By Evelyn Pyburn
Quietly growing and expanding in a southwest corner of Billings is a homegrown, family-founded business that has made a giant foot print throughout the west. 2M Company is an amazing success story for our community as the kind of business that generates a rock solid foundation for the local economy.
In 1978, Hollis A. (Bill) Mills and Chester Majors pooled their resources and started the 2M Company, a water well wholesale supplier.
During their first year the two experienced salesmen had $1.5 million in total sales and paid wages of $100,000. From 2000, company sales increased from $21 million with a payroll of $2 million to over $44 million and a payroll of $4.5 million in 2007. Since then they have maintained a 15 percent annual growth rate and fully expect to see sales exceed $200 million within the next five years, predicts H. A. “Buzz” Mills, Bill Mill’s son, who is now the company’s president.
“We have quadrupled sales since 2008,” said Buzz, “and a lot of it is market share growth.”
2M has 8000 customers, most typically professional licensed contractors who interface with the end users of pumps, water wells, well monitoring equipment, sprinkler systems, pipeline designs, booster system, etc. for residential, municipal and industrial sewage systems including landscapers, manufacturers, mining companies, farmers, etc.
Buzz Mills believes that the success of the company rests upon the fundamental philosophy which was the impetus for the two M’s, his father and Majors, to start the business, which was to build a wholesale company around the principal that the customer always comes first. The philosophy and 2M’s dedication to it, has come to be recognized throughout the industry and dubbed “Legendary Service.”
Bill Mills had been the manager of a water well wholesale supplier, and Majors was a factory representative. Both men were tired of working for companies that only thought about the bottom line. They wanted to give back to the people who make a business successful, and to have fun doing it.
Strictly adhering to that philosophy has been the company’s every day commitment and it remains at the forefront, today, says Buzz Mills, proudly.
Much has changed since the company’s founding. In 2017 it became part of Headwater Companies, a collective group of groundwater distributors owned by Franklin Electric. While 2M is no longer a family-owned business, Buzz Mills still manages the company.
At the time that Franklin Electric acquired 2M they also acquired Western Hydro Corporation, based in California, which now functions in tandem with 2M. Both 2M and Western Hydro are continuing operations with the same management style, history and culture that built them, however the financial and accounting administration of Western Hydro has been moved to the Billings office.
2M has 15 locations in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Texas, New Mexico, Oregon, including four locations in Montana. Western Hydro has 12 locations in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Kansas, Nevada and Utah.
Company wide, 2M and Western Hydro employ 237 full time people; forty of those are based in Billings, of which 30 are dedicated to the administration of the two companies.
To this day, 2M remains true to “Legendary Service” standards. Buzz explained that they have a dedicated training center in Billings and employ a full time training manager who works with the employees and their customers to pass along product knowledge, application and design, and to assure “Legendary Service” every time they encounter a customer. Given the rapid and dynamic technological advances over the years, their training has become all the more important.
Buzz grew up with the company. As a boy, he can clearly remember opening day, sitting at his father’s desk, observing the bustle of activity around him. It was at 2M that he gained his first job. And, he remembers walking through the brand new corporate facility with amazement in 2007, which is when he was named president and general manager, having spent 15 years working from the bottom up, and graduating college from MSU-Billings.
Chester Majors retired in 1993 and Bill Mills became sole owner.
While Bill Mills has retired, he remains an important advisor to the company.
Buzz is proud of his company’s employee retention rate. One of their employees “remembers me when I was eleven years old,” he said.
2M’s employees reflect the high caliber of workers in Montana. It was this high employee quality that influenced the decision to make Billings headquarters for all 27 locations of 2M and Western Hydro, said Buzz. 2M has two locations in Billings, a couple blocks apart, one the administration center and the other a warehouse, at 5249 Holiday Avenue and 1215 Cordova Street.
During its 40-plus years of operation, 2M has always been a leader in its industry which meant initiating many “firsts.” The “firsts” often reflect things that while being revolutionary in their day have become so common place that they hardly seem worth mentioning today – such as being the first to offer customer toll free numbers, a reminder that there was a time when almost any business phone call was an expensive proposition. All telephone services posed a significant barrier and cost for most businesses.
2M was the first wholesaler in the industry to provide delivery cargo vans, cash discounts, dealer meetings, and trip promotions. They were also the first to offer factory fly-ins, Saturday morning hours, emergency service 24/7, extended summer hours, a website, on –line ordering, and building programs.
Among its customers 2M remains noted for their many customer benefits and promotions, which includes trip promotions and an annual event which last year involved hosting 740 customers and their spouses on a 5-night trip to the Dominican Republic.
Speaking of revolutionary changes, 2M started up as an enterprise at a time when doing business on a national scale from Montana was considered very challenging, fraught with many disadvantages. Technology and innovations have changed much of that. Computers, the internet and improvements in communications have to a large extent removed many barriers. About the only disadvantage that a Montana –based business struggles with today is the lack of air service, said Buzz. As someone who usually spends an average of 130 days a year in over-night traveling throughout the western United States, Buzz knows, of what he speaks.
Given the Coronavirus crisis, this year has been very different. Buzz has spent less than 30 days traveling, and much of that included a car trip through five states. Options for air travel have been even more limited, but the cost of lodging is greatly less, he pointed out.
There’s been an upside to the situation. Buzz explains, “I had a day-long meeting in Denver from a website sitting in my office. Everyone could see each other. It was a good meeting, and at the end of the day, I went home.”
Like so many other people during the crisis, Buzz has had more time on his hands, and like so many others he turned to doing home improvements, renewing landscaping and installing a new sprinkler system. Since many other people have done likewise it has meant increased business for 2M, despite the many other changes they have had to make.
Buzz says he sees many of the changes remaining in the future, such as meeting more virtually and traveling less. And there will be changes in how many other industries do business, who are 2M’s customers – especially in the livestock and food industries. Being able to get water efficiently and economically is going to be even more important predicts, Buzz.