As Bill Miller, president of Little Rock-based R&E Supply, is quick to tell you, if there’s such a thing as a recession-proof, pandemic-proof, bulletproof business, it’s dealing in the air conditioning and refrigeration space in Arkansas.
Even so, it’s not easy to keep a company thriving for nearly 100 years — especially a family business such as R&E, a heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electric and refrigeration wholesaler.
Yet the Millers — including Bill’s late father Carl; older brother Carl Jr., now retired; and son Cory — have done just that, weathering along the way changes in competition, advancing technology and the ravages of time. Today, R&E Supply emerges from the challenges of 2020 on the threshold of substantial growth, an accomplishment built on the back of a timeless core business philosophy.
“Being a family business, there are constant challenges,” Bill said. “But the main thing is to treat your customers the way you want to be treated. My dad always said, ‘Don’t worry about the competition. You worry about how you take care of your customers.’ And that’s really the key to what our business is.”
While it’s not unusual to hear a company executive extol the virtues of customer service, it’s often mere slogan, unhitched from the frontlines. Not so with R&E, which has taken extraordinary steps through the years to remain essential partners with its clientele. The company’s inventory of equipment, tools, controls, chemicals, electronics, accessories and indoor air quality components numbers 10,000 products, distributed through seven locations.
Vice President Cory Miller said in today’s I-need-it-yesterday pace of business, clients demand responsiveness from their suppliers, and those that don’t deliver get left behind. It’s a fulfillment arms race where the combatants are increasingly global.
“The expectations our customers have are a lot different now than back in the day,” Cory said. “It’s due to Walmart and Amazon; I mean, everybody’s wanting it in two days, and if you can’t get it in two days, you’re worthless. We have to keep up with getting the product to our customers quicker, and that’s probably the biggest change.”
Longevity has allowed R&E to pocket another hole card — stocking the hard-to-find — which is a valuable differentiator in a crowded marketplace.
“We do take pride in finding those parts that nobody else can seem to find,” Cory said. “We’re known for that. We’re also known to have those obscure parts that nobody has. When it comes to mechanical controls, those haven’t changed a whole lot. A relay’s a relay. But we’ve been known to have those obscure parts that would take some of our competitors a week or two to find.”
R&E Supply’s physical expansion is another concrete reflection of the company credo. In an era when many wholesalers are easing up on the number of brick-and-mortar locations in favor of predominantly online strategies, the Millers have gone the other direction. The company currently maintains locations in Little Rock, Hot Springs, Russellville, Conway, Searcy, Pine Bluff and Fort Smith, and is on the brink of another round of aggressive expansion that will add about 35 employees in the process.
“The closer you get the parts to the customer, the more likely you are going to be able to sell it to the customer. That’s really the biggest issue,” Bill said. “COVID road-blocked us for a bit, but we’ve been planning to get back into an expansion program. We’ve got three different sets of store floor plans, depending on the market area and what towns we go into. We hope to get into that pretty quickly.
“I think the time is right for it, and I think the demand is there and it’s going to continue. We’d like to double our size in five years.”
Company and family patriarch Carl Miller Sr. began his professional life with General Electric, where the young engineer started on the ground floor and quickly distinguished himself through hustle and a knack for sales.
“He started at GE doing door-to-door sales,” Cory said. “Not everyone had electricity, so he would find his customers by following the power lines, and that’s where he would try to sell refrigerators.”
Miller’s duties also included leading tours of a GE appliance factory in Schenectady, N.Y., where on a tour one day were GE appliance distributors Sid and Pat O’Bannon of Little Rock. They were so taken with Miller, they convinced him to move to Arkansas and help launch GE dealerships.
Peddling newfangled appliances in a state where many were yet to be reached by electrification may have seemed a fool’s errand, but Miller had a vision of where society was headed. As appliances approached critical mass, he convinced the O’Bannons to allow him to open a parts supply-distribution store in 1935 to complement the appliance business.
Miller’s wisdom and foresight saved the company during World War II when most manufacturing was redirected to the war effort. The parts division thrived, however, thanks to refrigeration supplies being spared government intrusion on the basis of being crucial to the nation’s food supply. After the war, the company moved from the Terminal warehouse, now part of the River Market, into a larger headquarters building at 1210 East Sixth Street.
By the 1950s, Miller had gone out on his own, founding Refrigeration and Electric Supply Company (later R&E Supply), borrowing against his life insurance policies to do so. The move made competitors out of his former partners, but major suppliers Honeywell, Copeland and Sporlan Valve recognized Miller’s track record of expertise and, like many of his loyal accounts, followed him to R&E.
The new company would move in 1955 to its current headquarters at 1222 Spring St., and in time, the reins would be taken over by Bill and his older brother, Carl Jr. By the 1980s, Bill, emulating his father’s ability to recognize trends, pushed for computerization, a suggestion that was not praised internally at the time.
“The biggest thing that I had to overcome was our reluctance to depend on computers,” Bill said with a half-grin. “A tremendous amount of reluctance. My brother was of the old-fashioned type — Rolodex cards and those type of things, you know. It was a task, to say the least.
“My brother and I were a good combination; he was very technically inclined, and he would do stuff like solve control networks and things for our customers. When Dad passed away, Carl, being the older son, had the majority interest, so I had to convince him of everything I wanted to do. Sometimes, I just had to grind my teeth and go home. But in general, it all worked out.”
In the case of Bill’s early advocacy for computers, the payoff came in spades by giving the company the jump on more technology-reluctant competitors. Today, the firm’s ERP system is an indispensable operational tool, especially as inventory has ballooned, locations have multiplied and the company has begun to embrace the digital marketplace.
“Customer management, inventory, sales management, I mean, the data is amazing,” Cory said. “Anything you care to find is in there; all the records, all the transactions, all the customer history. It’s learning how to use that data that’s key, and that’s what I’ve been doing more of lately.
“E-commerce is also definitely on the radar, and it has to be for every industry, not just us. If it’s not, you’re already behind the curve. Right now, we offer sales online to existing customers only, and I’ve had a few people sign up from out of state. It’s pretty small right now, maybe 10 percent of sales, but the e-commerce side is definitely going to be a part of our future growth.”
Bill, 77, and Cory, 31, share a common backstory when it comes to life in the family firm — both ran around the warehouse as kids, both started on lower rungs of the company ladder, and both say they never imagined themselves doing anything else than continuing the R&E legacy. And that they have done, advancing both the fortunes of the company as well as the state’s HVAC industry, in ways that go beyond product sales.
“We’ve established a full-blown training center in south Little Rock, at 6715 Young Road,” Bill said. “We can gather about 100 people there, easily, and teach them about products. It’s hands-on where they can work on equipment and troubleshoot it. So that is also going to be our future, keeping people involved in our industry.
“One of the things missing in all of the mechanical-type businesses is the ability to continue to bring new craftsmen in. Our school systems have not been good at it. That’s really a concern. We are working in relationship with the government to get continued education passed for our HVAC industry, and from that, we will be able to expand a lot to help attract new people into the industry.”
No career or company follows an uninterrupted upward trajectory. R&E Supply is no exception, nor is the family behind it. Bill and Cory have had their share of trial and error and outright learning things the hard way, a vivid example of which was Cory’s first taste of executive leadership. The duo relish telling the story, as much for what it says about the character of the firm’s 70 employees.
“OK, so, back in 2017, I was getting ready to have a pretty major surgery, and so I thought, it’s time,” Bill said. “I just said, ‘Cory, here’s my office. You’re getting ready to run this thing.’ And that was basically his training.
“That was also six days before he went on a two-month long vacation,” Cory added. “The whole week prior to it, I was like hey, you gotta tell me what you do around here. ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll get around to it.’ The next thing you know, he’s out.
“I’m in his office and I’m literally just looking in there like, OK, what do I need to do? There are people here that will tell you they saw me walk out of that office and just look around, dazed and confused, then turn around and go back in there. There were five folders on my desk, and I’m like, ‘I don’t even know what to do with these folders.’
“So, when I say family business, you know, it’s not just me and Dad. It really is all of our employees. They taught me, showed me a little bit about what this was, where that goes, how to do it. Honestly, I was only able to do the trial by fire because our team is so good. It’s a family atmosphere here, and that’s the one thing I love about it the most.”
And as for Bill, upon his return?
“His words were, ‘Well, the building’s still standing and not burned down,’” Cory said before joining his father in a hearty laugh. “‘You did good.’”