FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Ryan McMillan
January 3, 2016
Growing up he didn’t see his future “in this business”. Times change …
“When I started building the service side of our business (we used to contract all of our installations) I got hooked. We’ve had some tough times, and some exciting times. I love building things.”
Fish tank in his office. Six on the premises! (down from 14 when his dad ran the firm) – and while I’d been in the showroom before, this was my first real chance to get a sense of the firm Ross McMillan founded, to gain some insight to this kid-of-his-turned-President Ryan McMillan, and the state of their business today. Preconceived notions of kid running daddy’s firm were quickly dispelled. I was treated to a robust discussion of the industry and McCrum’s Office Furnishings – and what it takes to survive and thrive during one of the toughest periods in recent memory. It was a treat – and I think Ross must be very proud of his son.
He’s been in Calgary’s ‘Top 40 Under 40’, loves the influence of YPO on his life and business balance. At 41 he’s no kid – but he’s not sporting a bald head or grey stuff yet (I think he colours it!) – but the head is steady and he credits a diverse range of experiences, not rooted in an expectation of taking charge of the firm one day.
Let’s start at the beginning – the firm was founded 45 years ago by Ross McMillan, a pens and pencils guy, who wanted to strike out on his own. AH + HA was followed by Mac’s and then rebranding as McCrum’s (that's actually the historical family surname – Ross was adopted by his mom’s 2nd husband, so he became a McMillan) – and customers liked the name. From stationery beginnings – leasing and then selling office furniture – to Canada’s largest Teknion dealer. Ryan is the majority owner. Long-term employee Bob Malone is a minority shareholder. The firm operates in Calgary but also services Western Canada for a number of Teknion national accounts (i.e. CIBC, TD, BMO). From a single warehouse bay start to 120,000 sq. ft. showroom, warehouse, offices and a distribution and technology center.
Now, to Ryan’s beginnings – third born (his sister is in the industry with Haworth in Toronto, his brother lives in rural Saskatchewan). His mom, born in Foam Lake, Saskatchewan was a homemaker, dad, now retired and living on the wet coast, founded McCrum’s. And Ryan suspects his early-retiring dad really misses the biz …
When Ryan’s parents split he was nine – he continued to live with mom, raised and schooled in Chestermere, took a Business Certificate program at Okanagan College in Kelowna but after one year it wasn’t making him smile. A year and a half at Sprott-Shaw left him unfulfilled and wanting to come home. He enrolled at Mount Royal College (and worked summers, weekends and nights installing furniture at McCrum’s) where he obtained his B.Comm. He’d been working for dad from the time he was 16 but initially had no desire for the business – it was a way of earning money, putting gas in the car and paying for education. But it grew on him – he’s been there 24 years, has worked in every department and has never worked anywhere else. Furniture, walls and service – employing 106 people; 70% of those in service and logistics division, asset management, storage, delivery and installations. “We have 100 people, every day, doing installations – providing services to our customers, doing all the things we are expected to do and many things people don’t want to do or don’t have the people/resources to do themselves."
And while furniture sales in Calgary are down in this current market cycle, the business is thriving. “We all have a strong unique element (ours is Teknion walls), some firms have flooring as a pillar, some have window coverings – and we have our pillar, but I think our strength is that we are well equipped in terms of our structure - in all elements of our business." Yes, it seems those fish tanks bring good luck. Ryan says he finds it a really calming influence during hectic days – and obviously it pays homage to his dad. Ryan and wife Margot McMillan (she and her brother run Brentwood Printing) have a six year old daughter.
When he joined the firm after obtaining his degree, Ryan developed the technology and logistics operation – did a business plan and executed. “I loved it”. Then sales. “Loved it”. Then management. “I love it.”
Not, ‘to the manor born’, he worked his way up to President in 2009. He bought the company in 2010.
Why are you successful? “I understand every part of my business and have worked in pretty much every role here. I have no problem getting my hands dirty and doing things myself.”
What has held you back? “Expansion to other cities opportunities are limited. In our industry manufacturers have a single dealer/market model.”
How do you see your business – office furnishings – going forward over the next quarter?
… this recession hit the furniture industry hard. We see flat growth other than the service side of our business which is growing. We need to adjust and tweak what we are doing and think outside the box. The next quarter, we’ll be strategizing – focusing on industries we’ve not been focused on …
And over the next five years?
… branching out on what we offer – watching trends, adding offerings our competitors are not. We might expand somewhere else. I like the west coast of the U.S.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… I deal with people I like and trust. If we are going to work together then there needs to be a partnering … with defined expectations.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Ryan McMillan, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… my tendency to be blunt. But not in a bad way – more in a ‘lesson learned’ way. I’m sincere, passionate and take care of customers with a goal of giving them the ‘ultimate customer experience’. I have no problem telling people what will likely go wrong …. We strive to fix any issue, no matter what.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I’m an optimist. There is always some light in any situation. I provide guidance and vision – then look to my executive management team to make it happen. I believe in empowerment of staff – I don’t undermine them or go around them when problems arise. As I see it, we are all working together to deliver what I call the ‘ultimate customer experience’.
… I believe in it. My home life is just as important – if not more so – than any company or money matter. I find people stay longer because they can but are not as effective and productive. I have a 5:00 ‘go home’ deadline unless there is an event I have to attend.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… Things I have missed in the details. Details matter! … strategizing on an RFP, or did we communicate everything we could have to a client?
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my father. At first I found him to be a terrible mentor because he didn’t take the time to teach and show me how things worked. Later, I’ve realized that I am, and everything I do is, directly related to his values and passion for people. By watching him I saw how much he truly cared for the people around him and how much they loved him. He had a knack for making people feel special.
… I love to build and fix things. Since 16 I’ve built furniture and offices. Now it’s decks, Lego, toys, you name it. Passionate about snowboarding. And, secretly love searching for lost golf balls – it calms me.
What do you read?
… a mix of business and fantasy books – fantasy before I go to sleep so I’m not up all night thinking about business!
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