Volume 46, Issue 8 - October 2007
Soaring to New Heights
Alabama Distributor Does More than Coast Through
by Samantha Carpenter, editor of Shelter magazine.
When David Miller began working at Coastal Door and Window in Mobile, Ala., he probably didn’t think that he would own the company one day. Miller had been out of college for one year, having graduated with an engineering degree, and had spent the last year working for his Dad—a contractor at water treatment plants in small municipalities.
Miller was restless, so when one of his father’s associates, Ben M. Radcliff, offered him a job in his contracting business, he jumped.
But Radcliff asked Miller a number of hard questions.
“He asked me a lot of questions about my interests, and he asked me to take a look at Coastal Millwork (the name at the time and a business that made custom doors, mouldings and cabinetry.) It was at that point that Radcliff offered me a management position at Coastal Millwork,” Miller says.
In addition to the challenges this presented, Miller also decided he wanted to own part of the company—and bring its profits back up.
“I came along in 1972 with an opportunity to buy into the company, if I could get it in the black and make it profitable,” Miller says. “I took it over in 1974 and, in the fiscal year ending 1976, I began buying 5 percent a year for five years, so by 1980, I owned 25 percent.”
Radcliff remained a silent partner until 1996, when Miller completed the buy-out.
In 1980, the company began selling pre-hung doors, stock mouldings and stair parts.
The company discontinued manufacturing cabinetry in 1987, but has continued to carry its lines of custom doors, custom mouldings, all types of pre-hung doors (exterior and interior), pine mouldings and stair parts.
“We don’t sell any lumber or do any installation; our business is all selling material only to the contractor (one-stepper), as opposed to selling two-step,” Miller says. “Ben Radcliff was … 25 years older than I am. He was a large, commercial contractor and very successful. He was on the board at the bank and on the Federal Reserve board—he just had great vision, and we both just thought that was the natural progression [to stop manufacturing cabinetry.]”
Miller was integral in moving Coastal into stocking products.
“I felt like we were headed in the right direction [when we began stocking products]. It was easy because the condo developments began to boom in 1981, and a lot of the contractors were our commercial [customers],” Miller says. “It wasn’t until 1987 that our housing market started getting slightly better, and it was at that time that our stock business surpassed our custom work.”
When its stock business became more profitable than its customer business, that’s when Coastal stopped competing against the “backyard operator.”
“We were then in a level playing field, and the niche that we had originally carved in the late 1980s was doing medium to large houses and, when I say large houses, I mean the ultimate house that was loaded up with architecturally correct millwork—the traditional methods and profiles,” he says.
In 1985, the company started selling aluminum windows as well as steel and fiberglass exterior doors, and added vinyl windows ten years later. The company also started distributing products for smaller houses (starter homes) in the 1990s.
Connecting with Customers and Distributors
Miller feels there are many issues he can discuss with other members of the Association of Millwork Distributors (AMD). Coastal Door and Window has been a member since 1991.
“I think the largest thing I’ve gotten out of the organization is networking,” Miller says. “Now I have a lot of friends from around the country, and we visit each other, and we share information, and we talk about problems.”
Everyone within AMD with whom Miller has become friends has a different business profile, but he says they can still learn from one another.
“They might be a three-stepper, they might do commercial hardware (like Peter Humphrey of Cleary Millwork in Somerset, Mass.) where stairs is a major portion of his business, but we all have common problems, like collections, interpretation of codes, personnel and insurance problems.”
Coastal Door and Window makes sure it connects with its customers, too.
Robb Cunningham, a homebuilder with Benchmark Homes in Mobile, Ala., has been using Coastal Door and Window for five years and says he would recommend Coastal to others.
“[Coastal Door and Window has] great service,” Cunningham says. “[The company] go[es] beyond the call of duty on a regular basis. Gary Smith, Coastal’s operations manager, will do whatever it takes to make the customer happy.”
Frank Lott Jr., a builder with Heritage Homes in Mobile, concurs.
“They run an outstanding shop. It’s very professional; they just do a really good job and know what they are doing.”
Coastal Door and Window at a Glance
A Lifelong Relationship
David Miller, president of Coastal Door and Window in Mobile, Ala., and Lewis Fitts, retired president of Fitts Industries in Tuscaloosa, Ala., knew each other long before the word millwork became part of either one’s life.
“Our parents knew each other in college, and the Fitts and Miller children have known each other since the early 1960s. Miller, his father and brothers were building their own beach house on the Gulf in Orange Beach, Ala., and our family rented the Russell house (as in Ann Russell Miller, David’s wife) a few doors down,” Fitts says. “We all used to ski, fish, crab and dive for scallops together. Those were the days of hunting and gathering on a 14-foot Fitts Falcon plywood boat in 4-foot seas, ten miles out from shore.
Fitts reflects on this time as “the good life.”
“You know, the good life—when condos and fiberglass were as scarce as hen’s teeth and A/C was alternating current driving an old Hunter fan on the screen porch,” Fitts says.
When both Fitts and Miller ended up in the millwork business, it didn’t automatically mean they were going to become supplier and distributor partners, but it didn’t hurt either.
Fitts Industries started producing stair parts about the same time that Miller got into the millwork business.
“[My brother] Frank and I never made a sales call on David. Our friendship was beyond business. However, we would tell him that if he ever needed us, to call. Well, [one day] we got that call and have been doing business ever since. We have the same business philosophy, same growth and same success–a parallel of progress. We both believe in taking care of the customer,” Fitts says.
Miller is just as fond of Fitts Industries.
“Lewis Fitts is one of my closest friends. [Fitts Industries] jumps through a lot of hoops for us, not just because we are friends, but because that’s the kind of people they are.”
Interesting Fitts Facts:
The Condo Slowdown
Along with all of these product lines, the company also has delved into condominium projects, which had become a big source of income, but this area of business has slowed down recently. Miller attributes the condo slowdown to the bubble effect.
“The prices got out of control with land and construction costs as a result of the hurricanes and the demand,” Miller says. “A lot of people that were buying condominiums shouldn’t have been allowed by the lending institution to buy a condo, and a lot of real estate people were buying them, and they were just flipping them. When Hurricane Ivan hit the Florida state line and Alabama, the music started slowing down, and a year later when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and Mississippi, the music stopped.”
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