AFTER purchasing a machine to carry out drainage on their family farm in rural Aberdeenshire in the 1960s, the Miller family began completing contracts on nearby land as demand for agricultural drainage grew. Moving into plant hire, Frank Miller and his father Kenny established Miller Plant in 1968, servicing local authorities, agricultural and construction firms.
When the oil and gas industry arrived in Aberdeen in the 1970s, driving employment and generating unprecedented demand for infrastructure, commercial and residential development, Miller Plant moved into larger contracts for earthworks, demolition, aggregate supply and contract crushing.
Now, with a fleet of over 50 machines and 45 members of staff, Miller Plant has enjoyed a record financial year in 2014. Frank’s sons, Alan and Ian, who joined the family business after leaving school, are now Managing Directors of the firm, with their wives also on board as office administrators.
“We’re a family business and we can keep control of it ourselves,” said Alan. “We’re confident that we’ve got the best interest of the company because it’s ours. It succeeds because we’re a family-run business and we work hard; we put in the hours to make things work.”
Although the majority of Miller Plant’s work stems from bulk earthworks projects and contract crushing, the firm also has its own quarry for aggregate supply and offers demolition services as well as a range of plant, heavy haulage and tippers for hire.
Clients include Balfour Beatty, Sir Robert McAlpine, Malcolm Allan Housebuilders, Breedon Aggregates and Bancon Homes.
The company’s recent contracts range from major regeneration projects at Aberdeen Harbour, earthworks inside Aberdeen’s historic Marischal College and more unique projects such as tidal rock armour works to protect piers on Banff Bridge, as well as developing roads, schools, housing, energy industry offices, coastal defenses, river banks and golf courses.
Although the oil and gas industry is currently experiencing a period of rare turbulence, for the past four decades the sector has provided the city, and Miller Plant, with a level of economic stability integral to the levels of growth experienced, somewhat shielding the North East’s construction industry from the recent devastations of recession felt more acutely on the Central Belt.
“It’s not to say we didn’t feel it at all, but I don’t think it was as bad up here as further down the country.
“There was still work on the go, just less of it and everybody was chasing the same contracts so your margins were tighter,” explained Alan.
“Although we’ve enjoyed a lot of success because of the oil industry, at the same time it’s created a huge labour shortage,” added Ian. “Traditionally plant hire companies up here picked up farmer’s sons but now everyone just chases the oil industry.
“That’s a major problem in this area and something that’s got to be addressed.
“People just aren’t leaving school these days to go into the plant hire industry, and that’s a fact.”
“You need people now to have the patience to go through the necessary qualifications and work their way up through the labouring jobs and the various machines before they’re properly experienced,” said Alan.
Having established a new deal in recent months with Gordon Cameron from Hardox Wearparts Centre Stirling Ltd, for specialised, tailor-made buckets for its modern machines, Miller Plant is making significant investments in equipment, attachments and the latest machine technology.
“Because of the nature of our work we’re really hard on buckets,” said Ian. “Aberdeen’s traditionally made of a hard granite material that’s so abrasive on buckets it’s almost a full time job just keeping on top of stock.”
Alan added, “We will cut costs on hard facing and building up buckets. These costs have been massive to the company over the years and we can see the Hardox buckets cutting these costs massively.”
Miller Plant’s extensive fleet mainly comprises Caterpillar machines supplied by local Finning dealers and Caterpillar equipment has proven to be a strong and reliable partner since the first purchase of a 951 tracked tractor in 1974.
“Their reputation for providing high quality machinery with expert support and service make them the ideal choice for us when considering where to invest and the durability and re-sale value of Caterpillars is second to none”, explained Alan.
“We’ve also invested a lot in the last few years in GPS technology from Trimble for our dozers and excavators.
“It’s a big investment but I can just see it being paid back very quickly with the length of time you take to do a job and the quality of the work you leave for your client,” said Alan.
Ian added, “The technology in the machines themselves has progressed amazingly as well.
“If you looked at our rates now compared to our rates ten years ago, we’re probably doing jobs for less now but our plant’s a hell of a lot more efficient and a hell of a lot quicker.”
Outside of their contracted projects, Miller Plant has also completed a range of community initiatives for the local area.
The family business recently redeveloped and leveled Midmar Primary School’s football pitch, built a new car park for the school and provided sponsorship for local youth teams in the area, donating sports kits and contributing to fundraising efforts.
Nearly 50 years after he first founded the firm Frank is still actively involved as a Managing Director alongside his sons and hopes the company will achieve the same success over the next 50 years.
Having followed their father into the business and watched the industry change with shifts in labour, advances in technology and new health and safety measures introduced, what do Alan and Ian enjoy most about their work at Miller Plant?
“Getting out on site and making a job happen really, taking a bit of pride in your work and trying to leave things tidy and in a good condition for your client.
“This last year’s been the best year we’ve ever had.
“Now we’re going to keep it going, keep it busy and keep it profitable,” said Alan.
“Taking the job to completion and seeing what was once an eyesore of a site become a level site that can then be developed,” added Ian.
“It’s down to the work that we’ve done and doing the jobs that are right for us.
“It’s about honing in on what we can do well and sticking to that.”