Living and selling The Bob Miller Difference

By+Susan E. Miller

When you think of glamorous possessions, appliances would not normally make the list. But with more social events happening in the kitchen and innovations in technology – like a SubZero refrigerator that e-mails you maintenance reminders – appliances have come out of the workhorse category and have taken a position of note.

“Appliances are fun now. They occupy a great amount of space in the home and have a big influence on our daily lives. Everybody hangs out in the kitchen,” said Lisa Miller, who, with her husband Chris, owns Bob Miller’s Appliances & Mattress Showroom, on South Bend’s south side.

Today’s appliances have changed since 1963, when Chris’s parents, Bob and Betty Jo Miller, decided to start their own washer and dryer repair service company. The couple spent 10 years in Roseland before moving to 1614 S. Main Street.

What is the business secret they carried with them through the years and passed on to their son? “You have to be honest. You have to treat your customers right,” Lisa said. Basic tenants that been very influential in how the younger generation of Millers runs the show today.

A guiding element in Bob and Betty Jo’s personal and business lives is their strong faith. Lisa recalled that Bob always tried to employ people who were down and out. He’d get men who were on work release programs to come help in the service area. Betty Jo is a very faith-based person, easy to talk to, and well-liked by everyone, Lisa said.

Their commitment to treating people right helped them succeed. In addition, Bob’s gift of gab allowed him to develop good relationships with people. Also, word of mouth advertising brought him an ever-growing customer base. Not to mention his easily recognizable radio and television commercials. Bob’s voice is still heard today, crooning – 2700 Ssssouth Main, Ssssouth Bend.

Customers from the early years are now in their 70s and 80s, and their children have continued the tradition of buying from Millers. “They won’t let their kids go anywhere else,” Lisa said.

Before the fun of owning a new appliance begins for the customers, a lot of hard work takes place to get quality products to their front doors. Things like training service technicians, working with manufacturers on customer warranty work, delivery and service calls, competitive pricing strategies, and advertising campaigns.

While it could be overwhelming, it all comes down to three simple elements that Chris is passionate about: price – service – selection.

Chris’s entry into the family business took place over 30 years ago. He was living in Chicago, when Bob proposed he come work with him for just one year. He never left. Chris started out running the service department. Then Bob groomed him for sales and then, eventually, to take over. Chris and Lisa took over the day-to-day operations when Bob and Betty Jo retired in 1995.

Today, Chris’s role includes many functions, especially the development of relationships with local builders for new appliance sales.

Lisa and Chris oversee advertising, human resources, and accounting. Chris, who also wants to know where things are and what is going out, gets involved in inventory control. He also remains visible to customers. “A lot of people still ask for him when they call,” Lisa said. Many long-time customers still want that personal relationship with the owner, she said.

General Manager Kevin McDonald, Business Manager Rachelle Bates, Service Manager Jeff Bradley, and Parts Manager Larry Peak, keep the daily functions of the store going.

“We really value our employees. We make sure they have all the training and tools they need. The more you empower your employees, the happier they will be and the happier your customers will be,” Lisa said.

Lisa sees some changes in their customers these days. For one thing, a greater number of young people are coming in and they know what they want.

In 2002, the store moved to 2700 S. Main Street, to a larger 28,500-square-foot building. There is a huge show room for the appliances, which include such brands as Whirlpool, Amana, Maytag, Frigidaire, Sub-Zero, Wolf, Fisher & Paykel, Bosch, Thermador, LG, and Northland Kitchen. In 2005, they added a very private mattress showroom. The Millers want people to relax and not feel pressured while making a decision. Brands include Simmons, Symbol, and Tempur-Pedic.

Prior to Lisa joining the family business, she spent 11 years with the Big Boy Corporation, covering northern Indiana. “I learned so much in that business that I brought here,” she said. Many of her experiences with Big Boy helped change the way Miller’s was managed and run.

A key element in the company’s success can be attributed to the service they provide customers. This factor has kept them well ahead of the big box competitors.

“We’ve seen them come and go. When a new one (big box appliance store) gets built and people say they’ll put us out of business, I just say, ‘Bring ’em on,’ ” Lisa said. “As long as we keep doing what we have been doing, they don’t scare us.”

In fact, growth on the south side of town has helped Miller’s. “In the last year, we’ve added three times more customers than ever before. We’re a destination store. There’s no one like us.”

As the business landscape and appliances continue to change, all the Millers are happy with the success of the business.

“I think Bob and Betty Jo are both very pleased with where it started to where we are now. They’re very proud of the store.”

Lisa said she and Chris are happy but never happy. “We want it be right. We want it to be perfect.”

No matter what comes next, Chris and Lisa are seeking to make sure The Bob Miller Difference lives on for generations to come.