Miller Janitor Supply Enjoys Success With Its Customer-Centric Approach

By Harrell Kerkhoff Maintenance Sales News Editor

Shown are company president Tom Miller, and his wife and co-worker, Amy Miller. (Photo by Harrell Kerkhoff, Maintenance Sales News)

The true value of a good jan/san distributorship is helping people find success as they maintain various types of away-from-home facilities. This process can involve a myriad of settings (schools, churches, office buildings, factories, restaurants, arenas, etc.), and a wide variety of locations within each setting (restrooms, entryways, work areas, kitchens, etc.). Key service offerings from a distributor are also part of the equation, such as prompt delivery of products, equipment repair, training, and providing solid advice. A good distributor is also there in a pinch, helping customers who often find themselves with tricky situations when it comes to foul odors, stained carpeting, dull hard floors … the list can go on and on.

This type of service and dedication has been the specialty of Miller Janitor Supply, located in Normal, IL, since 1976 — a family-owned distributorship that has met the needs of its customer base over the past four-plus decades.

“Our main philosophy has always been simple, ‘Take good care of our customers.’ Chances are, if you take care of your customers, they really have no good reason to look elsewhere,” Miller Janitor Supply President Tom Miller said. “That can include tracking down items we don’t typically carry — if a customer needs it we will do our best to find it. We know staffing can be very limited for many of our customers. They often don’t have the time and/or resources to find everything they need to keep a facility well maintained. My wife (Amy Miller, who also works at the distributorship) and I are willing to help customers any way we can.

“As we often told our son when he was in school, if you are willing to put in the hard work, good grades will come. The same is true in business. Even with today’s advances in technology, jan/san supply is still a people business in many ways. We succeed through hard work, dedication, and loyalty.”

Among the products provided by Miller Janitor Supply are such away-from-home staples as can liners, floor equipment, cleaning chemicals, odor control products, and paper supplies. Its customer base includes clients involved in education, small businesses, government facilities, and industrial sites.

Normal, along with its larger twin city, Bloomington, IL, are part of a metropolitan statistical area in Central Illinois that features a population of 189,000-plus residents. Normal is home to Illinois State University, Heartland Community College, and a Rivian electric truck manufacturing plant. Meanwhile, Bloomington is home to Illinois Wesleyan University and is the headquarters of State Farm Insurance.

“We are in a good location for running a jan/san distributorship. For the most part, it’s always been a white-collar community with a strong higher education and business presence. The area’s population has remained very stable over the years, with new housing development planned for the near future. I have lived in this area my entire life, and it’s a good place to call home and to work,” Tom Miller said. “We are also far enough from Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis that a distributorship such as ours can prosper without a lot of larger competition in the area. I feel our margins are also better compared to if we were operating in a large urban location. We must still be competitive, but our location allows us to provide that smaller company touch many customers appreciate. We have a lot of customers who have done business with us for years. We know each other quite well.”

All In The Family

Like many longtime independent jan/san distributorships, Miller Janitor Supply has relied on strong family bonds to succeed, while also passing the torch from one generation to the next. The roots of the company date prior to its actual founding in 1976. Years earlier, Tom Miller’s grandfather, Raymond Miller, and Tom’s uncle, Marvin Miller, cleaned buildings in the Bloomington/Normal area and were eventually asked by several customers to also sell them cleaning supplies. They agreed, and in 1972, Tom Miller’s father, Daryl Miller, was hired to sell such supplies for the business. Eventually, Raymond and Marvin Miller decided they just wanted to clean facilities, leading Daryl to take over the distributorship side of the company in 1976, with the help of his wife, and Tom Miller’s mother, Rita Miller.

As typical within a family business, Tom Miller found himself at a young age helping his parents at the company.

“And I have been doing this line of work ever since,” Tom Miller said, with a laugh. “I have literally grown up in this business and the industry.”

Daryl Miller retired from the company in 2013 and passed away in 2022. Tom’s wife, Amy, came on board in 2007. She laughs when asked about her job title.

“I tell people I don’t have a business card because you couldn’t list all of my tasks on a card,” she said.

Since its official founding 48 years ago, Miller Janitor Supply has been at four locations in the area. Its current facility has served as the company’s home since 1983 and has since undergone several expansions.

“We presently have 14,000-plus square feet of warehouse space as well as room for offices. The facility fits our needs very well,” Tom Miller said. “Our customer base now includes area schools, office facilities, local governments, and small businesses. They are all serviced by our delivery driver, Kelly Hibbs, who has been with us for over 10 years. We offer same day delivery in Bloomington/Normal for orders that arrive before noon. If not, deliveries will be made the next day. With our out-of-town routes, deliveries are made once a month. Our service region stretches 40 miles, although it’s not a perfect circle. We are well served by several interstates in the area, heading in all directions.

“Our delivery practices are a source of pride. There have been times when a customer has called me stating, ‘I no sooner made an order and Kelly was at my facility with the item.’ I have responded, ‘That could very well be true if you sent the order just before noon and are fairly close to our location.’ We are a small company, which does have its benefits — especially when it comes to providing specialized service.”

He added overall business for his distributorship has been good as of late, and that a greater sense of normalcy is occurring since the hectic days and months surrounding the pandemic.

“We are not seeing as many challenges compared to a few years ago, when supply shortages were a real issue,” Miller said. “I have also noticed that equipment sales are picking up. That’s always been a good indicator. People tend to invest in more equipment when the economy is doing well.

“I personally service all the equipment we sell (at Miller Janitor Supply), with a large inventory of parts on hand at our location. That allows us to quickly get equipment back in working order for our customers. We even try to help our customers out with broken equipment they have purchased from other sources, although we make it clear it may take a little longer to get it fixed. That is usually not a problem with them.”

As a wearer of many “hats” at work, it helps that Tom Miller is mechanically inclined, a trait he inherited from his father. Miller, and his father before him, restores antique cars. Working on jan/san equipment has come naturally.

“It’s important to fundamentally understand how things work. It often involves a process of elimination — figuring out what part of a machine is properly working and what part is not,” he said. “There is also good factory support available with the equipment we sell. If I can’t figure it out, I can rely on them to get the equipment up and running.

“We (those involved at Miller Janitor Supply) have been doing this line of work for a long time, which helps differentiate our company. The pandemic experience provided a prime example. We were able to help a lot of people get their facilities properly cleaned and disinfected. There is a lot of general knowledge (at the distributorship) that has been accumulated over the years.”

Miller noted the pandemic was an important reminder of just how essential the people involved in all phases of the cleaning industry are to the overall health of a facility and a community.

“Janitors, for example, were placed at the forefront of importance at schools and many other locations. The same was true for distributors and manufacturers of cleaning supplies. I think everybody in our industry did a very good job helping people get through a tough situation,” Miller said. “We (at Miller Janitor Supply) did a lot of educating, helping people understand the importance of following a product’s directions, which often included using the proper dwell time when disinfecting.

“We had a church client, for example, that wanted to disinfect pews before their two Sunday morning services. It was hard for them to understand that a 10-minute dwell time was required. They couldn’t just spray the disinfectant on and wipe. That type of information is not common knowledge for a lot of people, and I hate to say it, but I do see customers reverting to their old ways of doing things. That is why customer training remains so important, helping clients properly clean for not only the appearance of a facility, but also the health of occupants.”

Miller also relies of his company’s supplier partners to help with training when necessary.

“We are more than happy to meet with a client’s staff to train on proper cleaning procedures for different parts of a facility. That training often includes a client’s new employees,” Miller said.

One challenge that grew with the pandemic, and still being felt by many companies involved in jan/san supply, is the emergence of stay-at-home workers. The problem is simple to understand — those people who now work from home, instead of an office setting, are no longer using away-from-home paper and other supplies while at work.

“As a jan/san supplier, a lot of our ‘bread and butter’ supplies went to places that closed during the pandemic. That included schools, retail outlets, restaurants, pools, offices, and our area airport. Although most of those locations reopened a long time ago, the office building sector has not rebounded as fast,” Miller said. “For example, there is one large employer in our area that has shut down an office building for good, as more of its employees now work from home.”

He added time will tell if that trend continues. Fortunately, most other facilities are back at capacity — thus the need for cleaning supplies, equipment, and a distributor’s expertise.

“We weren’t trying to go out and get every new customer we could during the height of the pandemic. As a local distributorship, our goal was to focus on our existing customers and take care of them through a unique situation,” Miller said. “I also don’t think it’s possible to always have everything in stock in case another similar situation occurs. If there is a real lesson to be learned from the pandemic, however, it is to pay greater attention to what is going on in the world, and to take health threats more seriously.”

It’s also smart, he added, to have good relationships built with suppliers.

“We look for suppliers that provide good service and products, and at a fair price. In return, we will remain loyal,” Miller said. “We also try to order products made in the USA.”

Keeping Up With The Times

One advantage to working in the cleaning industry is knowing that away-from-home facilities will always need to be cleaned. There is job security involved as dust, dirt and germs never take time off — even during a global pandemic. That is not to say, however, the industry is free of changes. Au contraire, changes take place all the time and must be addressed by end-users, distributors, and manufacturers alike.

“Probably the biggest change I have seen over the years involves the advancement in technology, and how fast people now have access to all types of information,” Miller said. “When I started in this line of work, we were the main source of information for many of our customers, especially those on our out-of-town routes — and they were fine with that. Today, there are multiple ways for people to seek out information and then purchase cleaning supplies online. We, as a local distributor, are often competing against the world, and we are often not going to provide the lowest price. We are, however, the ‘local guy’ who is here to help with any issue that can arise while maintaining a facility. We also provide same day delivery for our immediate area.”

Another challenge Miller addressed involves members of the younger generation who don’t seem interested in working with a salesperson — either with an office visit or a phone call.

“If they do want something, they would rather initiate the sales process themselves,” Miller said. “That doesn’t stop us, however, from going out and seeing our customers. There are people who still like to see us in person and have face-to-face time. We are also very helpful when it comes to properly training our clients’ new employees as it relates to proper cleaning procedures. That need is not going away. Many companies suffer today from high employee turnover rates.”

Employee shortages may be one reason, Miller added, why he is seeing an increase in equipment sales. Today’s advanced equipment can help lessen the burden of maintaining a large cleaning staff.

Miller Janitor Supply is also willing to help customers use more environmentally friendly and sustainable products and procedures. It’s an area of business that has seen greater acceptance among specific customers.

“We have one account, in particular, that has built a couple of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings,” Miller said. “The client is very aware of the type of products needed for those facilities, such as ‘green’ paper and chemicals. We can accommodate such requests.”

Looking ahead, Miller said he is optimistic about the future of his distributorship: “As always, we will do our best to take good care of our customers. That includes introducing new products to help them become more efficient, which helps us as well in maintaining our repeat business. At the same time, we remain committed to calling on new accounts.

“Overall, I have found jan/san to be a great industry to build a career, and it’s an industry that is not going away. We have made a lot of friends over the years and have enjoyed helping people with their daily facility maintenance needs.”


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