that if I was going to work that hard, why not come home and work for the family business and be close to home,” Ryan recalls.
The siblings’ combined expertise—Michael has 22 years of experience, Patrick has 16 and LeeAnn has 13—gives Miller Welding Supply insight into the needs of its customers. “We all started at the bottom, and growing up in the business truly gives us a passion for our customers,” Michael says.
Helping them achieve that goal is a team of 13 outside salespeople, 6 delivery drivers and 18 inside support staff, and Michael Clay is quick to praise them all. “They are our biggest resource. They make us what we are,” he says.
What they are is a welding consumable, equipment and industrial gas distributor, specializing in automation. Having partnered with Lincoln Electric in the early 1980s, Miller Welding Supply is now among Lincoln’s most prolific distributors, working closely with Fanuc Robotics to provide expertise in automated welding.
A Push Toward Automation
“We portray to our employees that the customers are everything to us. We do just about anything within reason to satisfy the requirements of our customer base,” Michael Clay says. Those requirements are changing, as the well-documented struggles of the Michigan economy have led Miller Welding Supply to diversify its customer base. As automotive clients become less a part of the mix, Miller has turned to industries such as office furniture, steel and sheet metal fabrication, steel erection and defense. “We’ve been very fortunate on the west side of Michigan. Our customers continue to have backlogs on work and there’s a lot of development going on,” Clay adds, alluding to such burgeoning markets as biomedical companies and research laboratories.
Even as the demographics of the market change, Michael Clay believes the company’s history of automation expertise gives it an enormous competitive advantage. When welding robotics started to become popular in the late 1980s, Jerry Clay saw the opportunities such a technology would provide for customers. “My father realized that there was really something to be had, and he worked very closely with Lincoln Electric to develop our capabilities,” Michael Clay explains. Jerry hired welding engineer Paul Vencato and tasked him with learning all about welding automation. Vencato took the challenge to heart, and is now among the leading authorities on welding robotics and automation in the industry.
“When we got involved with that technology, we were six or seven years ahead of every competitor in our direct market,” Michael Clay says. “Plus, we had Paul training our other welding engineers who came up behind him.” Miller Welding Supply has now created a team of specialists, with certain engineers focused on engineering, automation, metallurgy and other fields.
To maintain that advantage, the Miller Welding Supply team undergoes continuous training on advancements in robotic technology and integration. Much of that training is conducted by suppliers, but Vencato also continues to learn about the industry and share his knowledge with others. “There’s nothing Paul won’t do to get an answer for a customer. If he doesn’t know, he’ll figure it out,” Ryan says. “He’s a go-getter and wants to know as much as he can so he won’t let his customers down.”
Miller Welding Supply also houses a demonstration welding cell at its facility that customers can use for parts samples, runoff testing or cycle time studies. If a customer’s robot goes down, Miller Welding Supply can deliver its own piece of equipment to keep the customer running. “This technology improves quickly, so we have the latest and greatest for customers to see,” Ryan says. “As you can imagine, that’s a very capital-intensive investment. But it’s something that we believe in and really lends itself well to our customers and our partnerships.”
Built on Service
Automated welding products currently make up about a quarter of Miller Welding Supply’s sales, with traditional welding equipment and gas sales comprising the remaining 75 percent. Regardless of the application, the company is fanatic about customer service. The company’s 37 employees are all trained to be the best customer advocates that they can be. “There are four other distributors within a five-mile radius that sell what we sell,” Ryan says. “Customers can get their goods wherever they want. The only thing for us to fall back on is our service.”
As part of that quality customer service, the employees of Miller Welding Supply have the ability to make quick decisions. “We give our people a lot of autonomy,” Ryan says. “We give a lot of latitude in decision-making, because we want our people to be nimble. In this environment, it’s hard to be super-structured.”
Michael Clay agrees. “It’s not a static environment. What you think is crucial to get done at 7:30 a.m. has changed by 9:30,” he says. “If that frustrates you, this probably isn’t the place for you to work.” Therefore, when seeking employees, Clay and his management team look for hard-working people who can easily multi-task. “We don’t have exact job functions with precise tasks to do each day. It’s a fast pace,” he says.
Clay oversees four other branches out of the company’s 18,000 sq. ft. headquarters building in Grand Rapids. “We do all the administrative work and supervising out of here, so our team has to stay focused. I sometimes refer to it as the floor of the stock exchange because at our height of daily operations, that’s sort of how it looks.”
In addition to the main facility, Miller Welding Supply has offices in Buchanan, Jackson and Schoolcraft, Michigan, allowing the company to cover a large market area that stretches north to Traverse City and south into northern Indiana. Sister company Miller Industrial Gases and its gas filling plant in Grand Rapids are overseen by Patrick Clay, who handles all bulk and specialty gases and fill plant operations as part of his duties as vice president. Started in 1999 with basically no expertise in gases, Miller Industrial Gases has seen dramatic increases in all areas including bulk, cylinder and specialty gases.
A Bright Future
Michael Clay believes Miller Welding Supply’s focus on continued growth and advancements in technology have it poised for even greater future success. “We are in the midst of a trend where companies that previously had 200 welders might now have 100, but they also have a bunch of robotic arms that run 24/7, if necessary,” he says. “It’s our job to keep the customers’ costs as low as possible by minimizing the overhead dollars that come along with employees as opposed to automated capital equipment.”
Not that he wants companies to downsize. “Our goal is to help our customers keep jobs in the state of Michigan,” he says. “Automation may cause them to lose some positions, but the companies will make money and keep their manufacturing dollars in western Michigan. Plus, they will continue to be more competitive in the global market.” Helping his case is that automation is more affordable now than it has ever been, giving more companies the opportunity to cut costs and stay open. “Going back 15 or 20 years, you might have been talking about an $80,000 robotic cell, which might have been half a million in today’s dollars. Today, for $75,000 to $80,000, you can have it up and running yourself, producing parts at 50 times faster than you could on a manual basis.”
As automation continues to become more a part of industrial life, welding and industrial, medical and specialty gases distributor Miller Welding Supply is ready to help.