UK’s favourite and fastest-growing machine tool and automation systems supplier reaches, and celebrates, a historic landmark.
Mills CNC, the exclusive distributor of DN Solutions’ and Zayer machine tools in the UK and Ireland, and a leading supplier of advanced automation system solutions to component manufacturers, is celebrating its 50th anniversary in January (2024).
The company which, by the end of this year is expected to achieve, or even exceed, sales turnover of £80M for the first time in its history, retains many of the same corporate values and business attributes it had when it was first incorporated back in January 1974 although, in many other respects, Mills CNC is a significantly different entity to what it was 50 years ago.
“Our 50th anniversary is a significant milestone for the company, and the story of Mills CNC over the period, is one of growth and success built on innovation, technical excellence and exemplary customer service.”
Tony Dale, CEO of Mills CNC
The early days: 1974 – 1992
Mills CNC was established in 1974 by entrepreneur Peter Mills. (That’s where the name originates). The company he created was called Mills Marketing Services and was located on an industrial estate in Norwich.
Peter Mills was a flamboyant character and, if not a visionary, was certainly a man ahead of his time.
Toolmaker trained and with an extensive background in machine tool sales gained, in part, from his time at Beaver Engineering, also based in Norwich, Peter Mills could see, when many could not, the huge potential of importing high-quality and reliable CNC machine tools from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan etc., and selling them to UK and Irish manufacturers.
He put these assumptions to the test in 1974 when he made a deal with Japanese lathe and milling machine tool manufacturer, Howa, by taking ‘ownership’ of two machines (Howa NC-7 lathes) on a ‘sale or return’ basis.
The gamble paid off.
Given six months to make the new business venture work, Peter sold both machines within the time allotted, with one of them going to valve manufacturer, Shaw Son & Greenhalgh, based in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.
With the wind in his sails, and on the back of this initial success, Peter set up his new company with a small group of people, a number of them also having worked at Beaver Engineering: and the Mills’ die was cast, so to speak.
Mills Marketing Services started life being a distributor for many international machine tool companies looking to gain a foothold in the UK, the first of these was, naturally, Howa.
Other principals Mills represented in the early days included Nakamura-Tome and Toshiba.
Many of the machine tool companies represented by Mills in these early days are still going strong…some have moved out of the machine tool business altogether…and others have disappeared completely.
The focus, for the fledgling company, was to give UK and Irish customers access to advanced, high-quality and competitively-priced machine tool technologies backed by proactive marketing and in-depth after-sales support and was designed to build strong, long-term relationships with end users.
A key strength and differentiator for Mills, at this time, was its applications’ and projects’ operations, and a well-resourced and highly-skilled servicing team.
“Mills has never been a ‘box shifter’, and even in the early days, augmented its machine tool sales business by providing a range of value-added, pre-and after-sales services to customers: this has continued to the present day and is one of Mills’ key market differentiators.”
Tony Dale, CEO of Mills CNC
Peter Mills developed and grew the company during the 1970’s and early 1980’s before selling his controlling interest to Haden MacLellan Holdings in 1986. He then retired and emigrated to South Africa, where he lived an exciting and eventful life.
(Sadly Peter passed away in 2011 aged 71).
When Peter left Mills, he had already added South Korean-based Daewoo Machinery (part of Daewoo Heavy Industries & Machinery) to the list of machine tool principals represented by Mills Marketing Services.
In the mid 1980s, with the company under new management, the company relocated its operations to new, larger premises in Norwich (Bowthorpe Road Industrial Estate) and, in 1986 achieved sales of 100 machines – a real landmark at the time.
In 1992, with Mills Marketing Services having established itself as a major UK machine tool distributor, the company changed its name to Mills Manufacturing Technology.
The name change reflected a change in focus away from being a traditional machine tool distributor to a company providing a wide range of technology solutions. Hand in hand with the repositioning was a change in the company’s logo and livery, and a streamlining of the machine tool principals it represented.
Going places: 1996 – 2014
1996 – 2014 was an incredibly successful period for Mills Manufacturing Technology and, from 2009, for Mills CNC too.
Over these 18 years the company grew exponentially, and notable highlights included:
- Relocation of its entire business operations to Tachbrook Drive in Leamington Spa. This started in 2000 and was completed in 2001 with the company first creating a 12,500sq.ft. sales and technical centre on the site, and later expanding its presence on the industrial estate with the development of a 15,000sq. ft. main operations centre in July 2002.
- Closure of the two satellite sales offices and demonstration centres in Loughborough and Heathrow – both occurring around 2000.
- Rationalisation of its distributor network resulting in Mills focusing its resources on selling, supporting and servicing Daewoo machine tools. (Through subsequent global mergers and acquisitions the Daewoo agency morphed into Doosan-Daewoo and later to Doosan Infracore during this period).
- Creation of the CNC Training Academy in 2010.
- Entering the vertical machining centre market with a vengeance by introducing UK and Irish customers to a new range of Doosan NM-machines.
- Introducing the MX-range of mill-turn, multi-tasking machines into the market.
This time, for many, will be best remembered by the people who managed and led the company during this exciting, transitional period: Mike Jenkins (MD) from 1998 – 2006, and Nick Frampton (MD) and Andrew Jack (Technical Director) from 2006 – 2014.
From 1996 – 2014 the Mills brand went from strength to strength – a direct result of the company focusing all its efforts and resources on Daewoo machine tools and strengthening and integrating its pre- and after-sales services to support its sales operations.
The company, widely acknowledged to be in the ‘Top Three’ machine tool suppliers at this time, also invested significantly in creating best-in-class project and turnkey solutions – something that has become a real and tangible differentiator for the company ever since.
From 2009, the company began to develop a range of automation solutions in collaboration with Fanuc, installing automated manufacturing cell systems for a number of large OEM customers.
(The knowledge and expertise of robotic and automation systems gained during this period ultimately resulted in Mills creating its own Turnkey & Automation Centre in 2020/21, and in developing its own, highly-successful SYNERGi automated manufacturing cells powered by Mills’ proprietary SYNERGi software in 2020).
This was the time when, the now, iconic Lynx and Puma lathes, started to become the UK’s favourites, and the NM-series of vertical machining centres, superseded later by the DNM range, rapidly became the ‘go-to’ verticals for UK and Irish component manufacturers.
In 2005, Mills Manufacturing Technology’s turnover was £25M and in 2007 this increased to £34.4M, then the 2008/09 global Financial Crisis hit affecting turnover and profitability.
By 2011, the recovery was well underway with company turnover hitting £46.9M. Over the next three years, Mills experienced significant growth, and by 2014, turnover reached £63M.
A significant development during this period was the company’s name change which went from Mills Manufacturing Technology to Mills CNC.
The name change also included a radical alteration to its logo and is when the now familiar blue, grey and red ‘M’ symbol was first created and applied across all of Mills’ buildings, signage, communication materials etc.
It was also at the end of this period when Mills began to ‘push-the boat-out’ as far as exhibiting at the biennial MACH Shows in Birmingham and started booking the largest stand at the event. (Something that has continued to the present day).
In 2014, following a change of leadership, an Employee Benefit Trust (EBT) to help support staff retention and attract new employees was established.
Coming of Age: 2015 – 2024
Since 2014, Mills CNC has become firmly established as the machine tool and automation systems’ supplier of choice for many UK and Irish component manufacturers.
Despite a couple of economic setbacks in this period (2014/15 and 2020/21), and the COVID-19 global pandemic, the decade has been one of growth, and this, to a large extent, can be explained by the company’s strong leadership headed up by Kevin Gilbert (2014/15-2021), and Tony Dale (2021-present), and by its dedicated and loyal workforce.
The introduction of new and innovative machine tool models, including best-selling (DVF and VCF) 5-axis machining centres, multi-tasking SMX mill-turn machines and large-capacity horizontal borers and double-column milling machines clearly played their part in the company’s growth, enabling Mills to enter new market sectors and consolidate its position in others.
The recently signed distributor agreement between Mills and Zayer machine tools in 2022 is further evidence of the company’s commitment to continuous improvement and in providing customers with best-in-class machining solutions.
From OEM’s and Tier One suppliers through to precision subcontract specialists, Mills CNC and the DN Solutions’ (formerly Doosan) machine tools and the SYNERGi automation systems it sells, are widely regarded as market leaders.
Specific highlights over the last 10 years include:
- Creation of Mills CNC Automation, a division of Mills CNC, in 2018/19 and the introduction of Doosan collaborative robots (A-, M- and H-series) into the UK and Irish markets in 2019.
- The development and launch of Mills’ SYNERGi automated manufacturing cells (i.e., SYNERGi Premier and SYNERGi Sprint systems) in 2020.
- The symbolic creation and opening of Mills’ Turnkey & Automation Centre at the company’s Campus facility in Leamington in 2020/21, demonstrating the importance of both to its continuing growth.
- The distributor agreement signed in 2022/23 between Mills CNC and Zayer Machine Tools that has resulted in the company selling (Zayer) high-quality, large-capacity horizontal bed mills, and travelling-column and gantry-type milling machines to UK and Irish component manufacturers.
- The expansion of the Campus facility through the acquisition of Unit 1 in 2014, which doubled the floorspace available. This has had a number of operational advantages: a) more machines could be held in stock enabling Mills to meet the continued high demand for its machine tool technologies and ensuring that these machines could be delivered and installed in double quick time. b) the company’s PDI (Pre-Delivery & Inspection) and Parts’ operations were expanded, making these aspects of the company’s business more effective and efficient.
- The introduction of a number of best-selling Doosan and DN Solutions’ machine tool models into the market that included:
2014 – 2024 represents an important decade for Mills CNC – a ‘coming of age’ if you like.
The company has grown exponentially over the period and now employs over 140 people. Over 50% of these work at the Campus and the remainder, that include Business Managers and field-based service and applications engineers etc., are strategically-located around the UK and in Ireland.
A glimpse into the future
As far as the future is concerned, Mills is looking forward to introducing new DN Solutions’ and Zayer machine tool models into the market. These include a new, smaller 5-axis machining centre (the DN Solutions’ DVF 4000) from its popular and proven DVF range.
Demand for the company’s customised ‘SYNERGi’ automated manufacturing cells is expected to increase, cementing Mills’ position as a recognised and valued turnkey solutions’ provider.
The future will also see further development of Mills’ Campus facility – especially to UNIT 1 – where a major refurbishment programme is expected to be completed by January/February 2024, allowing the relocation, and expansion, of the CNC Training Academy.
Later in the year, at the MACH Show in April, Mills will be showcasing 16 machines in total, including two automated manufacturing cells, on the largest stand at the event.
Other developments include a major ‘environmental and sustainability’ push, with Mills focusing on achieving its own Net Zero targets as well as promoting its energy-saving machine tool technologies and automation solutions to customers.
2024 will also see the roll-out of the company’s RSTL (Regional Sales Team Leader) initiative, to ensure improved planning and coordination of its (regional) servicing operations, and the introduction of robust systems and processes that facilitate employees’ skills development and progression.
“Over the last 50-years, Mills has demonstrated that providing technically-excellent machine tool technologies and innovative automation systems, backed by world-class after-sales services, is a winning combination.
“The company has everything in place to ensure that its future is as successful as its past.”
Tony Dale, CEO of Mills CNC