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Double M Ag and Irrigation plans to continue to beat the odds

The Aberdeen Times of Aberdeen, Idaho

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Despite the statistics being well known and often reported, the rate of new business failure is still shocking and often discouraging. Depending on the source somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of business start-ups fail in the first four years; making it to 30 years might make a business seem secure. As a business ages a new and even more daunting statistic appears on the horizon. According to business analysts only 25 percent of family owned business survive the hand-off to the second generation and the rate of businesses that survive being passed to the third generation is so small it isn't measurable. Double M Ag and Irrigation is bucking those trends.

Mark Mills started the journey to passing on a business to his children in 198las a sideline to his regular job.

"I was working for Power County Implement at the time. 1 got my resell license and started carrying veterinarian supplies and tack along with me as I visited my customers. To keep things separate I called the business Double M Tack and Saddle," said Mills.

Mills originally got into the farm and ranch supply business to get wholesale pricing on the items he needed and for many years kept the business small.

"I operated out of the front seat of my truck," said Mills.

The central hallmark of the Mills' business from the very beginning has been relationship building.

"When Power County Implement shut down in 1985 or '86 I was without a job, but farmers kept calling for things like plow sheers," Mills said.

Those early relationships kept Mills and Double M going between jobs and after.

"I went to work for Kirkham Auto Parts selling filters, bearings and other things to farmers. We had an agreement that I could sell from my product line separately at the same time," said Mills.

It was in 1989 that Mills left Kirkham Auto Parts to commit full time to providing service to his farm and ranch supply customers.

"It was a great job working for Kirkham's, but I was doing more of my business than theirs," said Mills.

That was the same year Mills changed the name of his company to Double M Ranch and Ag.

Like many successful companies there was one big order or contract that catapults a small business to the next level. For Double M that change came in the form of small gas engines.

"I will never forget my first big sale. It was to Cecil Wi-esenberger. He took me out behind his shop and showed me a pile of Briggs and Stratton motors for moving wheel lines. He said he was tired of going through motors. He said that several farmers had gone to Honda motors because they never broke down, but the nearest Honda small engine dealership was in Blackfoot or Idaho Falls at the time, I can't remember which. I told Cecil I would look into it," said Mills.

Mills' investigations led to news that nearly stopped the sale before it began.

"When I contacted Honda they wanted an initial purchase of 30 motors to start a dealership contract. I went back to Cecil and told him what I found out. I didn't have the money to purchase 30 motors straight out. Cecil looked at me and said 'I'll take 20'. And then he told some other farmers. By the end of the week I had commitments for more than the 30 I needed," said Mills.

Having struck out on his own and with the Honda dealership in his arsenal Mills decided it was time to give his business a permanent home. Even though Double M was growing up, some things, like neighborly customer service, stayed the same.

"In 1992 I bought the old bulk oil building. I would stay open until noon and then go do my rounds in the country. I would leave a key under the mat and farmers would come in, take what they needed and leave a note, but a lot of times they would forget to put a name on the note so I wouldn't know who to bill, but those farmers have never forgotten that openness and have repaid anything I couldn't bill hundreds of times over," said Mills.

While Double M was growing up so was Mills' young family.

"I have gotten to watch what my dad has done and has built. It has been an exciting 30 years. I may not be able to remember all of the early stuff, but I can recognize changes here and in the agriculture industry," said Mills' son, Travis.

Working together as a family is a double-edged sword for any family business. Travis and Mark are not the only family members working to make Double Ma success. For Mark and Travis working to ward off the second generation stumble means working to understand the family dynamic.

"We spent the first two years just learning how dad and I communicate. It was never that we thought the other was slacking and we both understand the other is integral, just sometimes you have your way of doing things and any other way of doing something is annoying. It took a lot of work for each of us to understand that it is ok if there is a different way of doing things," said Travis.

Mills said one key to keeping a family business together is keeping the family together and leaving work at work.

"We are very fortunate that we all love each other and get along as well as we do. All of us try very hard to leave work here. When it is Thanksgiving, Christmas or a birthday we come together and have family time. We do not talk about work," said Mills.

Travis said the other advantage of working with family is being together.

"When you own a business you are married to that business. Working with family gives us the chance to have time together. It isn't always quality time, but we are all here and near," said Travis.

Travis and Mark both speak emphatically about the benefits the other brings to Double M.

"I have been doing this for 32 years. I am ready to slow down a bit. I used to work 16 hours a day because I was also the bookkeeper. I am getting tired, but Travis is young and aggressive," said Mills.

"My dad gave me the opportunity to do what I want to do. This is something I love to do and he has given me a place to do that. I can't imagine what it was like for those people that go off to college and then have to figure out what they want to do," said Travis.

Travis began working with his father in earnest in 1998 after high school. Since then Double M has continued to grow.

"We built this building in 2005. Travis was a pivotal part of us bringing on the Zimmatic line in 2006," said Mills.

Adding the Zimmatic Irrigation line of products to Double M led, in part to another name change. The Mills family company is now known as Double M Ag and Irrigation.

Looking toward the hand off from the first generation to the next, Mills is cautious.

"It would be nice to see Travis take over, but the statistics are against him," said Mills.

"The statistics are out there and I have heard them. They scare the heck out of me so I don't think about them too much. I know the stats tell me I have to work hard because I have to be in that 25 percent," said Travis.

To address the issues facing a generational hand-off Double M has begun working with Cooper Norman CPA and Business Advisors to iron out the current difficulties of integrating family into their business structure and lay a plan for the future.

"Mike Salisbury has been a great resource for us. It is always tough and rewarding to work with family. The best thing Mike and the team at Cooper Norman have done for us is to remind us that even when things get tense we need to remember that everyone has some skin in the game. That means the family is invested and care about the success of Double M," said Travis.

Salisbury said the Mills' family focus on the future is one of the best things Double M has in its favor of moving on to the second generation.

"When you are talking about succession planning the first and possibly most important thing to do is plan early. Handing a business off to the next generation is a process not an event, said Salisbury.

According to Salisbury most businesses that intend to pass on to the next worry about the simplest things more than they should.

"Most companies worry about how to transfer assets rather than how to transition into a new leadership style. There are only so many ways to move assets, but there are an infinite number of reactions to new leadership roles both in how employees react and how the next generation shoulders the burden," said Salisbury.

To Salisbury the Mills' stand out as a company ahead of the curve.

"I have been working with Mark and Travis for six or seven years and they have done everything right. They started the process early. They recognized' the need for a plan and the need for education. Mark has been especis-ally good about letting Travis have room to learn leadership skills. It was very smart of Mark to let Travis take the lead on the Zimmatic irrigation portion of the business," said Salisbury.

Salisbury also had praise for Travis.

"He is a sharp guy that has endless energy and resolve. Travis is very commited to making the transition a suc-cesful one. 1 cannot tell you how important that commitment is to making a succession plan work," said Salisbury.

Looking toward the future needs of Double M customers, Travis said technology is where Double M needs to place their focus.

"I can still remember my first Blackberry, When I came out of high school I knew about the internet, but I didn't really know how to use it. Then all of my friends came back from college and were asking for my email address. I got that first smartphone and my whole world changed. At that same time farmers were reluctant to adopt the new technology, but now every farmer has a smart phone in their pocket and a tablet in their truck. Our focus has to be staying on the leading edge of technology in agriculture," said Travis.

Travis also said having a digital storefront will keep Double M competitive locally.

"1 think the online store is going to take off in the next few years, maybe not locally, but for our company it is going to be the next innovation," said Travis.

Even though area fanners will most likely keep coming into the store, Travis said an increased online customer base will benefit local producers.

"We currently serve 15 states and two countries. If we can increase that to all 50 states and several more countries we will be able to buy at an even more competitive rate and then we can offer those prices to our local customers," said Travis.

How products are sold to customers may change and so may the location of those customers, but for Mark and Travis the relationship with their customers is always their primary focus.

"You have to have three things to stay in business: great customers, great staff and a good location. Double M has all three, but if it wasn't for the farmers that come to us time and time again I wouldn't be in business," said Mills.

"There are always challenges and our spot in life is to find ways to make improvements and make life easier for our customers. The best part of selling in ag is we are dealing with solutions that provide value to our customers. That is where our focus has always been and above all else that is where our focus needs to stay," said Travis.

Copyright 2013 The Aberdeen Times, Aberdeen, Idaho. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: October 9, 2013

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