After 130 years, Mills hits the glitz

William J. Mills & Co. employee Carmen Bermudez works in a rear production room at the Greenport plant, where canvas goods are cut, sewn and readied for the marketplace.

This might be the un-Hamptons when it comes to the fashion scene, but North Fork locals can’t help but be delighted when one of their own makes it to the pages of Vogue. William J. Mills and Co. of Greenport got noticed not once, but twice in less than a year by Vogue editors singing the praises of the company’s custom-colored tote bags.

The bags are hardly a new item — William J. Mills and Co. has been making them since the 1950s, according to company president Jamie Mills.

But they’re a far cry from the company’s origins as sailmakers in Scotland.

Brothers Jamie and Bob Mills now run the business their great-grandfather founded in Scotland and moved to the U.S. when he emigrated to Long Island. Jamie’s daughter, Meghan, 28, joined the company a few months ago, hired by Uncle Bob to work in the custom canvas division, cutting patterns and making cushions.

The brothers hope all their children will eventually find their way into the family business but, said Jamie, “They have to earn their own way.”

“My heart has always been with the business,” said Ms. Mills, who graduated from Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., with a degree in historic preservation. She started her career working with horses, a lifelong passion, and also worked in marketing for the Greenport-based Scrabble Association before finally deciding it was time to join the family business.

Jamie, 57, actually got his first taste of the family business when he was 13 and held responsible for a broken window that his father made him replace. To earn the money for the new window, Jamie was put to work scrubbing toilets at the plant. Today he’s company president. Meghan admits she has cleaned a bathroom or two since she joined the company.

Bob, 52, describes his role in the business as having been achieved through “osmosis. I just grew up in it.”

While Greenporters might think of William J. Mills and Co. as a local canvas manufacturer, the company actually sells its products, especially its totes, in 10 countries on four continents around the world, as well as in the U.S.

The Long Island operation was initially based in Glen Head, but in 1880, it moved to Main Street in Greenport and in 1986, the current plant opened on Route 25, just east of 7-11.

People are surprised to find out that there really is a William J. Mills involved with the company when so many family businesses have fallen into corporate hands, Jamie said. When visitors come to Greenport, they want two pictures, Bob said. One is of Claudio’s, the oldest family-owned restaurant in America. The other is of William J. Mills Sr., Jamie and Bob’s dad, who, at 89, still works at the plant he once led.

“He’s a walking version of Mount Rushmore,” said Tom Beatty, the company’s director of business development and Jamie and Bob’s brother-in-law, referring to Mr. Mills Sr.

Does Dad still give advice about how to run the business?

“Of course,” Jamie said. “He is, after all, a Mills.”

“And we still seek his advice,” Bob said.

Who was responsible for the Vogue write-ups?

“Success has many fathers,” Mr. Beatty said. “The Vogue people came to us.” But he credited the success of the line of totes to the quality of the products.

It’s in line with the company’s desire to appeal to an upscale market, Jamie Mills said. Not every retailer who wants to carry Mills products is accepted, he said.

“We turn down more wholesale accounts than we accept,” Mr. Beatty said. To sell the company’s products, a retailer must “fit in with where we want the brand to go. They need to reflect our own values,” he said.

“People don’t buy a smile; they buy a product,” he said. He pointed to Internet referrals from satisfied customers with increasing tote sales. As of Aug. 10, the company had sold more totes than it sold in all of August 2009, he said.

“The best advertising we have is the label on the bag,” Mr. Beatty said.

The company is still best known for its sails and other canvas marine products and has expanded its awning business, providing all kinds of canvas items for backyard uses, including cushions, covers, pillows and placemats

“I learned early, it’s all about managing change,” Jamie said of the growth of the business. The company employs 25 people and many have worked there a long time — some since before Jamie and Bob joined the business.

“Each of our employees controls our destiny” through the quality of their work, Mr. Beatty said. The company doesn’t subcontract any of work out of its Greenport manufacturing plant.

“I’m not going to tell you that things are always rosy,” Jamie said, noting the business climate of the past few years, “but we’re still here.”

“Our focus is very much on sustainable growth,” Mr. Beatty said. “We want to assure that we’re good stewards of the business for the next generation.”

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