By Steve Urbon
The story is a lesson in remaining adaptable to changes in markets and changes in the economy. And Thursday, the company celebrated with an Oktoberfest on the lawn under tents. The Milhench employees were joined by friends and vendors, who had set up something of a trade show under two of the canopies.
Milhench told The Standard-Times, “We pride ourselves on our relationships with our customers with our vendors and with our community as compared to Amazon.com or W.B. Mason. We very much give the personal touch, the personal service. Having an event like this is one way we really keep it personal with our customers.”
The story of Milhench starts in 1932, said Heike. “Initially my grandfather was selling production supplies to the textile industry. And then my father (Arthur) got involved in the ’50s and he branched out.”
She explained that “textile was starting to leave the area and so he started to get into sheet metal fabrication. He did a lot of work with the fish processing industry, which was big at the time in New Bedford.
“He sold that in the mid-1980s, and since then we’ve really focused on the supply side of the business. We’ve really become a distribution company for supplies, but now we do primarily janitorial supplies and packaging products and we don’t do production supplies anymore,” she added.
She said Milhench ownership is divided among the family, and the company qualifies to be listed as women-owned. Hanna Milhench, Heike’s mother, was on the scene making potato pancakes to go with the bratwurst and the beer. “The last time we did this (in 2007) we used 70 pounds of potatoes,” she said with a smile.
Milhench’s brother Mark, who wore lederhosen for the occasion, is part owner and is on the sales force “with nothing in between,” he laughed.
Mark’s sister Loren works part-time in sales. And sister Elke is co-owner, but she is not in on a day-to-day basis.
Sales employee Jo-Ann Lemay said she has been employed at Milhench for a couple of months, but for 25 years she has worked in what’s called the “jan-san” (janitorial and sanitation) business. She said the Milhench family “treats each other well, and they treat their employees well.”
Lemay said employees treat each other well, too. In the sales department, she pointed to another employee and said, “I couldn’t do this without his help. And I’m here when he needs my help.”
Lemay gave a visitor a tour of the warehouse, which Milhench said had run out of room. In the lobby, Mark had on display a diagram of the new addition that the company hopes to occupy next year. It’s about 16,000 square feet, he said, to better accommodate the inventory and expand office space for the employees, who now number 40, up from 22 a decade ago.
Lemay described what is called a “green audit, in which Milhench Supply will visit a customer’s operation to learn what supplies are being used and make suggestions for changing to more eco-friendly products that a customer might not even know about. She produced a flier showcasing the various lines of products including packaging and materials handling and safety equipment.
Would the family ever consider selling the company? Heike said, “We get requests all the time — letters in the mail or phone calls asking if we’re interested in selling the business. We are not at this point. We are third generation, and we are very proud of that. We’re very tied to the area, New Bedford and the SouthCoast.”
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