The Badge of Merit
Millwork Company Counts Customers Among its Earnings
by Penny Beverage
It’s an age-old question—what’s in a name? Often, a company’s name represents its very core and motto. Such is the case with Merit Millwork where, according to founder and president Jim Darling, its main marketing strategy is the theory behind its name.
“We try to do our job well enough that we can build a relationship with a customer that lasts a long time,” he said. “Our key phrase is ‘Excellence will merit reward,’ and that excellence includes [our] people, products and service.”
After approximately twenty years in business, the company, based in Tomball, Texas, which is a suburb of Houston, is still working with its very first customer, and hopes to continue the trend of merit throughout its future. This year marks the company’s twentieth anniversary, though little has changed over the years—including its loyal customers.
What Goes on at Merit
Merit is a one-step distributor, distributing its millwork products (some manufactured in-house and others from other companies) mostly to the custom homebuilder. Its array of products include mouldings, stair components, columns and assembled interior and exterior doors. Merit has two plants, one that fabricates custom work and the other for standard jobs. The main plant is 55,000 square feet, while the custom plant covers 20,000 square feet, including a showroom.
By distributing directly to the homebuilder, Darling said he hopes to save the end user—the consumer—money. Likewise, it cuts a step in the distribution chain, because Merit is distributing both its own and other companies’ products.
“It enables us to deal directly with the builder and all of the problems he has without going through some intermediary,” Darling said. “Ultimately, it means savings for the homeowners.”
Many one-step distributors face a long learning curve in how to develop relationships with builders—and to help builders understand how millwork can be used effectively within a home.
One way Darling has accomplished this tough task is to build his own custom home on Lake Conroe, about 25 miles north of Houston.
“We used high-end mouldings all over it, and the idea was to show how high-end mouldings can be used in a laid-back house,” Darling said. “We’ve used the home as a great asset in demonstrating products. We actually take prospective customers in there.”
In addition to a selling tool, the home serves as a weekend retreat for the Darling family, and a perfect spot for the company’s annual meetings.
Darling’s other tool for gaining new customers—and keeping the old ones—is his willingness to complete any job the customer needs, even if it’s out of Merit’s regular scope of manufacturing.
“It may be nothing more than making a special-sized piece of lumber, but we do it all the time,” he said.
Likewise, if a customer has a piece of furniture that needs work—for example, all of the legs on the table need to be leveled—Merit takes on the job gladly.
“That’s the reason we have a custom plant, so we can do all of those things,” he said.
All in the Family
Darling himself began in the millwork business working for other companies, when he decided to found his own distributorship in 1983. He now serves as president and owner of the family company, with his wife, two daughters and one son-in-law included in his total of 50 employees.
Darling’s wife, Ruth, works with the company’s credit dealings and financial investments, while daughter Danna Murphy serves as controller, also involved with the finances of the company. In addition, Daree Stracke, the Darlings’ other daughter, serves as control officer, in which role she handles the company’s insurance and safety programs.
Two years ago, Danna’s husband Larry Murphy also signed on, using his computer and accounting abilities to help out where needed.
As a family business, Darling sees the company as the perfect size.
“We’re not a giant, but we’re not a mom-and-pop either,” he said. “You have to be big enough to take care of all the custom builder’s needs, but small enough to take care of him one-on-one, too.”
In today’s lagging economy, many family businesses are struggling to stay alive. However, Darling said so far, the company is doing fine.
“The best way to say it right now is that business is OK,” Darling said. “It’s not terrible, but it’s not what we’d like it to be.”
While Merit is a privately-owned corporate and declined to share its annual revenues, it was willing to share the details of its manufacturing operations.
For its door-making operations, the company uses KVAL machinery. It utilizes a CNC-controlled Hapfo for its architectural turnings.
Despite its capabilities in both of these areas, the company’s number-one selling product is its hardwood plywood, followed closely with mouldings.
An Open Line
While working personally with custom builders, Darling ensures that someone in his company is always available to hear their needs.
“Everyone who works here has an open phone line. No calls are screened,” Darling said. “If someone is upset and needs to vent, they can do it.”
Likewise, his sales staff knows they will be working with the same customers for years and must prepare themselves to do so.
“One of the things I harp on is that our customers must be able to wear well with the customer and be able to sell to them year after year, and that no chafing ever occurs between them,” he said. “My goal is for us to do our job well enough that we don’t look at the customer as a way to make a buck, but instead as a way to earn or merit business.”
Even after twenty years in business, Darling pushes the motto on his staff.
“Even today, twenty years later, [the motto] permeates us and that’s what we think about,” Darling said. “Our very first customer from twenty years ago is still a customer today, and I’d like to keep it that way.”
Penny Beverage is the managing editor for SHELTER magazine.
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