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Join Ron Callis, Owner & CEO of One Firefly and industry veteran, as he talks business development, technology trends, and more with leading personalities in the tech industry. Automation Unplugged (AU) is produced and broadcast live every week.
An AV and integration-focused podcast broadcast live weekly
Join Ron Callis, Owner & CEO of One Firefly and industry veteran, as he talks business development, technology trends, and more with leading personalities in the tech industry. Automation Unplugged (AU) is produced and broadcast live every week.
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Home Automation Unplugged Episode #232: An Industry Q&A with Bryan Mills

In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Bryan Mills, President of Mills Technologies shares his journey from mechanical engineering to running the 3rd generation family business.

This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Bryan Mills. Recorded live on Wednesday, December 21st, 2022, at 12:30 pm. EST.

About Bryan Mills

Bryan represents the third generation of the Mills family involved in the consumer and commercial technology industries. 

He started his career in product design, focusing on the integration of form and function in everyday items. After product design, Bryan moved into management and operations in a Fortune 500 company, working on projects varying from the commercialization of hybrid vehicle platforms to strategic planning and mergers and acquisitions. Looking for an opportunity to leverage his technical background and small business operations skills, Bryan joined Mills in 2009 to take over as president of the family business.

At Mills, Bryan has focused on system standardization to provide exceptionally reliable and intuitive solutions for clients, and over the past 7 years has doubled the size of the company. Bryan is a past recipient of a “Profile of Excellence Award” by CEPro Magazine.

Bryan has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Northwestern University with a concentration in Design and is also a certified CEDIA Registered Outreach Instructor.

Interview Recap

  • Bryan’s journey from mechanical engineering to running the 3rd generation family business.
  • A fun story about Bryan redesigning the Tapcon Screw.
  • Bryan’s diversification in the business during the Great Recession in 2009
  • Mills Technologies and how EOS has been implemented to the company’s culture.

SEE ALSO: Home Automation Podcast Episode #231 A Lightapalooza Special



Ron:  Brian, how are you, sir?

Bryan: I'm good, Ron. Good to see you.

Ron:  Hey, likewise, likewise. Where are you coming to us from?

Bryan: We are just north of Chicago, so yeah, just first suburb of north of Chicago.

Ron:  Awesome. And I see the festive room. Where are you physically located? Are you in your office?

Bryan: I am in our conference room and actually one of our team members came in a couple of weeks ago over the weekend and decorated our office festively. Kind of threw out. So it was a nice surprise to walk in. So I thought it would add a little bit to the conversation today.

Ron:  Now, so I'm here in Florida and generally it's rather warm, although I believe we have a cold snap about to hit us. But you have the cold weather, you have the Christmas decorations, it looks like holiday decorations. Do you also have like the holiday music playing throughout the office?

Bryan: We got it off right now. So it's not interfering with this, but otherwise we have have it on, yes.

Ron:  Love it, love it. Now, Brian, you and I actually have a couple things in common. I thought it'd be fun to maybe start there. And the first is that you are a fellow mechanical engineer. So I went to Virginia Tech. I graduated back in 2000. I'm not sure how, but somehow I got a diploma. And that was a lot of fun and not always a lot of studying happening, but they did let me out of there and I get to claim I have a mechanical engineering degree. But so do you, and you and I graduated just a couple of years apart. Tell me about that. How did engineering happen for you?

Bryan: Yeah, so I graduated in 2002 from Northwestern University with a degree in mechanical engineering focus and product design. You know, it was one of those, I think, like a lot of us, we probably played with a lot of Legos as kids.

Ron:  For me, it was capsular. Did you ever play with capsular?

Bryan: I don't think I played with that as much. I know what that is. With my kids now, we actually have a LEGO room in our house, but that's another story. But yeah, I think just the gravitated towards a little bit more of the math and the engineering or the physics. I had a number of family members that were engineers and just kind of got into it. Actually, before I even went to school, got through some nepotism, got the chance to intern at a product design firm and really just kind of fell in love with product design and the way that they marry form and function. So that was interesting to me and decided to study that in school.

Ron:  That's awesome. Well, I want to get your thoughts around what sort of ideas or principles from your engineering background have led into your belief systems and how you run your business. So I'm just putting that out there. I'm going to come back to that. But one other thing you and I have in common, Brian, is that you also are on the Azione board. So I'm on the Azione board. I've served there for a number of years, and you're there. So maybe just at a high level, what is the Azione board and what is the role that you serve? You and I both serve on that board?

Bryan: Yeah, if you look at Azione, I guess we're all called buying groups, although I think they're function has really changed. I think that's one of the big things is certainly we're there to leverage scale in terms of maximizing profitability. But really, it's networking. I mean, that's why I think a lot of these groups exist, and certainly some of my biggest learnings from the last few years have been through groups like Azione and some of the other business owners I've gotten to meet there. You know, I think our role on the board is really kind of to direct some of those activities. When we have a conference, when we have other events, you know, to provide some guidance to Richard and team. In terms of what are we looking for, what are business owners looking for? What is going to move the needle? And I think to give some just open and honest feedback on that, that's kind of what we do.

Ron:  Amen and well said, and I've enjoyed working with you and getting to know you during that time serving on the board for sure. I always like to go back in time. Where did you start from? And I'm actually going to be more specific with you, Brian, because your business is particularly fascinating. Because it's not the story where your business started you know in the last 5 or ten years. Mills and you could correct me around the naming, but I'll just name your current company. Mills Technologies, my notes here have that you guys are maybe your grandfather started this back in the 1930s. So take us back in time. I want to learn about the history of the business, but then also your particular experience and life that's led you to running this very successful business today.

Bryan: Yeah, we are unique in that. And so Mills Recording Systems was founded in 1939 by my grandfather, who was also a Ron, Ron Mills.

Ron:  It's a good name.

Bryan: You know, he was a smart guy at Quaker from central Illinois who I think had an entrepreneurial spirit. He secured some of the first distribution rights to magnetic recording tape. Some of the early efforts of the company were recording artists to support World War II. So you know I'm sure some of those old timey you know, you'd go into the theater and you know some of those shorts that we've seen and whatnot. But they were recording studio for kind of the 40s, 50s, 60s. He did some sort of various professional recording and some other things. Then that business kind of evolved, they did that, but then they started getting these kind of Hi-Fi and these consumer products. So as the decades kind of went on, they started selling some audio equipment, some video equipment, and were kind of positioned as that high end Hi-Fi store in Chicago. So we had stores on if people know Chicago, Michigan avenue, and State street, which are kind of expensive commerce areas there and did that for a long time. Built some really great relationships. One of the things we're proud of is, if the audience remembers Siskel and Ebert, so they were both Chicago based movie critics.

Ron:  I grew up watching Siskel and Ebert. I would wait for their reviews of the you know whatever was in the theater.

Bryan: So both of those guys were great Mills customers. And in fact, if you can recall, when they used to have a holiday show, they'd say, you know, what's new in consumer technology? They would often bring Mills on, and we'd kind of talk about home theater and TVs and that sort of thing. So just some really cool, you know, it was great to be a part of Chicago history and the history of this industry. And so kind of as time progressed, you get into the late 80s and early 90s and there was a pivot. You had the advent of some of the big box electronics stores so the Circuit Cities and the Best Buys and that sort of thing. That were really selling on price. And so people would come in and chop us for knowledge, but they'd go buy elsewhere. At the same time, some products started coming along that, you know, people just didn't buy. There was enough complexity there where they'd say, hey, come install this in my house. So we kind of had in the early 90s there, two business models, retail, where we were getting killed with high rents and that sort of thing. And then this industry of I guess what we call today, custom integration. So in 94, the company made the decision to shut down retail operations and focused exclusively on this channel and we've been doing it since then.

Ron:  When did when did you start in the business?

Bryan: Yeah, so I started in 2009. I always joke with anybody who has ever met me. It was the last job that I was ever going to do. We can go through that story.

Ron:  Actually take me through, I jumped the gun here, because I want our audience to hear that story, but also actually go back for us to your college. You had a pretty fascinating career even prior to joining the family business.

Bryan: As I said, even in high school, interned at a product design firm, so I kind of had engineering and product design in the mind. When I went to college, so engineers oftentimes have the option of doing what's called a co-op program where instead of being a four year program, it's a 5 year program, but same number of classes, you just work in industry for a year and a half. So I co-opt locally at a diversified manufacturing company and spent a year and a half working in their R&D center. So designing products, designing processes, that sort of thing. Ron and I were talking about earlier. One of my claims to fame is I redesigned all Tapcon concrete screws in about 2000.

Ron:  This is a big deal. So like everybody in the world that has used a Tapcon is using a product that the Brian Mills designed?

Bryan: Yeah, let's not oversell it.

Ron:  This is pretty cool. I don't know. I think that needs to be the front of your website.

Bryan: Yeah, yeah. Well, we joke that we call the Millscons. We still call them when we use them here. We call the Millscons.

Ron:  Now I'm going to forever be referring to them as Millscons. For anyone that's listening, that doesn't know what we're talking about. If you ever have to hang something or put a screw into concrete, you can't just use a regular screw. You have to use a Tapcon, which is a brand name of a concrete screw. I'm here in Florida, so my home iss built out of concrete. We use Tapcons. I've got a Leon Soundbar Denza thing in my living room, and it's the brackets held onto the wall with Tapcons. Brian, I didn't know you were in my living room.

Bryan: There you go. I'm sure it's been redesigned since then, but it was a great experience that leveraged in that particular case, got to leverage actually use some finite element software to kind of model the whole thing and then got the very real experience of importing different types of concrete from around the United States and just sitting out on a summer day drilling thousands of screws into chunks of concrete to solve an engineering problem.

Ron:  All right, so now we're down this rabbit hole. So we got to keep going. What did you fix on the Tapcon? What was wrong and what was your solution?

Bryan: Yeah. I'm sure everybody wants to hear this story.

Ron:  They totally don't, but I do.

Bryan: So the real short of it is, there's a natural stress point, the way that you make a screw, there was a natural stress point and is on concrete's kind of got a higher psi's, it was causing them to snap off prematurely. So we kind of changed the process to where that stress point got moved. So the story I shared with Ron is, we had a large distributor in Florida that had canceled all of our orders because they were snapping off. So I flew down with the sales team. I think I was 21 at the time. Full suit, whatever. We go back into this warehouse in Florida. It's a 100° and a 100% humidity. The guy says, hey, I've got an order for $10 million here worth of the screws. If you guys can sink two screws on the floor, I'll give you the order if not, I'm canceling the order. He told me I had to do it. So in my full suit, I've got this giant hammer drill. I kind of hammer in these two screws. They sink. And he goes, here goes your order. So the sales team bought me a nice dinner that night down in Florida. So yeah.

Ron:  That's awesome. All right, so clearly that is a milestone in one's life. What happened after the tap? So take us further.

Bryan: Yeah, so I really enjoyed engineering, but I realized I like making decisions. I was tired of having projects that were canceled and I didn't have a lot of input into them. So coming off of school, another diversified manufacturing company. They had a management development program where they took people with engineering backgrounds, but they exposed them to lots of different aspects of business. So every 9 months, I would rotate where I lived, and then I would rotate what job I did. So I did I worked on the manufacturing floor and operations in North Carolina and then moved to their plant in central Mexico. I did some marketing and new business development where we had literally a hybrid garbage truck that used a hybrid hydraulic platform that we were bringing to market. So got to write some grants and that sort of thing and a request some grants and market the platform to a bunch of different industries. And then I kind of concluded that with working in the corporate headquarters, in fact, for the guy that's now the CEO of that company. But doing things like just financial reporting, mergers and acquisitions, and actually some of the best things I did is I made his presentations, you want to learn about business, make the presentations for a CEO of a Fortune 500 company and find out what they think is important. So some really good lessons learned there. At that time, I got engaged. My wife was getting her PhD at Duke down in North Carolina, so I took a permanent role as a product manager for about a $20 million uninterruptible power supply product line in North Carolina. So did that. For somebody who grew up in a small business, I kind of missed that. A couple of years in, just through some connections I had, there was a company, it was a franchiser of sporting goods retail stores. So totally natural transition to where my next step would be. But really, it got to talking to the owner, really liked what they were doing. I love the idea of going into small business. There were 15 of us in an old converted art house and this kind of funky town in North Carolina. They were looking to hire somebody from outside their industry to kind of think about operations differently. I did that. I fundamentally kind of consulted the small business owners around the country. Really fell in love with small business. Then when we started a family and I was interested in moving back to Chicago, I wanted to find a business to run on my own. I said I would never do it, but I wanted to find something that leveraged my technical background, something that had cash flow so that I could actually take a salary and at the time my parents were looking to get out of the business here. So in 2009, I moved here and I took over the family business.

Ron:  Did you get to work during that transition? Were you able to work with your mom and dad?

Bryan: Yeah, so my dad, unfortunately, for health reasons, had kind of exited the business a year before. I had worked with him some summers in high school, implementing, primarily the inventory management system that 16 years later had become very unwieldy and was one of the first things that I corrected here. But I literally worked with my mom for about eight, ten years. She retired a couple of years ago, but yeah, no, I would come in and you know our HR and accounting person was my mom.

Ron:  That's amazing. It's got to be a lot of fun. It can be a lot of fun and maybe very stressful working with your parents.

Bryan: I think when you work with your mom, you're always on your best behavior because you don't want to be that jerk. So I think it influences you being on your best behavior at all times.

Ron:  By the way, we have a couple of people on LinkedIn that have stopped in and said, hello, Paul Bochner has said hello. He said, Brian, with a bunch of exclamation points. And Wes, over here at team One Firefly, he's a leader on our team, and he's welcomed you to the show, which is appreciated. So tell me what I just heard. I think I heard and I'd love you to clarify is that you designed the inventory management system for the business, but not after you had gone to college, you designed this in high school?

Bryan: Yeah, let's be clear. It was a glorified excel sheet with some access, some Microsoft access database layer on top of it. So you know I think when I did it I was 16, you know, it was a few hundred rows. When I came and take over the business in 2009, it's now at, you know, some tens of hundreds of thousands of rows of data and that sort of thing. It was not very clean. So we eventually got to that. Not right away, but eventually got to fixing that.

Ron:  So going back in time, 2009, I vivid memories of 2009. I started this business in November of '07. So I had about 6 months under my belt before the whole world melted down with at the time what was called the Great Recession. And that Great Recession easily impacted our industry for the next three years or so. Which puts 2009 right at the epicenter of probably a very scary time. What was that like? I mean, what was that time period like to be entering the family business? A, that sounds very hard, and B, it sounds very stressful, potentially with the economic conditions that were going on.

Bryan: Yeah, I feel extremely fortunate that that's when I entered the business. And I know that sounds a little bit counterintuitive. But I mean, imagine a 30 year old kid who's never worked in the business, basically saying, I'm in charge now, right? So I think I say I'm very fortunate, you know, some of the employees I had known since I was 5 years old. It's a unique situation in family business. But I feel very fortunate in that we were not in a good position, just to be blunt. I think that made people a lot more willing to say, you know what? I'm not sure who this person is. But let's follow him and see what happens because it can't be any worse. So I think if I had entered a time where things were going extremely well, I'm not sure I would have gotten that buy in. Fortunately, I walked in when things were not going well. We were lucky to get some early victories. I think that just kind of built the momentum for what was to come.

Ron:  Anything jump out at you in terms of changes you implemented anywhere across the business in those first year or two that you think likely impacted your survivability and now your ability to thrive?

Bryan: Yeah, I think there were two things that still to this day I think are differentiators for our business. The first one is you know I kind of looked at it as an outsider and kind of based on that product management background. I couldn't understand why we lumped everything into installation and kind of by going theory at the time was, to me, it feels like the differentiators in this industry should be design and support. A lot of people are really good at installation, but really the user experience is made in the design side. And when I say design not design documents, but really voice of the customer listening to what they want and designing a system that's going to meet their needs. And then support. I mean, we did not have a support business. We had an apology business. I'm sorry that the system that we designed or installed 5 years ago doesn't work perfectly. I don't know how it was for the rest of the industry, but that felt weird because it's technology. You have to embrace that. It's going to fall apart sometimes. So I think splitting those things out and having conversations around that, a lot of our we targeted architects, I think, because I had that background in form and function and felt more comfortable speaking that language. So I think that's where some of our early victories were there. The other thing that I kind of had taken away from previous industries is that every industry has one north star financial metric. So when I was at a diversified manufacturer, you can imagine you're spending all this money in these giant machines and you have to worry about inventory and that sort of thing. So their number was like cash flow based on invested capital. If you're a diversified manufacturer, that's what you worry about. When I was in retail, your biggest number is typically your rents, it's your price per square foot. So how much revenue you can generate per square feet per square foot, that often dictates your profitability. So you know when I looked at this industry, I said, well, what's really that driver? The one that we arrived at was really gross profit, which is that's kind of your variable. When you look at a proposal, how much gross profit am I going to make, dollar wise? Then what's our limiting factor? And for us, that was our ability to hire, train and retain great technicians. So really our limiting factor is installation techs and their hours. So very early on, we started looking at everything through the lens of gross profit per technician hour. We made decisions on which projects to go after based on that. And really maintaining a portfolio. That's served us well. You don't necessarily have to crank a lot of revenue if you're making sure that everything that you're doing is profitable in terms of opportunity cost as well. So do I do this job that's a $185 an hour in gross profit per hour versus this one that's a $120? You know, you start making informed decisions.

Ron:  Do you have numbers or recommendations or targets that are you just mentioned gross profit per technician. Are those, is that on your dashboard with your leadership team? Is that a top line metric that you're always looking at?

Bryan: So you know in the last year, up until about 18 months ago, I was the only salesperson here. Or at least have been for a few years. We've built out now a sales team to three of us. In fact, I'm kind of stepping away a little bit from doing that. One of the things you have to realize is you've got to set standards on how other people sell. So that's kind of that's hammered into our sales team. I mean, all overall our team, but our sales team, they know what that number needs to be. It's hard to say, it depends on your business a little bit, right? So it's hard to say exactly because it's based on what are your fixed costs.

Ron:  How you build out your PNL, right?

Bryan: What's interesting about it though, is it doesn't become then just one number. I think you can start to think about it in terms of risk. So, okay, you know, let's say our number is a $150 of gross profit per hour, which is approximately what it is for us. But not all jobs are the same. There's a lot higher risk if I've got a thousand hours on a project and it's in a high rise that takes a long time to get into. It's a builder I've never worked with before. There's a risk there. So I may say for that job, I'm not going to, $150 an hour is not sufficient. That job's got to be at a $180 an hour to mitigate risk. Whereas you may have something that, hey, we've worked with this person a ton of time before, existing client, everything's a known, it's under our control. Yeah, if it has to be, if it's a competitive situation, maybe we're willing to do it for a little bit less. So it leads into some really interesting conversations too. I think this industry is like, oh, we don't discount. What is discounting? We have products that we make no margin on and we have products that we make very large margin on. But it gets into a, are we better off selling a $500 pair of speakers at 50 points of margin or a $1000 pair of speakers at 40 points of margin? Which one makes us more money, which creates a better client experience? So it's led us to some business strategies and that sort of thing. That maybe not be for everybody. But it worked for us.

Ron:  It sounds like you have a strong handle on your business finances. Have you always since you took over the business, played that role? Or is there a counter? Is there a member of your team that is you know their job is to make sure I don't want to say just a bookkeeper role, but really the more strategic direction of financial management? How have you always approached that?

Bryan: Yeah, I'd be lying if I said our books have always been awesome. They were very bad for a very long time. It's a regret that I have because it's really hard to make decisions without that information. Not just having that information accurate, having that information timely. I mean, I think without getting too far into it, one of the real challenges of this industry is how long our projects are. So it gets into the question, when do you recognize revenue? Do you recognize revenue on a piece of equipment when you sell it, when you order it, when you install it, when the project's all done? So those, for those of us in the industry, big projects can create really big swings and profitability on a monthly or even quarterly basis. So back to your question, I've always kind of looked at a strategically. We have the way that we're structured. We have a person in charge of internal operations and she, with an outside bookkeeper, kind of maintains that. Finally, in the last two years, we've had it to the point where I'm satisfied with it and we're actually using it more strategically than we have in the past.

Ron:  I want to go really granular with this question. It's actually based on a conversation that was happening. I was having a really over the last week with a couple of different folks. But it has to do with in some markets across North America. This could be happening around the world as well. The conversations I've recently had are here in North America, U.S. and Canada. It has to do with, in some markets, some of these middle sized projects, middle market projects, even smaller projects have been eroding or slowing down. What's nice about those projects is they are often great for cash flow. You can get in and get out of a job in 60 days, 90 days, you know, maybe sometimes in a couple of weeks, which is great, because it helps you pay the bills. You pay your mortgage or you pay your people with cash. At the same time, I'm seeing or they're seeing what appears to be an increase in larger projects. And what triggered this thought is your comment about understanding kind of the way money is moving through the business. A big project can look like a vanity metric of success. Wow, I scored a $500,000 job or I scored a $1 million job, whatever that is. But a $1 million job, that revenue could be spread over three years. Whereas so if you're small to medium job has eroded and there's less of them. Is that not a completely different business to run, then maybe the business you were running previous to that? That's just a high level meta question. And then I'm curious what you're seeing. A lot of people tune into this show. What's happening in Chicago? What's happening in LA? What are people in different markets seeing and hearing?

Bryan: Yeah, a lot of questions to unpack there. So I think if I had two wishes for this industry, one of them would be we need to shift from a project mentality to a relationship mentality. I think that, and we're seeing this, right? And we kind of had this thesis a few years ago, and I think COVID really proved it right. But we got to stop thinking about our involvement is only when projects happen because the downside of projects is the opportunity has to exist. There has to be a hole in the ground. There has to be the right alignment of that builder or that architect or that client kind of choosing you in that sort of thing. There's a lot of challenges and risks involved with that. We made the decision to invest kind of more heavily on the service side of our business, starting about 5 years ago. So we're on the one vision platform. They have been a great help in getting us to think about it differently. But one of the things that we've seen, and part of this speaks to the age of our company as well. We have clients that go back 10, 15, 25 years. How do you serve that client who just wants to do a $15,000 upgrade of something you know? I mean, we all saw it during COVID, but the 10, 15, $20,000 network upgrade. I want some new TVs. I want to do outdoor, and that sort of thing. So one of the trends that we've seen in our company over the last four years is our average project site has gone down significantly. The number of projects has gone up significantly. But we really haven't changed our clientele a lot. It's just how we do business with them. It's that, you know, we are doing the, okay, this year we're going to do the $10,000 whatever it is. And next year, we're going to do the $40,000 whatever it is. So just a lot more touch points with a client. So I have heard what you said of the middle is gone. We have a hard time distinguishing that because we do so much of our business with existing customers. The other thing, so if we look exclusively though, new construction, you know, Chicago is an interesting market. We Midwesterners tend to be humble and not a lot showy. So literally the same client that I'll do a home with here is their primary residence may have a very different spending pattern than their home in Miami or Aspen or that sort of thing. So I don't think we have seen that trend of it's the extremes, but we're a little bit different business from that standpoint.

Ron:  Out of curiosity, if you're willing to share it, when you think about and we'll just say high level and I don't need exact numbers, but more of percentages or ideas. If you look at your revenue forecast for next year, within your business, because your legacy goes back to the 1930s, what percentage of revenue do you expect to come from that existing book of customers versus new customers?

Bryan: It's a good question, and I don't have it off the top of my head, but it's over 50%.

Ron:  Over 50%. And is that trend? Is it changing or has it been 50% for a long time?

Bryan: I think it's probably percentage wise the same. Dollar wise it keeps going up. So as we had, we're going to finish this year about 17% up. Next year, we're targeting another 15 to 20%. Despite the economic conditions. So just the dollars are getting bigger. But as a percent, it's probably comparable. It probably went up a little bit. From where it was, but yeah, I think that's a good ballpark.

Ron:  Well, I think you're espousing a really powerful point here, and that is the power of your customer base and properly staying connected to that customer base. It sounds like through great service, keeping their positive energy and positive thoughts about their technology in line so that they in fact sounds like become a customer for life.

Bryan: Yeah, I think the other part of that is, I mean, it's interesting. I think for a long time, having a large customer base in this industry was an anchor. It was a negative, not a positive, right? This goes to, I think, generally, our industry did not know how to sell labor. The dirty secret of this industry is we don't survive without selling boxes. It leads clients to oftentimes come to us saying, you know what? I had this great integration. They were so great during the project. But now we're two years out and I call them. They don't really respond. And I just, I don't get it. And I said, I get it. They're not making as much money. A couple of things; one, your organizational structure has to be significantly different, to be respond to those disservice than it is for big projects. But then secondly, I mean, if you really look at it back to that gross profit per hour, if I'm making $200 in gross profit, you know, on the sale of a pair of speakers in that hour, and now you're asking me to take that same technician and just sell labor, I mean, what is that number? So, I don't know if anybody's going to be selling $400. Some people will, but a lot of people are not going to be selling service labor at $400 an hour. But then what are some different methods that we have to at least make that profitable? So I think one of the things that we've done in the last 5 years is really leaned into that of like, yeah, it's really difficult to be good at service and you want us to be profitable at it because we're profitable at it? We pay attention to it. One of the things that we do is we do sell service memberships that basically just dictate the terms of how responsive we are. Whether that's remote, in person, if we're proactively monitoring equipment, and we have a 150 clients, I never thought we'd get to this level. We have a 150 clients that pay us monthly that for some, you know, advanced form of response from our from our service team. That's great because that helps then keep those having that monthly revenue. It helps us keep the proper team staff, but it also means that our hourly costs can be a little bit lower than it would otherwise.

Ron:  That's awesome. Do you mind sharing? How do you get to how long did it take you to get to a 150? And kind of how you think about that or how you approach that?

Bryan: Yeah, you know, like a lot of things, it was not linear. One of the other things I think I learned from it is we were certainly victims of our own small thinking, so when we started it, and this was partnering with One Vision, who was a great partner in terms of coaching us and getting us to think, to make a cultural shift, in terms of how we thought about support and ongoing client relationships. But I thought we'd get to 30. I'd say like, all right, I know that these are the 20 or 30 people that call me a lot. Really, my goal is to get these 20 or 30 people not to have to bother me after hours so that I can have better work life balance in my technicians can have better work life balance. It sort of was a self fulfilling prophecy. We were there for the first, I don't know what it was, 12, 18 months or whatever. Then, you know, we had somebody come in that and we kind of rallied behind it saying, you know what? We're having all these other people come to us and saying, I'm not happy with the level of service I'm getting from companies like you. I hear you've got something different, so we started building. Then we made another big push and we got to about 75. And then we plateaued. I think to get to a 150, we really started selling it as part of our sales process. So one of the first conversations we're going to have if you're a new client of us is how we go about support, what the different options are. And why it's a better experience. And so now you're beginning to see with every, you know, not every project sold, but with a good number of projects sold, people are also buying into the membership before we, you know, before we run the first wire.

Ron:What would you say, Bryan, to anyone listening or watching that isn't paying a great deal of attention to the service of their clients or the service department? Maybe it doesn't even have a service department.

Bryan: It's hard. I mean, it's like, we tried for a number of years on our own to do it and we failed. I think one of the biggest things is you've got to be very, very simple in what you're offering. You know, we had these ideas of we'll bundle this many hours of labor and we'll give this many discounts on future. It was all too complex. So the model that worked for us, which is the One Vision model, which is, you know, it's going to dictate the terms of our responsiveness. I mean, there's a few other things in there as well, but that's basically what you're paying for. For us, it's great because there's no ambiguity just because I have a cell phone, you know, doesn't mean I'm necessarily going to, I'm not going to answer it. We have a process now for it. I think that was a huge thing for us. I think the only time I was ever ready to kind of throw up my hands and leave the industry was just the stress that was caused with clients reaching out after hours in particular. And you know the amazing thing about is about that is I don't even think it's so much that clients were angry. They experienced our systems or I should say, we worked between 8 and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. They use our systems, not 8 to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. So it was just top of mind. Hey, I'm home right now. It's Wednesday night. I see this isn't working. One of the things that just amazes me about this industry from top to bottom, people care. There was one thing I could tell a consumer is you have no idea how much every single person at your integration firm cares. So even if they were saying no big deal, you know, you get it in your head, it's 8 o'clock at night, you're like, oh, I wonder why that's not working. So I think to give our technicians a break to give ourselves a break, we just, when you're off, you're off, and when you're on-call, you're on-call. And it's such a better work life balance.

Ron:  Brilliant! Bryan, you also practice EOS, EOS traction. And I've talked about that on multiple occasions on this show. We practice EOS traction. Why don't you share kind of how you guys practice it or how it's maybe positively or negatively, affected your business?

Bryan: Yeah, so I've been accused of kind of being on the EOS cult.

Ron:  I'm in the cult too, so it's okay.

Bryan: For those not on it, EOS has been the best thing for our business that we've done in the last three years, 5 years probably, maybe ever. It really is like, does your business have an operating system? If we think about it, everything we do, I mean, we're in technology, everything has an operating system. Our business did not have an operating system. So when we say that, how are meetings run? How are measurables reported? How is the team organized? How do you give feedback? And being on the journey; So we just finished, we just concluded year two, two weeks ago. We had an annual session. So for those who do EOS, the year includes with a two day deep dive where you kind of look at what has been done, but then also, all right, let's revisit. What is our ten year goal or 5 year goal or one year goal? Then how is our organization aligned with that? It creates some really good discussion. I think is a bigger part of that. It has transformed our culture. You know, we all mean well. Somebody, you know, a technician might come to me and say like, hey, I've got this idea for a thing. And I'm like, yeah, that's a great idea. And then I get busy, then I don't respond to it. Then the next time they have an idea, the tech is going to be like, he didn't listen the last time. Why am I going to do it again? One of the results of EOS is everybody has a weekly meeting. Those issues, those ideas, all those things get moved up and down the organization in a proper manner so they get responded to, and it's just the level of engagement is so much better because of it.

Ron:  Why do you think that is?

Bryan: People are heard. I mean, they've got a voice. They've got a platform. And they also, you know, I think it's also, where do I fit in the organization? So if, you know, if our goal next year is 20% growth, and X amount of profitability, what is my role in getting there? Oh, so I'm a technician. I understand, you know, that my role in that is going to be utilization. I was clocking in about 6 billable hours a day. My stretch is to find a way to get that to 6 and a half. That little action is going to yield another $100,000 of gross profit. And oh, by the way, we have an incentive plan now where I get a piece of that too. So things that used to take us months, years, some things we'd never get to, we're able to knock out, and we're also able to, you know, as part of that, a lot of it is saying no. This is not a priority right now. I would love to see this sort of thing, but in the next 90 days, it's not a priority. We're not going to think about it. We're not going to waste mental energy on it. So I think those have been really big things.

Ron:  People listening, this sounds all right, he's a member of a cult. This sounds too good to be true. All right, how does someone that's not doing this? Has not read the book "Traction". Has not read the book "What the heck is EOS?" Has not read "Rocket Fuel." Has not read any of this content. What is it like to come on board with EOS? What is that onboarding process?

Bryan: Yeah, and EOS has changed, right? So it's kind of become the franchise model on its own. So you can self-implement. You can read, I mean, all the tools are out there. You can read Traction, you can read any of the books that Ron just mentioned, there's a lot of resources out there on the web. And you can try to self implement. In our experience and the experience of anybody I've ever talked to, you're not going to be successful. It's kind of the same thing of I could go to the gym and I could get myself in shape, but the reality is if I hire a personal trainer, I've got accountability. So we hired an implementer, and they were really our guide for the two years on this process where they would work with us quarterly. So you have kind of quarterly, you've got an initial onboarding, you've got quarterly check ins, you've got an annual, the individual is fantastic at doing it, Justin Cook, has just been such an awesome person to work with on this. You know, it's expensive. EOS rates from what I hear are going up significantly from when we started, so I'm glad we got in when we did. It still worth it. It's going to be a big investment. But for us, I'd say even at some of those rates, it's absolutely worth it. So now we're at a point where two years on, we're basically doing it ourselves. We're still going to bring in our implementer on an annual basis, but otherwise we're now running it ourselves.

Ron:  You mentioned right when you were starting to talk about EOS, it's changed how you run meetings. What does it mean to run an effective meeting?

Bryan: So, and if anybody's ever read books by, I can't think of his first name. Lencioni. He's got a couple. He writes in business fables, which I love. It's like a narrative, but it has all your business things built in. So "The 5 Dysfunctions" is probably the most common one, a great one. There's another one called "Death by Meeting." We all hate meetings because and I ran them this way forever, a meeting was okay, let's go through our 40 open projects. Number one, how is it? Number two, how is it? And so, you know, not to steal the book by Lencioni. But in it, basically the character finds out that meetings are the same length as movies. Why do we love movies? Well, movies have conflict, there's tension. And so the whole idea with an EOS meeting is, yes, there's some check in and that sort of thing, but the majority of the meeting is what's called the IDS, identify, discuss, and solve. Here's our issues. Let's have at it. Nothing is sacred. We can totally throw it. We're comfortable enough with each other to speak our mind and at the end of the day, we come to resolution and we're all in agreement out of it. So rather than meetings being a reporting function, they're actually a workshop discussion function where you're solving issues and you're moving on. They're just more fun. So yeah, it's hard to have everyone like that. But it's made them a lot more. There's a lot more engagement.

Ron:  And an EOS nomenclature, that's called an L10 meeting. And the reason they want it called an L10 is in a perfect world. Every single member in that meeting would rate it a ten out of ten in terms of effectiveness. For anyone watching or listening, just try it out in your next meeting, have a normal meeting as good or as dysfunctional as it might be. Then ask everyone to rate that meeting one to ten, ten, this was highly effective and one, it was a waste of my time. See what you come out with. Just that idea that accountability is built into the name of the type of meetings you run in EOS, it immediately forces you, me, everybody attending that meeting to make sure it's an effective meeting. I'd rather have less meetings that are more effective than more meetings that are less effective. Like everyone would raise their hand to that. That's awesome. You mentioned Justin cook, was that your EOS implementer? Is this someone that is soliciting other clients or a website or a shout out you want to give to that individual?

Bryan: Yeah, I mean, so Justin you know, Justin comes from our industry. He was actually a team member at One Vision for a while. What I love about Justin is, you know, there are different takes on, should and implementer have industry experience? There's arguments either way. Justin is really largely not taking people from our industry because he feels that interferes with him being, you know, being kind of pure in the EOS implementation. They are there not to give advice. They're there to facilitate. Certainly I think EOS worldwide is the website. That being said, if somebody wanted to reach out to me, I'm happy to put you, you know, like there's kind of back channels too of, hey, who's a good implementer and that sort of thing? More than happy to put you in touch. We've done that for a few other integrators. I give them Justin's name Justin was able to find a person in their market.

Ron:  Awesome. Yeah, I'm in the category and Bryan, you mentioned there's a category where you have an implementer or a coach of sorts. And then you kind of you have the opportunity to self implement beyond that. I'm in the camp at One Firefly where we just appreciate the luxury of that moderator on an ongoing basis. So we certainly feel that we're now we can generally run those meetings, but we just appreciate it as a CEO and founder having a third party facilitating the dialog of which then I'm a participant. So there's just different ways to go about getting the mission accomplished. Those are two immediate examples. To pivot, I'm just mindful of time. We're almost at the hour. I just have one more thing I wanted to dig into. I know that Bryan, you and team have focused on building relationships with architects and designers. That's an important part of your go to business strategy. Can you just share how you think about that?

Bryan: Yeah, I think this goes back to you know something I said earlier, you know, my background is product design, you know, that marriage of form and function, I'm just particularly, I feel comfortable doing that. So very early on, I got my CEDIA ROI COI certification and a big part of our marketing strategy is lunch and learns of reaching out to the design community. We tend to be architects heavy. And just establishing ourselves as a knowledge leader you know. We talk about our company having kind of four pillars, so I had mentioned our design, our installation, and support. The other one that isn't a revenue center is education. One of the things that's really challenging is people don't really know that our industry exists or what we do. So we're big proponents of reaching out to architects, reaching out to the design community and speaking on it. Personally, I've been fortunate. I've had the chance to speak through the AIA American Institute of Architects a few times. So both locally, there's different chapters of AIA. And so the one that's relevant kind of to our industry is something called CRAN, which is the Custom Residential Architects Network. So if you have a CRAN chapter, I'd reach out to them and find out how to get involved. In 2018, I actually had the good fortune to be able to speak at the CRAN national conference. It was in Cincinnati, a really cool event. Got to hang out with 250 architects and two were some significant homes and that sort of thing. But I got to speak on basically how architects can build better relationships with integrators and kind of what's a blueprint for that. So in fact, I think that course is still on AIA's E learning website and that sort of thing. But you know just the idea of bringing us in early into something that's spoken to a lot and why that's better. You know, what that can yield, why that's a better relationship. And really how to find people, people like us.

Ron:  I am sharing your website for all of us that are watching on the socials and that website is Bryan, it's been awesome having you on show 230. Let me make sure I get the number right. I think it's 232, David come over here and correct me if it's not 232. But it's been awesome having you on the show. How else could people that would like to get in touch with you? How else would you recommend they do that?

Bryan: Yeah, I mean, go to the website. You can find me on LinkedIn and my email address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Always up for a good conversation about, you know, my love is small business, always love talking to other business owners and manufacturers, and that sort of thing.

Ron:  Awesome. Bryan, happy holidays, sir. I look forward to seeing you in person at the next Azione conference and I'm sure we'll have opportunities to talk sooner than that. I'm heading up to Phoenix for this Lightapalooza conference in February. So maybe we'll have an opportunity to run into each other there.

Bryan: I hope to see you there and happy holidays to you as well.

Ron:  Thank you, buddy. Be well.


Bryan represents the third generation of the Mills family involved in the consumer and commercial technology industries. 

He started his career in product design, focusing on the integration of form and function in everyday items. After product design, Bryan moved into management and operations in a Fortune 500 company, working on projects varying from the commercialization of hybrid vehicle platforms to strategic planning and mergers and acquisitions. Looking for an opportunity to leverage his technical background and small business operations skills, Bryan joined Mills in 2009 to take over as president of the family business.

At Mills, Bryan has focused on system standardization to provide exceptionally reliable and intuitive solutions for clients, and over the past 7 years has doubled the size of the company. Bryan is a past recipient of a “Profile of Excellence Award” by CEPro Magazine.

Bryan has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Northwestern University with a concentration in Design and is also a certified CEDIA Registered Outreach Instructor.

Ron Callis is the CEO of One Firefly, LLC, a digital marketing agency based out of South Florida and creator of Automation Unplugged. Founded in 2007, One Firefly has quickly became the leading marketing firm specializing in the integrated technology and security space. The One Firefly team work hard to create innovative solutions to help Integrators boost their online presence, such as the elite website solution, Mercury Pro.

Resources and links from the interview:

Bryan can be reached directly by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.