A fear that family conflict might spill over into his father’s business led Thomas Miller to strike out on his own as a young man. Now, as he approaches retirement, he’s learned that partnering with family is really no strange brew.
Alongside his wife and son, Miller operates Thomas Miller & Co., a Hatfield business that provides coffee and food services to offices, facilities and restaurants across the Greater Philadelphia region.
He didn’t always embrace the family business life. After a semester in college, the Solebury native was drafted into the U.S. Navy. When he returned four years later, Miller went to work for an engineering firm in King of Prussia.
At the same time, Miller’s father, also named Thomas, and older brother Bruce, were operating an institutional food business in upstate New York, delivering coffee and food goods to restaurants, convenience stores, hospital and prisons. The youngest son contemplated joining in the family business, but he was afraid conflict might emerge from working together and ultimately create division among the brothers and their dad.
“I knew what happened in a lot of family businesses and just wanted to avoid that family conflict. I thought, for me, it was better to do this on my own. I’d get guidance from them and grow it on my own,” said Miller, 67, of Doylestown Township.
In 1975, he created Thomas Miller & Co. and ran it as a side business to his engineering job. By 1978, Miller decided to quit his day job and take his business full time.
In 1980, Cathie Miller had just graduated from college and was working as a manager at a Jenkintown deli.
“(Miller) was my coffee guy,” she said. “He delivered coffee to the gourmet deli I worked at, and I thought he was cute.”
By 1983, the couple was married and Thomas asked his wife to help out with the business for just six months. It’s now been 33 years; Cathie, 58, today serves as vice president, and the two are affectionately called “TomCat” by their 11 full-time employees.
When an office, restaurant or other organization contracts with Thomas Miller & Co., the company provides the commercial-grade equipment at no cost. In turn, the customer orders all of its coffee products through Thomas Miller & Co. Staff for the coffee business routinely maintain, repair and replace brewing equipment and restock coffee and food items at the customer’s location.
“We cater to whatever the client wants. Some clients don’t want us to touch anything and some want white-glove service,” said Cathie Miller.
The Millers agree that their local company’s attention to service has made all the difference in keeping and growing its client base. Most of the growth is from word-of-mouth referrals. The owners even forward night-time and weekend service calls to their personal cell phones so they can respond immediately. The personal touch sets them apart from corporate competitors, they said.
The coffee service industry, though, has changed over the years. When Thomas Miller & Co. started decades ago, there were more local competitors. Now, many of those small businesses have sold out to larger corporations. Yet the office coffee service continues to grow; according to the research firm Research & Markets, it’s expected to grow by 4.48 percent through 2020.
The Millers attribute that growth to the rise in Keurig and other personal brewing systems along with a millennial generation that enjoys specialty coffees and teas.
In the ’80s, Cathie Miller said, you’d see workers on break drinking hot coffee and smoking cigarettes. In the ’90s, you’d see workers drinking a cold Pepsi or other bottled soft drink. Today, you see more people drinking specialty coffee drinks, like those sold by Starbucks.
“Starbucks has raised the bar for our industry for the last 10 to 15 years,” said Thomas Miller.
The Millers have followed that trend by offering a wide array of specialty coffees, cold brews, fair-trade and small-batch roasted coffees.
“They are willing to pay a little bit more, recognizing that different quality coffee comes as at a different price point,” said Cathie Miller.
With their eyes set on semi-retirement, Thomas and Cathie Miller are preparing their 25-year-old son, Thomas, to take the helm. The couple recently purchased a second home in Florida. Their son graduated with a degree in small business management, and the owners gradually are handing over some of their duties.
The Millers have been talking business since they were dating, but they recognize that it’s important to have an exit strategy.
“It’s been so much part of our lives. I think we’re just trying to figure out how we can start stepping away,” said Thomas Miller.
After all, said Thomas Miller, the best way to hand off a company is to pass it on to family.