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The Business of Relationships - Trade Associations, Customers, and Culture with Todd Miller
Episode 4911th October 2021 • The Manufacturers' Network • Lisa Ryan
00:00:00 00:24:00

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Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturers' Network Podcast. Our guest today is Todd Miller. Todd is President of Isaiah Industries, based near Dayton, Ohio. Their company is a manufacturer of specialty metal roofing. They ship their products throughout North America and Japan, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. A young baby Boomer, Todd's entire career has been in manufacturing and marketing with Isaiah. He co-owns the business with his college roommate. Todd, welcome to the show.

Todd Miller: Thanks so much, Lisa. I'm delighted to be here - I love what you do.

Lisa Ryan: Well, thank you. Todd, please share with us a bit of your background. It sounds like you've been with Isaiah pretty much your entire career, but you still had to make that choice at some point to join Isaiah, so what got you there?

Todd Miller: Yeah, that's an interesting concept. My father had started the business when I was in high school, so I worked here in the summers and things like that during high school and college. I went to college for a degree in communications which, when I graduated, I realized prepared me to do almost nothing. It was about as meaningful as had I gotten an English degree. I discovered it at the end, but it was fascinating.

I was going out, doing a typical interviewing thing, and realized that everyone was trying to put me in an entry-level position, which would have been great you got to start someplace. But I had something already with my father's business and based upon my years of experience there and summers and even doing some part-time writing and design work. I just was able to step into a role there that had me at a little bit more than just an entry-level position in terms of an industry that I somewhat knew something about. That started 40 years of more learning.

Lisa Ryan: When it comes to staying in your father's business, in our ideal perfect world, that's the succession planning. But we also hear of people that want something better for their kids and not the hard work that I've done. I want you to go to college and get that communication degree. But what was that experience like? Was it good that you decided to stay with your father, or was there any disappointment that you didn't go out into the world and find something of your own?

Todd Miller: You always wonder, well what if, or what could have been but, again I kind of look at it, that has been in one industry one general position my entire career. I want to think that that's helped me develop a certain level of mastery. Don't get me wrong, I'm always learning, and that's what I love the most about it. The thing is if you're not if you're always learning from where you are, and you're always going higher up, you're never going back to an entry-level position and having to rebuild. I've liked that.

We had a fantastic relationship for many years in the business. My father was the engineer, so he was the one that kept things going from a manufacturing standpoint. I was the silly marketing and sales guy, and then a couple of years after I was here, my college roommate came into the business, and he was our finance numbers-purchasing person. That was great because the three of us each knew our roles. We respected each other, and we were good still love to have input from each other. It just functioned well.

My father, unfortunately, had a stroke at a relatively young age, which took him out of the picture from a day-to-day standpoint. However, we had great team members who stepped into that engineering and manufacturing and maintenance for all. We hardly missed a beat as a company, although we saw him regularly, he has passed away.

Lisa Ryan: So what is it that you love about the metal roofing business.

Todd Miller: I enjoy the people. I've been heavily involved over the years, with a couple of significant trade associations in our industry - the Metal Construction Association, which is a very technical research building codes oriented organization, and then also the Metal Roofing Alliance, which is a market development association. I've loved that ability to work with my competitors and work for the betterment of the industry. We've had an ideal industry for doing that because, as a part of the market share of the overall roofing industry was pretty small. I mean, 15 years ago it was around 2%. We've grown it to 15%. That's only happened because the various players didn't see each other as competitors. But, of course, all the different types there's the competition, so our goal was to grow this for all of us, and it's interesting, we're still doing that. We still get along well. Our annual trade show is coming up next week for our industry, and I'm looking forward to it because we didn't have it last year. It's been a while since I've seen all my colleagues, so I'm looking forward to next week in Tampa.

Lisa Ryan: I'm so glad that you shared that with the trade association that you're a member of because, as many of these that I speak to, people think that they're going to give away all their trade secrets, or they don't want to hobnob with their competitors. That is the wrong assumption because when you're going to your trade association, you're making friends and building relationships. You're meeting the families and all of that, which keeps you in the industry and builds a referral source.

If another contractor can't handle a job, they're much more likely to refer it to somebody that they know, like, and trust versus some schmo down the street that they don't know at all.

It sounds like you are pretty active with both of those associations. So that says a lot about you, but it's also showing the growth in the industry from 2% to 15% just because of the efforts you've put behind it.

Todd Miller: It has been good, too, because as I've gotten to know our competitors, there have been a lot of opportunities, where I'm like, I need this a piece of equipment, and I don't have it, but they do so maybe they can do this work, for me, and vice versa.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we did some embossing work for one of our competitors. This has built some solid relationships, and always fun to go out and see how other people approach things in their manufacturing environments.

That's undoubtedly, one of my greatest pleasures is getting the opportunity to tour other plants. People always say, well, they're gonna steal my ideas, and that doesn't happen. Maybe in some minimal areas but generally speaking, plants grow and they're built holistically. You can't just go someplace else and steal there.

I did completely redesign my entire planet Florida batch there, which would be silly, but it's still fun to visit and see other operations.

Lisa Ryan: You're very passionate about your company and your industry, and I believe that that's one of the things that have helped you create the workplace culture you have over there at Isaiah. When it comes from the ownership, that level of commitment, and involvement in the industry, I know that you do lots of things with an average tenure of 17 and a half years on your team. What are some of the things that you feel have enabled you to create that culture? What do you do to keep your employees when they could go down the street and maybe even make more money.

Todd Miller: Sure, I think a big part of it is early on in business, someone told me never to hire one of my friends. I'm always like, okay, I understand that, but I honestly didn't understand it. So I started hiring friends and people that I knew and referrals. I found out that I ended up hiring people who had similar work ethics, culture, and core values as the rest of our organization, so we only hire off of referrals now.

I'm not like some of my manufacturing friends here in my local town, who tell me, Todd, if I can hire 40 people tomorrow, I would. I don't have those kinds of needs. I have found that we're able to always hire off of referrals from friends and people currently working here, and we've hired about 12 people in the past year. Some of those were temporary seasonal, but we got them all off of a referral.

That also goes back to our faith life. One of my daily prayers is, Lord, bring me the people we need when we need them and give me the wisdom to recognize them. We frequently hire people without fully knowing what they're going to do, just because we feel like this is a great cultural fit for our organization.

In terms of what we get our whole company to strive for, that is customer service. What we find is that when you get some good people together, and they're all committed to meeting customer needs, that's when great things happen. You do meet those needs. Regularly, you're very different from other manufacturers out there. Again, it goes back to our team and their commitment.

One of the things that I often tell our team here is that, as a product manufacturer that gets resold, I tell them we don't sell anything. It's our customers who ultimately sell it. So our goal has to be to make our customers successful. If they're not successful, we're not successful.

Lisa Ryan: And I know that you see a lot of social media on your company out there. There's a lot of things that your team does as a team. They're friends outside the office. So please share some of those things that you're seeing that are helping to promote Isaiah as a pretty cool place to work.

Todd Miller: Sure, we see that, especially on the plant floor. Guys are getting together outside of work—folks helping each other with projects at their homes and that type of stuff. Most of our families are from the same community, so you get a little bit of where their kids may be going to school or playing ball together, that type of thing.

We did an enjoyable thing this past summer, and I know other companies were doing this, too, but we had food trucks come in. Six times over the summer, they came in to provide lunch for everybody. That was just a really fun time. I'll hear people say I still like that the best. Someone else will say I like that food truck the best. It was just a lot of fun, and it gave people a chance to relax and have something different for lunch.

Lisa Ryan: Now, when you bring in food trucks, is that something that you supply the truck and people pick out and pay for their own lunch, or are you picking up the tab for lunch for the day?

Todd Miller: We pick up the tab for it. We enjoyed it a couple of times we found out Oh, we had a customer stop by, and the food truck was here, so we got to buy them lunch. Sometimes a person went beyond just our team, which was a lot of fun, and the food trucks loved it. It was a great way to support some local entrepreneurs. People who are out there working hard to do something unique. We liked that aspect of it too.

Lisa Ryan: One of the other things that have made Isaiah successful is your focus on customer service. That's one of the things that you excel at. What are some things you're doing to take care of your customers that differentiate you from others in the industry?

Todd Miller: Sure, a lot of it is the company's entire culture, revolves around that customer. We had a situation recently where we were trying to learn some new things. We had brought on a new product line a couple of years ago. It hadn't taken off like gangbusters, but it had been growing. One of the things I was picking up on was that certain things we're doing with this product line are not necessarily helpful to our customers. I found that folks in operations, who were developing our processes, really weren't aware of exactly who the customer was for that product line. So I spent a lot of time educating them on that customer and what their particular needs were. It was very eye-opening.

It boiled down to they're accustomed to thinking that okay, we're selling roofing products. It's going to a distributor. It's going to a contractor who knows how to unload products and knows how to deal with them. In this case, this product line is being sold to is sometimes a do-it-yourselfer. Sometimes it's to a very small contractor. But folks who didn't have that level of expertise on how to unload the product, properly transport it, and so forth. Once they got that picture, I saw some great things happening. Then, finally, they were starting to say, well, what if we did this. That would make it easier for them. I'm like, right on, that's exactly what we need to do: make it as easy and as safe for our customers as possible.

Lisa Ryan: And how did you find out exactly what those customers needed? Was it based on your education of the product? Did you talk to the customers? Did you reach out to the customers? Where did that education start?

Todd Miller: Sure. That can be a challenge for many manufacturing companies, especially ones that are getting closer to their consumer. It seemed like we went through a period in our country where a lot of manufacturing was you're making OEM products that we're just going to somebody else. They were the assembler, but now this is hurting more and more manufacturers, even, in some cases, selling direct to consumers. What happens there is sometimes you end up with your sales, and your operations folks don't talk enough. So sales are out here, pushing hard and doing these unique things changing industry being disruptors, and yet, the problem is that operations folks aren't aware of what those changes are that are happening.

That's a key for us - making sure that we bring that closeness in between sales and operations to make sure that everyone's on the same page and operations knows as much as they possibly can about that and customer in the product's end-use.

Lisa Ryan: Right, so what are some of the things that are still keeping you up at night?

Todd Miller: I suppose it's like a lot of manufacturers, right now, it is the supply chain issues. That's probably starting to become a broken record amongst most manufacturers. I spent most of this year saying it, listening to my suppliers, and saying it will be better now. My mind, I'm thinking what's going to be magical about 2020. Here we are, fourth-quarter 2022 is almost upon us, and I'm saying least it's not going to start much different than 2021. Some of these challenges will be here long term, one of the things that we're starting to hear more and more. I hear from other manufacturers as well. Now it's coming down to not so much major supply chain disruptions as individual chemicals, individual small components, that now are just throwing a monkey wrench into everything.

It's boiling down, that narrowly. So that certainly is a concern. The other thing that keeps me awake is the cost of freight and transportation. I see more and more orders, where the freight is more expensive than the product itself. That's troubling, and I'm sure that that has to be happening in other industries as well.

Lisa Ryan: When you're dealing with the supply chain and dealing with the freight charges, how what are some of the things you're doing to handle that? Is it communication? Is it passing on some of those costs to the customers? How are you getting through this?

Todd Miller: Well, certainly a lot of them do end up getting passed on. How can you have more efficiencies internally to help offset some of those costs? I know that it's put a huge onus on our traffic management folks, the ones who arranged for shipping and things. Still, we're just plain happy to get more creative in looking for lower freight rates and not necessarily just always believing. Wow, companies have been the best on price in the past. They will be in the future. So instead, we're looking for other options as well.

What we see more and more often is mainly a manufacturer trying to serve the whole country that those freight costs. I remember the days when I could get a truckload of material from here to California for $2,000, sometimes even a little bit less. Now you're talking $6500 minimum. So it's just a significant change that embeds a lot of cost in our products, so just having to be creative automatically. It may force a lot of manufacturers to look at more regional locations or regional breakpoints.

A couple of years ago, we put a warehouse facility in Dallas that serves as a distribution facility for us. So I can ship full truckloads there and then use that as a breakpoint, rather than having to ship smaller orders, where the freight adds up to be quite costly.

Lisa Ryan: And as you think of everything that you're doing at Isaiah for with your culture and with all of that of keeping your employees, for somebody listening today, what would be your number one tip? Something they can start to implement, or at least begin to think about to help them change that culture over time?

Todd Miller: I sound like a broken record, but it really would be to get your entire organization as close to the customer as you possibly can. We're just living in a culture where it's all about online ratings. It's all about what that customer thinks of you, and what their experience has been, and how they share that experience with others. So that would be the big thing. Don't think that you can be a manufacturer that's off by itself and on an island just crunching pieces of metal or making pieces of plastic or whatever. You've got to get your entire organization close to the customer.

Lisa Ryan: Wonderful, and from a networking standpoint, what would be one thing that you would like to learn from other industry colleagues about the way that they do their business and what is something that if somebody wanted to connect with you that you'd be willing to share with them?

Todd Miller: One of the big things right now is learning more about how other companies address this freight and shipping issue. Maybe there are ways in our own area that I don't know that regularly ship half truckloads to Dallas and perhaps another company here and pick what our hometown ships half truckloads to Dallas. Why couldn't we combine those things? That learning more about that would be important to us.

I'm an open book. I love to talk about one of the things, though, and believe me. I'm not as good at this. I'm not as religious as I used to be, but I'm a big believer in building systems in your business. Too often, something goes wrong, and we start to point fingers at a person instead of looking at the process and the systems in place. One of the things I love talking to other companies about is ways to build those systems and processes and document them to be followed by their entire organization.

Lisa Ryan: Wonderful. Todd, if people did want to reach out and connect with you, what's the best way for them to do that?

Todd Miller: Sure, actually, I've got my websites. Probably the easiest one to remember; it's just It's an educational website we have on metal roofing. is the perfect email to reach me. Folks are always welcome to call me as well, and they can pick that information up off our website, too.

Lisa Ryan: What are some of the educational things that you have at

Todd Miller: We answer many questions for consumers about roofing and ventilation and other home improvements. Part of our goal to get closer to the consumer was to create just an educational help. It's nothing salesy on that website. It's simply trying to build bridges, make connections, and help people make wise choices. Whether those smart choices involve our products or not, we want to make sure that they make the right choice about roofing their structures.

Lisa Ryan: Well, Todd, Thank you so much for joining me today. It has been an absolute pleasure to have you on the show.

Todd Miller: I've enjoyed it as well. Thank you so much, and again, thank you for what you're doing. I think this is fantastic.

Lisa Ryan: Thank you. I'm Lisa Ryan, and this is the Manufacturers' Network Podcast. We'll see you next time.