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Leading with Light

Steve Miller built his business after tragedy, and now he shares his calling to help others triumph

Article by Jennifer Draher

Photography by Supplied

Originally published in Canton Lifestyle

Steve Miller is on a mission to be a light in this world.

Miller knew at an early age the pain of losing loved ones and his family’s livelihood. But despite the emotions and challenges that followed, this Jackson Township resident never lost his faith. Now, as the owner of a national pallet and unit load products manufacturing company, he’s using faith as a leadership tool to build company culture. His approach inspires everyone from his own employees to aspiring leaders around the world. And it can motivate you to move past the challenges of 2020 and embrace the new year with gratitude.

Setting the Tone

As the youngest of six kids, Miller helped his father and siblings run the family sawmill. Unfortunately, he had a front-row seat for a series of tragedies. In the same week, Miller’s aunt passed away suddenly and an older brother nearly lost his hand to a gang rip saw. While he endured several surgeries and recovered in the hospital, a grandmother also passed away unexpectedly.

Then, while Miller’s mom was on a vacation with her girlfriends to clear her head, the unthinkable happened: Miller’s oldest brother was killed in a trucking accident while hauling logs.

“It was one gut punch after another,” said Miller. “But, I watched how my parents handled those situations and they were champions. “They continued to maintain faith through each loss.”

About a year later, 13-year-old Miller comes home from school to find eight fire departments across the street battling a massive blaze. The family mill was destroyed.

“My knees buckled and I thought, ‘Oh my God, what is going to happen to our family?’” recalled Miller. “Dad reminded us that God is faithful and we’re going to be okay. That’s all I needed to hear.”

By the time Miller graduated high school, they had sold off some remaining assets, and were only harvesting logs and cutting them up. It was enough to support the family. At age 19, Miller scraped together a few bucks and rebuilt part of the building to repurpose as a pallet recycling operation called Millwood. He saw the opportunity to carve a niche in the industry by sorting and repairing pallets from distribution centers and sending them back.

After a few years, Millwood wasn’t simply surviving … it was thriving.

Leadership Calling

Miller always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur, but more than that, he believes he was called to be in business.

“Just as God calls pastors to go be pastors, we all have unique calls in our life,” said Miller. “If we don’t fulfill our gifts, that’s on us.”

He cites three specific scriptures that have guided his entrepreneurial journey from day one: Luke 6:38, Deuteronomy 8:18 and Malachi 3:10. Miller embraced the responsibility in his leadership gifting to create wealth for the kingdom of God.

Success wasn’t instantaneous, and he figured out that faith is not faith until it’s tested. Miller quickly realized that it’s difficult to survive in a labor-intensive commodity business with tight margins. His only hope was creating an environment where people WANT to be there.

“If I have a solid workforce, I’ve always got a shot at being unique,” said Miller. “As the company grew, we made it our mission to continue taking care of our people.”

To ensure the success of this mission, Miller prioritized leadership development for himself and his team. He systematically introduces single basic principles on a weekly basis that reach every level of the company; he also strategically engages with international leaders to both learn and teach.

Miller connected with world renowned leadership expert John Maxwell around 2001, and has sat on his EQUIP Leadership board since 2004. EQUIP empowers Christian leaders across the globe to develop and empower more leaders. Miller led training at EQUIP conferences in Indonesia, the Philippines, Guatemala, China, Armenia, Greece, Cyprus, Kuwait, Russia, Mexico and Canada.

Miller motivates attendees to use their influence to transform the world, bringing hope of a brighter future with them. He also seeks to replicate this kind of transformation within his own organization. Luckily, his business partner, Co-president Chip Trebilcock and four other members of the executive team all share the same vision.

“It’s one thing when the owners have bought into a concept,” said Miller. “But when the entire executive team is on board, that’s when it really takes off.”

Millwood Mindset

Millwood operates as a light in the marketplace. The organization landed on four pillars to demonstrate its commitment and responsibility to God, customers, employees, suppliers and shareholders: trust, servitude, discipleship and integrity.

“We’re very open with our faith, but we acknowledge the fact that not everyone operates that way,” said Miller. “I don’t care what you believe in, but if you can work under our four pillars, you’re welcome to be part of our company.”

Millwood also hired a team of 25 chaplains – spread throughout each facility’s HR department – who influence recruiting, orientation and other processes for the better. Most are part-time and serve as local pastors in their respective communities, but they spend time connecting with team members and meet them where they are. If a chaplain recognizes something is off with an employee, they look for ways to support the individual (often beyond the job).

Miller knows this divinely different approach allows all 1,700 team members to feel like they are part of something bigger than just a pallet company. What’s more, employees tell him Millwood helped them re-engage with a faith that they didn’t realize they had walked away from.

“Discipleship means we’re always helping our people grow so when they leave, they are better businessmen, parents or spouses,” said Miller. “You can never go wrong by building culture. If it can work for a pallet company, it can work for any business.

Tips for Embracing 2021

Tip 1: Don’t buy into the “uncertain times” myth. Instead, focus on your response. Pandemic or not, there’s always going to be a level of uncertainty in life. Rather than overreacting or getting emotional about unplanned events, focus on building skills to help you adjust and adapt.

Tip 2: Seek opportunities to grow personally, professionally and spiritually. To make anything better, you have to measure it. What can you measure to improve each of these aspects in your life?

Tip 3: Be grateful for today. The new year is full of 365 individual gifts. Sometimes we look for tomorrow’s gift when we really need to respect the gift of today. Journaling helps me be intentionally grateful and set my expectations for each day before it happens.

“You’ll never go wrong by building culture. If it works for a pallet company, it can work for any business.”

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