This spring, Hank Baxter and Bob Watz of Miller Mold Co. took a road trip to Kansas, stopping in at thermoforming and vacuum forming companies throughout the state, seeing existing customers, as well as those the Saginaw-based company hasn't worked with before.
In May, they made a side trip from Milwaukee to Chicago because a molder asked if they would like to stop by.
During the past 18 months, Miller Mold executives have visited thermoformers in 13 states and three countries. Its engineers have traveled through a snowstorm to troubleshoot issues with a customer in Iowa, and the company has made cold calls at packaging firms in Ontario. All that time on the road adds up to a big push for a 35-employee firm, but it is part of a concentrated effort by the maker of thermoforming and vacuum forming molds to get its name out there, build business and fight back against business trends that had threatened the firm.
``We've traveled to customers' facilities to see what they're doing so that we know what we can do for them,'' said Baxter, chief operating officer, during an interview at the family-owned mold maker. ``You go in and see what they're doing, so that you can say: `Hey, we can do this too.'''
It's an aggressive marketing approach that has helped the 57-year-old business fight a slowing business climate. Just a few years ago the firm was barely seeing $1 million in sales. Now it is at $5 million and building up toward $10 million.
Miller Mold has added a third shift and three more workers to its staff and expects to add another three to six employees in the next six months. It is refurbishing its manufacturing floor and bringing in new machining centers and has boosted its engineering department with new software, with plans to add two more engineers in the coming months.
The company makes molds used in food packaging such as lunch-meat containers as well as molds for cooling towers and refrigerator door liners along with cutting tools.
Miller Mold has a strong list of customers and technical skills to let it compete, Baxter said, but merely keeping up with its competitors is not enough to guarantee long-term survival. Relationships may seem like an old-school concept compared to automation and robotics and international relations, said Watz, director of marketing and sales, but when all things are equal, it becomes even more important.
``If you're not in front of your customer once a year or once every six months, you're going to lose them,'' Watz said. ``When they start up a new job, they're going to go to the last guy they did a job with.''
So while the company has improved its technology and manufacturing capabilities, it also has made a focused effort to get out to customers and potential customers' plants. That information may help it get a chance to bid on a contract, Watz said, and also gives it an idea of how the thermoformer likes to work, the way its plant is set up and how Miller's tools will ideally fit onto the manufacturing floor.
It is not an easy way to build business, but the company's results from the past three years and its ability to see improved sales now means that it is paying off, Baxter said.
``Yes, it is costly to go out there,'' Baxter said, ``but we have to face reality and say that if we want more business, then we're going to have to go out and get it.''