A Sawmill Guided by Servant Leadership Principles
Frank Miller Lumber
Frank Miller Lumber has a history stretching back more than a century to a small lumber mill that served farmers in rural Union City, Indiana. Today, the bustling company supplies lumber to a wide variety of wholesale clients and runs a retail operation for the public.
Specializing in quartersawn hardwood, Frank Miller Lumber emphasizes sustainability and servant leadership. The company maintains a strong bond with employees who receive generous benefits including a unique workplace chaplaincy service.
Operations are based at a pair of plants situated on twenty acres of land in Union City. Plant One features: twenty kilns, a pair of boilers, three pre-dryers, an air-dry area, offices, and a grading station. Plant Two features: a sawmill, lumber preparing station, facilities for warehousing and shipping, more offices, and a retail store. Aside from some administrative tasks, all company services are self-performed.
“We sell to other manufacturers or distributors. Our manufacturers are either flooring, furniture, or cabinetry/millwork companies. We sell both to commercial and residential customers. Our distribution network typically sells to these same types of customers but on a smaller scale,” explains Chief Executive Officer and President, Steve James.
Frank Miller Lumber is partial to producing quartersawn red and white oak. Quartersawn lumber has several advantages, but is more expensive as it is more labor-intensive to mill. To create this type of lumber, the log is first sawn into quarters. One of the two re-saws slice alternating faces of the quartered log from the inside out while turning it end-for-end on a carousel between each pass through the saw. This creates boards with a straight grain in which the growth rings of the tree are 45 – 90 degrees to the face of the board. Its distinctive appearance makes it desirable to designers, architects, and custom furniture makers.
The company produces quartersawn hard maple and cherry, albeit on a more limited basis. The company has provided lumber for high-profile projects such as the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, San Francisco City Hall, and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City.
“We are very proud to have supplied the beautiful quartersawn red oak used in the Kauffman Center. It showcases the beauty of red oak. Red oak is often overlooked for the more popular white oak. Red oak makes up nearly thirty-five percent of our forests and is a very cost-effective alternative to white oak,” states James.
The company’s 18,000-square-foot retail outlet displays a selection of plainsawn and quartersawn lumber, plywood, and exotic wood. Retail customers are generally small manufacturers in the cabinetry, flooring, millwork, and furniture sectors who purchase less than 3,000 board feet per order.
“Frank Miller Lumber achieved Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification in 2009 and is an enthusiastic proponent of sustainability. FSC certification entails purchasing and harvesting lumber from sustainable sources. It uses every part of each log it saws, either for lumber or commercial by-products. The focus on environmental protection and zero waste makes good economic sense,” says James.
“Without sustaining our forests, we don’t have a business. FSC traces the log from where it was cut down to when it becomes an end product. As an industry, we have a bad reputation, [thanks] to decisions from people before us to devastate forests and do massive clear cuts. We want to make sure the public knows we are a company that takes forest management seriously so that American hardwoods can be around for generations to come,” James notes.
It is a logical, long-term view for a company that can trace its heritage to 1903 when John Miller acquired a lumber mill in a rural region. The company expanded, and when John Miller died, his son, Frank Miller took over, and it acquired its current name. Miller family members and their spouses continue to work for the company today.
The enduring success of Frank Miller Lumber can be attributed to several factors, the strategic location being among them. The operation is situated near “the transportation intersection of America,” as the company website puts it. Ports on the West, East, and Gulf Coasts can be reached in two days traveling time from the sawmill, which is also located near air, rail, and road hubs.
“All of our lumber goes out of here on trucks. Fifteen to twenty percent go into containers that are shipped overseas but leave on chassis, typically via railway systems that ship to the East Coast. Most of the remaining lumber is either loaded onto flatbeds or curtain-side trailers. We are 30 minutes north of I-70 and 45 minutes west of I-75,” explains James.
High standards are a key to the business’ success. A quality control manager randomly samples wood bundles daily then compiles a monthly report which is reviewed by the entire management team. An executive director of operations is responsible for ensuring that stringent standards are met.
The company retains a safety manager who regularly meets with staff, runs training, and tabulates safety-related data. The leadership team conducts monthly safety tours to interact with workers and address safety concerns.
“We are very family and community oriented. We take care of our employees. We are very philanthropic in our community, with our money and time,” James says of the company’s longevity.
He sits on the board of Randolph County United, a community organization promoting local economic development and tourism, among other activities. He is involved in area internship programs designed to prepare students for the workforce. “We feel it’s important to invest back into the community that has supported us for more than a century,” James states.
The company belongs to several trade organizations, including the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), the Hardwood Manufacturers Association (HMA), the Indiana Hardwood Lumbermen’s Association (IHLA), and the Hardwood Federation. These associations keep members abreast of industry trends and “educate non-members on how we help the sustainability of hardwood forests,” says James.
Frank Miller Lumber offers its employees’ health benefits and a 401(k) plan with matching contributions. The workforce is guided by servant leadership principles. “We are a family-owned business, and we treat our employees like they are family. We believe in servant leadership. I am a John-Maxwell-certified trainer, speaker, and coach, and we take the [servant leadership] philosophy all the way through the company,” states James.
“Servant leadership means serving those around me. I serve the owners; I serve my staff; I serve my local community. I give the folks around me encouragement, give them the tools to make them better,” James continues.
John Maxwell is a former small-town Ohio church pastor turned leadership guru and bestselling author whose books include The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, The 5 Levels of Leadership, and Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn. James has shared Maxwell’s leadership insights at presentations to Frank Miller staff and outside firms.
The company has arranged for non-denominational workplace chaplains to visit its facilities and chat with employees who wish to engage. According to James, this initiative is conducted in a relaxed manner, with a focus on communication, not proselytizing.
Frank Miller Lumber’s special relationship with its employees has proven beneficial for both workplace morale and the bottom line.
“We have done a great job treating our employees with dignity and respect. We have lunch days once a month, and we give out gift cards for any action that goes above and beyond what is expected,” James says.
In the same spirit, Frank Miller Lumber took a comprehensive, cautious approach to keep its workers safe when COVID struck in 2020. As an essential service, the company did not have to close. Revenues were protected thanks to a forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). The company implemented Centers for Disease Control (CDC) social distancing guidelines and enhanced cleaning efforts. Anyone who got sick was sent home to recover. Before returning to work, they had to either show a negative COVID test result or spend a required amount of time in quarantine. The COVID virus “has not had a major impact on us,” James notes.
The company does face some non-COVID-related challenges (or opportunities, as James prefers to call them). He points to the bourbon industry, which prefers white oak over red oak, as the latter is too porous to use for storage.
“Our biggest opportunity is to promote red oak,” states James. “We need to promote red oak as a substitute to white oak. There is a stigma in the United States that red oak is undesirable because of its color. We need to change the mindset.”
Oak issues aside, the future looks extremely bright. In addition to enhancing existing lumber operations, there is talk at Frank Miller about launching a professional leadership training service for other firms.
When I asked James where he envisions the company to be in five years, he replied, “the same but better. Our core products are why we are still in business after 118 years. We need to get our production levels up and install more technology. We need to be a little more diverse in our offerings but not a lot. We would like to get our professional services off the ground and offer more value for our customers.”