On an uncharacteristically quiet Friday afternoon in early June, Ryan Miller, the soon-to-be-minted president of Star Delivery Service, a trucking firm his father started 34 years ago, is staring hard at the sparkling harbor in Sydney, N.S., ruminating on the challenges he’ll have to address when he steps into dad’s shoes three weeks down the road.
“Well, there’s fuel of course,” he shrugs, alluding to the high prices that have dogged the industry for the last few years. “And then there’s the fact that, drive any further, and you’re into the ocean.”
On the face of it, Miller is in for a tough climb as he officially assumes control of the family-owned short haul delivery firm this summer. To begin with, that wide band of blue behind him is a natural curb for his delivery routes.
“Up isn’t an option,” he jokes. Then there’s that giant grey slag heap that looms across the harbor.
The dusty remnants of the once-booming mining and heavy-industry economy that collapsed in the 1990s, the slag pile, is a testament to an economy that has never fully recovered, cutting into local businesses and forcing the majority of Miller’s delivery routes to return empty — no small factor when diesel is hovering over $1.40 per liter in Nova Scotia.
And finally there’s that pesky problem with family business succession — fewer than 25 percent of family firms survive the founder. But watching Miller, a tall, freckled, soft-spoken fellow with the preppy clothes sense of a college frat boy, you get the impression that for him, these challenges are small potatoes.
After all, Miller is a guy who, at 24, worked with his father to transform a staid delivery company into one of Atlantic Canada’s fastest-growing firms, growing revenues by over 350 percent in a single year.
But if Star Delivery is regarded within the region as something of a late booming firecracker, Ryan Miller and his father, Gerald, approached it the way they approach everything else; slow and steady.
“Niche” wasn’t a word in Gerald Miller’s vocabulary when he founded Star Delivery in 1974, with a house, a half-ton and little else.
Top pay for expansion, the carrier simply went to its customers and asked them to form it over.
“I started the company because I wanted steady employment, which wasn’t always easy to get,” he says. At first, Gerald Miller transported anything and everything — from the Sears catalogue, furniture, parcels and food. The company was based in Miller’s Sydney home, and his wife Theresa worked as a bookkeeper and receptionist when she wasn’t looking after the couple’s three children — Ryan, the youngest, and two elder sisters, Shauna and Faith.
In 1975, Miller picked up a new client that would ultimately help set the growth trajectory of the firm. David Brown United Ltd., which was at the time a major Nova Scotian food distributor, was searching for a Cape Breton company to handle food distribution on behalf of Brown’s on the island.
Miller, who by then was providing Cape Breton transportation for two nearby meat-packing factories and other customers throughout the industrial area, won the bid. Fulfilling the contract wasn’t easy. At the time, Miller was running the business from his home, loading and unloading the trucks in the Woolco parking lot.
“You had to be pretty organized about things to make it work,” he says. A firm believer in not taking on unnecessary debt, Miller says operating without a warehouse helped the firm manage its cash flow and shore up its finances. Miller and his employees — who by that time numbered about six, made up for their small time location with big-time customer service.
“We made sure we took good care of our customers because we couldn’t afford to lose any of them,” Miller says.
Gradually, Star Delivery took over more and more of Brown’s business, and in doing so, carved out a niche in food deliveries to local restaurants and grocery stores. By the early 2000s, food accounted for over 75 percent of the firm’s business.
But if Gerald Miller was keen on customer service and committed to nourishing a healthy balance sheet, he says he never had a strong entrepreneurial instinct. “It was always more of a stable job to me than anything else,” says Miller, 66.
Meanwhile, Ryan Miller was growing up, watching his dad, and biding his time.
In between taking calls (the receptionist is off early for the weekend) and responding to emails, Ryan Miller reminisces about his childhood. “The business was around from before I was born,” he says. “I never really knew home without it.”
Gerald Miller, 66, can let go so Ryan can get on with running things.
Early on Saturday mornings, Gerald would wake his son, who accompanied him on weekend delivery runs. After a quick stop at their local Tim Hortons, which was often filled with weekend workers like themselves, the Millers would begin their run throughout industrial Cape Breton, and sometimes as far as Ingonish and St. Peter’s, both between one to two hours away.
Ryan Miller said his father told him the business would one day be his, if he wanted it, and Ryan approached his early adult decisions with that in mind. Along with his two older sisters, Ryan always listened in on his parents’ conversations about the business.
He spent his summers and weekends working alongside the company’s other employees, learning the ropes of every position. When he went to university, he studied business administration. Ever his father’s son, Ryan specialized in accounting. Upon his 2003 graduation, many of his friends moved to bigger cities — Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton.
Ryan moved back to Sydney, into the bedroom he’s occupied since he was a kid. Then and now, the younger Miller found himself envious of city life. “Sometimes I think it might be cool to be in a bigger place,” he says, ruefully. But the feeling is fleeting, and one he treats with characteristic rationality.
“I had a really good opportunity to come back to a solid business –this was something I knew I would probably do for the rest of my life.”
For the first two years after he officially joined the company as fleet manager, Ryan Miller focused on taking over some of his father’s responsibilities. He kept a newly trained eye on the company finances and began taking more responsibility for the firm’s relationships with customers.
He also began focusing on what the company needed in order to grow. At the time, Ryan Miller identified two constraints — too few routes, and a lack of storage space. He started out by mapping out some new routes that would take the firm beyond its traditional northwestern Cape Breton focus and give Star Delivery more coverage throughout the island. Then he got to work crunching the numbers on how big of a commercial space they needed, and how much they could afford to spend.
“I knew I wanted the company to grow, and I felt like I had enough experience with the company to take it on pretty aggressively,” he says.
In 2004, the firm began renting warehouse space. The following year, with Gerald’s go-ahead, Ryan got to work designing the new 2,000-sq-ft, $300,000 warehouse and office space in the Sydport Industrial Park. With a 30-year track record, long-standing customers and almost no debt, securing a mortgage was straightforward.
To pay for it, the Millers began approaching their existing customers and asking for more of their business. “We’d do a great job on that, and then use that experience to try and get even more,” says Ryan. For example, in one year, Star Delivery went from having 25 percent of the Cape Breton distribution for a major Atlantic Canadian grocery chain to 100 percent.
Almost immediately, the firm started growing — by every measure.
The Millers invested in equipment, doubling their fleet to four courier vans and six refrigerated straight trucks, and hiring an additional six additional employees, bringing the total count up to 18.
In 2006, company revenues grew from $156,000 to $509,000. Sales grew another 47 percent last year, propelling the company to Progress Magazine’s Top 101, a list of Atlantic Canada’s fastest growing companies. That, in turn, has lead to more media coverage and buzz, which has sparked even more business.
“We’re definitely getting a lot of recognition now,” says Ryan. “The timing of our growth worked really well for us.” Miller is looking to continue his growth streak, by expanding routes into mainland Nova Scotia, and tapping their existing clientele for even more business.
The Millers speak of one another admiringly and cite mutual respect as an essential factor in what has already been a successful transition. While the ownership transfer will be formalized in a few weeks, Gerald Miller has hardly worked in the company for the last six months.
“What happened with this company — I never expected,” he says. “But I know I can look forward to my retirement — the company is in good hands.”