Miller Fabricators Camden, N.J.
"A machine can still only do so much."
By K. Schipper
CAMDEN, N.J. – Parents often wonder if their growing children ever hear a word they say. Bernard Miller Sr. doesn’t have that problem. The now-retired founder of Miller Fabricators saw his two youngest sons take his business and grow it – slowly and carefully, as he would do. That means with care and kindness for their customers and their employees while playing the long game and putting their faith in God. Although the company is comparatively new to fabricating stone and quartz-surface countertops for kitchens and baths, the move really helped the operation expand. Aaron Miller, the company’s CEO, and his younger brother Eric, the chief operations officer, are in the process of completing an expansion of their facilities in Camden and adding a second off-site showroom, with more on the horizon.
A LAMINATE BASE
Miller Fabricators dates to 1973, when Bernard Miller made laminated furniture from a garage in East Camden. Following a fire in the garage, he got a business license and bought a building in Camden – a community across the Delaware River from Philadelphia -- for $15,000. The building remains the heart of the operation even today. “Custom laminate is still popular, but in those days it was very popular,” says Aaron Miller. “We were making a lot of laminate parson’s tables and we did a lot of laminate refacing on cabinets. My dad would make wall units, custom bar units, and different types of furniture.” The senior Miller slowly grew his business into other things, offering cabinets and expanding into solid surface when that came on the market. Today, Aaron Miller says the cabinets aren’t necessarily for the company’s retail customers, but for its bigger clients. “We don’t really solicit much retail because a lot of it is referrals from kitchen and bath shops,” he says. “But we do a lot of builder work and multi-family projects where we can be a complete one-stop shop for the kitchen and bathroom.” It’s that desire to be a one-stop experience for its clientele that got Miller Fabricators into stone and quartz-surface countertops. Aaron Miller says some of that comes from contracts the company has with some of the big box stores. And he also observes that there aren’t very many shops that can offer laminate and solid surface and stone and cabinets. “You have your pure stone shops and your pure laminate shops,” he says. “The laminate shops are dying out, but that’s always been our bread-and-butter. We wanted to see if we could be a full-service shop for the Tri-state region. It would help grow our business and solve a problem for our customers.” The company started slowly, first selling stone and quartz jobs and subbing out the work. Then, Miller Fabrication began doing its own installations. “We like to train within, and we were training and doing the installations and building up our shop,” he says. “We started producing our own stone about three years ago, so it’s been about a five-year process, and we’ve added to the inventory as we’ve grown.” The success of that move is the biggest reason behind a physical growth spurt the company is experiencing. Miller Fabricators is adding two new buildings next to its original location totaling 10,000 ft2 that will help expand the fabrication space and slab storage. “We acquired the land a few years ago,” says Aaron Miller. “Like our dad, we’re trying to control costs, so we took our time in building it up. And we’ve purchased about 3,000 ft2 that’s across the street that will be used strictly for remnants.”
“God pushes us to help people, even if it’s just to give them a job where they can learn a trade and a skill they can use for the rest of their lives.”
FAMILY OF ENTREPRENEURS
As it is, the company has been creating its stone and quartz projects on a GMM bridge saw with help from a line polisher and an edge-profile machine. “We plan on adding a waterjet,” says Miller. “We’re still a little bit up in the air about the brand we want to go with, but we’re leaning toward a Park Titan®. And, we’re outfitting the new space to add that waterjet.” Although it’s been a long process to get to that point, natural stone and quartz have become big parts of the company’s product offering. Miller estimates that 60% of the company’s sales these days come from stone and quartz, with another 30% from laminate and the remainder from solid surface. “Solid surface is really dying out, especially since the cost of the granite and quartz has been coming down,” he says. “We still do a fair amount of solid surface, but that’s mainly for the hospitals and medical institutions. If you break down the stone, it’s probably 60% granite versus 40% quartz, but they fight each other for the top spot every year.” Still another advantage with the expansion is having more space to train what the Miller brothers expect will be additional employees. Although Miller Fabricators is located within a few blocks of a couple large hospitals and the world headquarters of the Campbell Soup Co., the area is light industrial and one that has changed over the years. However, Bernard Miller made sure his sons knew their neighbors, and today they’re committed to hiring locally. “God pushes us to help people, even if it’s just to give them a job where they can learn a trade and a skill they can use for the rest of their lives,” says Aaron Miller. “A machine can still only do so much, and this is definitely a hands-on trade. “It just seems if you run a for-profit business in a city, you should want to try to hire and train people, particularly the youth or people who just need an opportunity,” he adds. The company currently has a staff of 25, including two install crews, two outside salespeople and three in the office, with the remainder devoted to templating and fabricating. Of course, the two brothers – and their siblings – grew up working for their dad, along with helping their late mother in her nearby florist shop. Aaron Miller says they’re a family of entrepreneurs. “Eric and I always just loved the business,” he says. “We had two older brothers who worked here but didn’t really want to run it because it comes with a heck of a responsibility.” He adds he’s grateful that Bernard Miller is still around to offer a wee bit of advice now and then, although he officially retired a dozen years ago at 70. “He’s still my best friend,” says Aaron Miller. ”He stops in from time-to-time, but he likes to spend a lot of time with his grandkids and helping people out with the church. And he trusts us wholeheartedly to make the proper decisions for the growth of the company.”
“My personal happiness is my father being able to see his business where it is today.”
The company has already added a showroom in Sicklerville, N.J., a small community on the main highway between Camden and Atlantic City, and is looking for a good location on the Jersey shore to open a second showroom away from Camden. “I would say about 95% of our customer base is outside the city,” he says. “We have a space here that’s half offices and half showroom, but we’ve found a lot of our referrals and our small contractors and builders like to get together to help with the cabinet selections when they do the remodel projects.” Knowing – and caring – about the company’s customers, both large and small, is what Aaron Miller believes sets Miller Fabricators apart from its competitors. He describes his own job as mostly client relations, and while he personally handles a couple of the company’s large national accounts, both he and Eric also give that same personal attention to the person who’s bought a bathroom vanity and top. “No matter how big or how small the job, we’re going to take care of our customers and treat them in the same way,” Miller says. “We really care about our customers, and they know that. If there’s an issue, they can sleep at night knowing we’re there to take care of it, no matter what caused the problem. If there’s an issue it has to be resolved.” It’s a philosophy that’s gained the company a lot of referrals and additional business over the years, but it’s also one of the reasons the Millers try to be strategic in their growth. “Some people grow a business and lose sight of that,” he says. “They think it’s just a company, and it becomes a bunch of ‘Press 1,’ ‘Press 2.’ They think it’s only a countertop, but to our customers it can be the world and it’s important that they can pick up the phone and call us.” Fortunately, Miller says the pandemic didn’t cause Miller Fabricators to fully shut down, although like everyone else the brothers had to put better safety precautions in place for employees. “We were able to maintain a lot of our production because we had the blessing of a lot of backlog orders that kept us afloat and kept us going,” Aaron Miller says. “New business slowed down a bit and it’s been a rough few months, but because of being diversified we had enough business that we could maintain and work through it.” Assuming business returns to some sort of normalcy in 2021, the Millers are looking at adding another showroom – this time in Philadelphia and partnered with a design firm. “This would be a new designer we’ve been doing business with,” Aaron Miller says. “It would enable us to take on more high-end projects, although still strictly for the kitchen and bath.” Further down the road, the brothers can even see exporting their fabrication operation to other states. Aaron Miller says the emphasis would be the same type of full-service operation with the same business philosophy. The trick would be to have the right employees to take on the responsibility. “In any business, your employees are everything,” he says. “We’d have to have things in place to give our employees the opportunity to grow in the business and expand.” Whether it comes to fruition or not, Aaron Miller says for him success is not about the money and hitting certain sales numbers. “My personal happiness is my father being able to see his business where it is today,” he concludes. “You can’t put a number on that, or over the years being able to provide jobs and for people’s families. That’s very rewarding. “And, it all starts from sticking to our core values, being honest, being fair, and taking care of our customers and our employees.”