VANCE MILLER - BAD MAN RISING
Interview by Tim Wallace for KBB (Kitchen Bedroom & Bathroom, Trade magazine)The article below was published in the KBB magazine and served as a clear warning to the kitchen industry to watch their backs as there’s a new kid in town. Vance Miller is a man that does everything himself, from chopping down the trees through to delivering the kitchen.
ln the words of Tim Wallace (KBB review)'This man is coming after your customers and he's getting them, by the hundred, every day."
"It’s easy to assume that Vance Miller is someone who the industry, and the consumer, should be giving an extremely wide berth. However this is no dodgy one-man band."
“ Miller can offer, a 6,000 pound kitchen for just 1,495. Meanwhile, a version priced at 4,000 pounds retails for 795 pounds"
"Decide for yourself if the leopard really has changed its spots but whatever your opinion of the man the size and significance of his operation is undeniable. To dismiss him as simply 'the Kitchen Gangster' is to dangerously underestimate him"
In the the words of Andrew Davies (editor of KBB review):
"...to dismiss Vance Miller as nothing more than a cowboy, a gangster making a quick buck, is as dangerous as dismissing Ikea as simply a Swedish chancer knocking out Billy bookcases..."
"...he is knocking out 30,000 kitchens a year and turning over 50 - 70 million pounds. He is the fourth biggest kitchen dealer in the country and with those numbers he can't be that far wrong. If they see your products on sale for six thousand pounds and his for just one thousand four hundred and ninety five, at the very least it will make them curious. Vance Miller's reputation may be well founded but to ignore him and to dismiss him as a minor irritation is dangerous.
Manchester train station on an unseasonably cold and grey June morning. Waiting for me on the road outside, Vance Miller's stationary white van is blocking the traffic at the lights, but as I haul myself into the passenger seat he seems less than concerned about the growing queue of cars behind him. After all, you don't mess with Vance Miller. It's my first meeting with the man derided by some as Britain's biggest kitchen gangster, a self-made entrepreneur with a string of convictions that
include assault, kidnapping and gold smuggling, it's easy to assume that Miller is someone who the industry and the consumer should be giving an extremely wide berth. However, this is no dodgy one-man band operating through postcards in Post Office windows. Vance Miller sold 28,000 kitchens last year and will sell another 30,000 by the end of this one.
He is the fourth biggest kitchen dealer in the country.
Fresh from his daily workout at the gym, Vance picks me up on the way to his four storey factory and warehouse in Oldham. it's his first visit after a four-month stint sourcing new products in China, a country that is a central part of his business. I'd been given all kinds of warnings about this supposedly volatile and ill-tempered character before setting out, but despite plenty of colourful language he seems in high spirits as he weaves through the morning traffic. "Last week was our best week ever," he enthuses. "We delivered 757 kitchens in seven days." This gives you some idea of the scale of his operation.
It could also suggest that when Vance is due back in town, his staff know it's time to get their act together.
Aside from his other criminal misdemeanours, Vance Miller, as has been well documented, enjoys a less than spotless reputation in the kitchen industry (see panel) but after receiving a nine-month jail term, later reduced to five weeks, for breaching the OFT's first ever 'Stop Now' order on his last business - Craftsman Kitchens - he came back fighting. He now operates both a wholesale and a retail operation. Mr Miller manages to continue trading because, despite its title, the 'Stop Now' order doesn't actually force him to stop selling kitchens. It only stops him from breaching the terms of his original court order.
Manchester Trading Standards says it continues to monitor his activities and can report him to the OFT if they receive a sufficient number of complaints - and there have been plenty of them in his career. "Accusations against him have ranged from kitchens being delivered incomplete or with faulty/damaged parts, to kitchens actually being different to the ones clients had chosen," a KBSA spokesman explains. "More recently the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint about his kitchens being advertised as 'solid wood' when parts of them, it was alleged, weren't. After a Crown court case successfully defended by Miller, the ASA were forced to admit the decision was incorrect and withdrew it.
Miller has also fully cooperated in a BBC documentary investigating his operation but according to the KBSA this just 'gave him a notoriety that he is cashing in on'
"This sort of carry-on from so-called official bodies only strengthens my assertion that many of the allegations about me are spurious and without foundation, and it is likely that high level shareholders in a number of national DIY and kitchen retailers with links to government departments are behind these stories." says Vance. " They like everybody who sells nationally to be playing on the same level playing field and as they simply can't compete with the cost I source my materials for or the low levels of profit I build into my prices, I often end up selling at 40 to 50 % cheaper for a better quality product. This significantly affects their turnover so they fight back any way they can. Having friends in high places can make them dirty and dangerous competitors"It's an honest self-assessment, but he's equally keen to stress that those days are well behind him. It's just that the industry hasn't caught up yet and his own honesty can often be used against him when old, old stories from his start-up years are dredged up by competitors and offered as an example of how he currently operates.
So as I begin quizzing him on his chequered career, I suggested that many of his problems have been of his own making. "l won't defend that," he admits, "I started out years ago selling B&Q rejects, but I knew nothing about the industry. Then my partner left me high and dry so I just had to fight my way out of it, I took loads of orders then kept running out of stock and really f**king up, but I learnt by my mistakes."
"The company is now in a position where we don't f**k up," he insists. "We may not get everything right but we get more right than any other retailer this big. People want to slag us off for what they know of us from 15 years ago, not what we've got today."
What Vance Miller has today is a turnover of 50 to 70 million.'"We make about 65% profit on our products," he says, "I'm happy, my customers are happy, the only people who aren't happy are my competitors. They have shareholders to feed and they don't want to admit that I'm everywhere. It makes them look stupid so they'd rather say 'he sells rubbish' ”.
ARRIVAL AT HEADQUARTERS
The van pulls into the car park at Maple Mill, the word Maple spelt out in the brickwork high above us. "I got a price of thirty grand to paint the towers with a different name," Vance laughs, "but I thought f**k that, it's easier and cheaper to just call the business Maple and leave the name up there." It's typical of his no nonsense style.
I enter the place with an air of trepidation but as I accompany him through reception and into the lift, everyone we pass greets him like a long-lost son. If they're wary of him, they're doing a pretty good job of disguising it.
The factory fits all the cliches of the old Lancastrian mill. The grim weather adds to the feeling of seedy neglect - if he's making big profits he's obviously nor pumping them into re-vamping this place. Maple Mill is actually two buildings, one five storeys, the other six, each seemingly as dark and dreary as the next but when we reach the main administration floor I have to revise my opinion. Despite being painted an unsettling shade of orange, the huge workspace - obviously a former factory floor - is open plan, bright and airy. A huge boardroom table sits in the middle with different departments on a raised level all around. Again Mr Miller is greeted with warm smiles and handshakes. They either respect this guy or fear him, for the moment I can't decide which.
It's at this point that I begin to realise there's more to Maple Industries than you might think. At the head of the boardroom table sits a CCTV monitor and computer screen with headphones. From here Vance Miller keeps an eye on the whole operation, even while in China, through a mobile Internet CCTV connection. The monitor shows nine separate live views from the two buildings. He shows me how he can zoom the cameras in and out, even scrutinising the documents in a driver's hand. "I've got cameras on every floor." he explains, "they're even in all my vans to record what goes on the vehicle and what comes off. It's because customers can lie about what was delivered and so can staff. This equipment never lies so I can get to the bottom of things." To prove his point, he checks the whereabouts of one of his staff from the previous Friday, scanning a video recording of a floor space at various times during that morning: "Eight o'clock... nothing happening," he fumes. "Ten minutes later, nothing happening, eight thirty, still nothing happening..." Staff nearby shift uncomfortably in their seats. I ask him how he'll deal with the employee concerned. "I'll dock the b******d's wages” he says.
"I've also got a SWAT team here," he continues. "Every week we'll pick on a certain department and show them what they're doing wrong. We go in and say, “ Right you lot, move over there for two days, this team's now running your department”.
It'll take it from a hundred grand a day to a hundred and eighty. “We work our b*****ks off for those two days. Then we tell 'em not to mess about any more - to do it my way."
- To an outsider, these tactics might seem excessive, but Vance Miller doesn't see it that way. "I'm firm but fair," he claims. "I used to be too forgiving. Now I've decided to act on things while I'm still angry. If someone does me wrong, I act on it immediately rather than calming down and doing nothing."
Going legit? I ask if his almost obsessive reliance on video evidence is an effort to show he's cleaning up his act. "It's more of an effort to show that my act hasn't been bad for a long, long time," he says. "Everything's on file, everything's videoed. The kitchens are videoed going onto the van, they're videoed coming off the van, they're videoed by the driver in Mrs Jones's house. So, if she phones up and says she's got a piece missing, we check back and see if shes telling the truth."
According to Vance, customers are keen to take advantage of his dubious reputation. "They see me as that big bad man who's been done for this and that, so they get on the phone saying 'It's happened to me too', and it's going to get believed isn't it?”
"But we've got the best operation in the industry," he tells me with total conviction. "How many people did you see protesting outside? None. There's nobody there because we're getting it right. From the day I started, I've done nothing but work on how to make it better and better." In light of these claims, I press him on why so many from inside and outside the industry continue to deride him. A spokesman from kitchen furniture specialist William Ball, for example, says “Miller is not only bringing kitchen design into disrepute but denigrating the whole industry, resulting in a polarisation of pricing." He describes products like Vance Miller's as "undoubtedly questionable, of inferior quality and offering no lifespan. The customer," he claims, "has little or no protection from the supplier if they have problems with an installation at a later date." Unsurprisingly, Vance Miller rejects these accusations: "The critics come from the trade," he says. "It's not the customers. Do you know how many kitchens I get wrong? All of 'em! There's something wrong with every f**king one. There are 100’s, if not 1,000’s of components which go to make up a complete kitchen. It's impossible to get a kitchen right first time and any kitchen manufacturer or retailer who says they can deliver a l00% perfect kitchen first time, every time, is lying. They're in cloud cuckoo land. They're the ones that should be locked up. Theres too manythings can go wrong. The design could be out, something could happen during manufacture, before packing, during shipping, in a warehouse, or while it's on the van. Just Google the Which? report on kitchens. If you think my 5% complaint rate is bad, do you know that over 50% of all B & Q kitchens sold have a complaint made by the buyer?
He shows me a contract he's drawn up for customers. "These cost 50p per sheet to make in the UK," he says, "in China, 50p pays for the whole book. Another saving I can pass on" The small print confirms it is 'almost guaranteed that one item or maybe more will be missing, damaged or wrong before fitting'.
It's things like this that the customer has to weigh against the fact that Vance Miller can offer a kitchen that others retail for six grand for just one thousand, four hundred and ninety five quid. Meanwhile, his version of a four grand kitchen from a competitor retails for €795.
Another accusation he often faces is that he relies too heavily on poor quality products sourced in China. Again it's something he's quick to refute. "The quality isn't as good if it's made by a Chinese run factory," he admits, "but I've been over there six years now and we've got our own factories. I don't go to a factory and say 'make me this' because they'll rip you off. Firms looking at sourcing products from China should get ready to have their fingers burnt but I've now got my own quality control men between the production line and the container; they'll make sure we don't get any rubbish." As he begins our tour of the factory he races ahead, eager to show me that Maple Industries is no fly-by-night operation. Describing his dealings in China, I begin to get some idea of his total dedication to the business. "A typical day out there," he says, "starts with me waking up in the van. We drive overnight and I'm in a different city every day. I've got a team that go with me including an interpreter, but it still kills you." Such is Vance Miller's heavy investment in China, he's now adapted a 56-seater coach to ferry him from place to place, ripping the seats out and replacing them with two bedrooms, a bathroom and an office. Hes also bought himself a granite quarry. "If I can save a bean I'll do it," he says. "It cost me thirty grand for my own quarry. It's a day's earnings and I got myself a granite quarry!"
Miller explains why China is so important to the operation: "Over there, you can have a man working all day on a door and it still only works out at 5% of the cost of making it in the UK. You can concentrate on perfection."
- Miller has recently introduced bathrooms to his growing portfolio of products.
As we continue our tour, I note floor after floor is piled high with kitchen components, although one area is set aside for his new venture into bathrooms. Another houses a collection of brand new motorbikes. "I drop 2.7 million advertising leaflets a week all over the UK," Miller explains. "It used to cost 40k a week but I was only using one side of the sheet so I decided to put new products on the other side. So now I sell bathrooms, wood flooring and bikes, just to fill the leaflet up."
Talking of marketing, have you ever wondered who dumps those big trailers at the side of the motorway offering discount kitchens? " We've got 180 trailers and we drop a new one every day, ' he confirms. But again, it's something many in the industry are unhappy with. Many, for example, feel it smacks of a market trading mentality that's unhealthy for an industry that is supposedly selling a service, not a commodity. The criticism is that customers are buying purely on price, and that any design flair is conspicuously absent.
Vance Miller has only been supplying bathrooms for a couple of months but already has a large showroom area, which customers can visit before committing themselves on a purchase. Showing me round, he points to his best-selling tap: "It costs one pound twenty to make," he says. "If I can sell it to Mrs Jones for a tenner and the man in the next shop is paying €60 for it wholesale, he's bound to say it's rubbish isn't he? It's 145 quid in the shops and I'm selling it for a tenner!"
Next he shows me a bath: "Nobody does 'em this thick," he says. "I can afford to spend extra on materials. That's why I'm portrayed as a big bad man. I'm a huge threat. Look at this door, a man in China spends all day making that, you can't do that in Europe."
We arrive at the customer services department (yes, there definitely is one) and he asks me what I think. After what I've been told, it's a surprise to learn he even has one, but actually the place seems pretty well organised. Every telephone conversation is recorded on computer, and to prove his point he searches for my office numbet and plays back calls I've made to his secretary to set up my visit. He frequently listens in to calls and offers his own brand of advice if he feels the conversation has been handled badly.
"What other company has a customer services department open 8am-1Opm seven days a week?" he says. "The people who work here have all worked in other departments so they know what they re talking about.
- We've cleaned things up by a huge amount; we used to get five calls a week from trading standards but not now"
By the time the visit draws to a close, it's become clear that there's more to this derided character than popular opinion would have you believe. Decide for yourself whether the leopard really has changed its spots, but whatever your opinion of the man, the size and significance of his operation is undeniable. To dismiss him as simply "the Kitchen Gangster" is to dangerously underestimate him.
So is the future for Vance Miller rosy, or does he still think everyone is out to get him? "It's a holiday, it's not work," he tells me as he drives me back to the station. "AIl the trouble just makes you stronger so when the pressure's off it s plain sailing."
- However, he's also realistic enough to know that trouble is never Iikely to be far away. "Yeah, they'll probably send me to prison again," he admits. "They'll invent some crime around me. But my philosophy is if you go through life expecting the worse, then every day is going to be a happy f**king day!”
As I get out the car, he hands me my very own Maple Industries cutlery set as a memento. "Let's just hope there's not a knife missing," he says.
------------- 00 --------------
StilHaus Kitchens Vance Miller doesn't own