Profiles, V4I2

Working Harmoniously Together, Part 1

Willow Lake Buildings staff includes, from left to right, Willie (dog), Ben Miller, Joseph Miller, Eli Beachy, and Johnny Miller.

Joseph Miller has been involved in construction most of his life.

His father was a brick and stone mason in Virginia Beach, training his four sons (there are also two daughters) in the masonry business.

As the sons got older and were ready to take on more responsibility, Miller, the oldest of the six children, says they expanded the family business into several crews.

“I’ve always been interested in building, and would pay close attention to the other trades that we were working alongside,” he says. “By the time I was ready to strike out on my own, I had acquired quite a lot of proficiency in nearly all the building trades. I’ve always been particularly interested in the shed business and collected as much knowledge as I could from everyone that I knew in the shed trades.”

In 2011, Miller says they moved to South Carolina, and he had the opportunity to work in a shed manufacturing shop. He spent several years working in a bay, learning how to build sheds neatly and efficiently.

“I began plans to open my own shop,” he shares. “In late 2014, I decided it was time to start and enlisted the help of my brother, Ben. By April 2015 we had signed a lease on a small facility and we were underway.”

And so, Willow Lake Buildings was born.

Focusing on the Build

Miller started out Willow Lake Buildings without a retail location. He says a friend ran a busy shed retail operation, consigning buildings from a large manufacturer that sold its products through various dealers.

“We got permission to put some of our buildings alongside the others and started building,” he explains. “This arrangement allowed us to get exposure on several lots across the upstate without the large investment it would have taken to build enough buildings to fully stock them.”

Miller says the first year was slow.

“Ben and I did everything for several weeks until it became obvious that even with the limited amount of buildings we were producing, I wasn’t going to be able to be in the shop more than half of the time,” he says. “We hired another builder, and with two guys in the shop, and me trying to manage everything, we did the best we could.

“I think we averaged about eight or 10 buildings a month in 2015. We didn’t have the funds to purchase in bulk, so I bought materials and hauled one or two units at a time with my rusty old trailer.”

From the very beginning, Miller says he and his brother wanted to produce the highest quality buildings they could.

“We have two primary goals,” shares Miller. “We want to build the best buildings and have the happiest customers in the world. Our secondary goal is to provide a good living and great working environment to all our employees.”

Miller sees a shed retail/manufacturing business as a complex ecosystem. It is made up of multiple smaller systems that must work harmoniously together.

“There are many more moving pieces than in most small businesses,” he observes. “To be efficient, every piece must be operating properly. There are very few things in a business that do not matter. Every detail makes a difference and must be carefully tuned to work together toward the success of the whole.”

According to Miller, in the beginning the business paid attention to the things that are “simply critical.” As Willow Lake Buildings grew and the big elements were working, they started getting the smaller elements under control, tweaking and experimenting until the system was complete.

“You must always stay conscious of the fact that you’re never done,” he cautions. “Things change around you all the time. You can never stop improving. We believe that in business, as in construction, you must aim at as fine a target as possible, because you’ll nearly always miss your mark by some margin.

“If you measure to the nearest eighth inch, you’ll have a possible variance of about one quarter. If you want to be accurate within a sixteenth of an inch, you need to aim for a thirty-second. We try to set specific goals, and then be patient with ourselves until we reach them.”

Part of the improvement for Miller is knowing his own shortcomings and hiring the best employees possible, paying whatever it takes to keep them until their position grows into their salary.

“I consider this to be an investment into the future of our company,” he says. “The level of ‘buy in’ we’ve seen from our employees has been simply amazing. They have the same dedication to excellence and customer service that I had envisioned for the company.

“We have been blessed with a better team I could have hoped for. It’s gratifying to watch them reinforce those values in the ones who are responsible to them.”

People and Process

Willow Lake Buildings employs 15 team members in various positions. Miller says the office utilizes a small

Lacie Burgess keeps books, manages accounts receivable, and in general keeps everybody in line at Willow Lake.

staff of himself and Lacie Burgess, who keeps things caught up and efficient.

John Miller is plant manager. He processes every shed order as it comes in, orders material, schedules and assigns builders to each shed, and makes sure production stays on schedule. Ben oversees quality control and services any warranty claims.

Eli Beachy is the sales and marketing manager, responsible for designing marketing and sales processes, as well as handling all web and software development. Geoff Brown handles scheduling deliveries and truck related logistics, and Todd Toney is the leader of the delivery team.

The business has stock inventory on nine sales lots in the upstate of South Carolina and in neighboring communities in North Carolina and Georgia.

Miller says Willow Lake Buildings uses the “good, better, best” approach to its product line. It builds two models of wood buildings and a budget line of metal buildings.

“We spent a lot of time getting this lineup right and have seen a substantial increase in sales as a result,” he says. “Properly positioning our products along with a well-designed sales process has resulted in more than 45 percent of our customers consistently opting for the ‘best’ option.”

According to Miller, all of Willow Lake’s buildings are built from start to finish in the bay.

Willow Lake’s “shop guys,” left to right: Cody LeCroy, Caleb Broome, and Josiah Brown.

“We build, paint, and roof them before taking them outside,” he says. “Many manufacturers have separate roofing and/or painting stages, but because of our small shop size and configuration, this has worked well for us. The builder is responsible for all the workmanship on his building, which helps maintain quality control, and it has been surprisingly efficient for us to operate this way. We do have one worker building doors and trusses to speed up the process.”

Each bay operates in teams of two builders. John facilitates taking each building outside and bringing flooring materials in for the next building. He also assists in applying paint and laying out walls to keep the build process flowing smoothly. Ben inspects and signs off on each building.

Miller adds that cleanliness and organization are important for safety and efficiency in the workplace.

“We try to demonstrate in our work environment the same pride we take in our finished products,” he says.

In Part 2, available April 5, find out how Willow Lake Buildings entered the retail market.

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