Mill Machinery’s site in rural Oregon could be mistaken for the bone yard of a defunct panel mill, such is the assortment of used equipment accumulated in tidy rows within its confines.

It is, however, a successful business specialising in liquidation services, the refurbishment of panel machinery and the manufacture of panel handling equipment.

“No frills,is how owner Dave Cowan describes his company. Sitting in his office with sales manager Al Webster, it is apparent what he means. No walnut panelling or plush carpet here. Business is conducted from behind a press platen resting atop tubular steel legs.

“My desk, engineering table and work bench,he states.

A Certified Public Accountant, Dave Cowan established Mill Machinery in 2002. “I knew this business, so I devised a plan and made my first purchase,he said.

Ironically, that first purchase, a pre-press, was at that moment awaiting delivery, having been refurbished yet again. “That’s the nature of this business, multiple lives for well-made machinery.”

Since that time, the company relocated to its present 15,000ft2 workshop and acquired warehouse space in Waycross, Georgia and Broken Bow, Oklahoma.

Between the three locations, Mill Machinery maintains inventory worth several million dollars.

People the best asset
“People truly are your best asset,said Mr Cowan. “It takes skill and experience to take someone else’s machinery, often decades old, and make it like new – and provide a warranty normally reserved for new machinery,he said.

Mill Machinery’s best asset is a staff of 20, who the company has kept employed all through the downturn of recent years. Mr Cowan rejects the ‘boom and bust’ mentality of companies who hire when it’s busy and lay off when it slows.

“We value our people’s skills. We don’t like to lay off, so we save in other ways. We share profits and everyone knows what needs to be done.”

He credits much of Mill Machinery’s success to president Tim Peterson, who joined shortly after Mr Cowan set up shop.

“Tim can look at a piece of used machinery, determine its worth, what it will cost to dismantle it, ship it and put it back together again, at a profit. That’s his expertise and it’s invaluable.”

Tim Peterson is more modest about his role. “We’re a team. I have over 30 years’ experience, as do many others working here. I started out building crates. Then dismantling equipment and reinstalling it. Eventually, I became responsible for overseeing its rebuilding. I’ve worked with most of the guys here and recruited many of them because I knew what their capabilities were,he said.

When Mr Peterson joined Mill Machinery it had five employees. “Soon after I joined I secured a major order and success followed. But it’s a joint effort: Dave knows how to run a business; I know how to buy used equipment and make it like new,he said.

“Al knows the panel business. And the shop guys know how to make old machinery look and run like new because of their skills, experience, and their pride in their workmanship.”

No ‘scrap dealer’
Dave Cowan and Al Webster reject the notion that buying used means buying someone else’s problems.

“We’re not brand sensitive because we’re not the OEM (original equipment manufacturer). It’s in our best interests, however, to offer machinery with the highest performance value,said Mr Webster.

Dave Cowan backed up his sales manager’s statement:

“We’re not kerbstoners [scrap dealers]. We restore machinery to like-new condition and provide a warranty like you’d get on new equipment. And I believe we’re valued just as much for our understanding of our customers’ businesses as for the quality of the machinery we sell and support.”

“We talk to customers from the mill floor to top management,said Al Webster, adding that customers often draw on his 50 years of experience in the panel business.

“When you add Tim’s 30 years of experience and Dave’s 15 years in corporate management, it makes for a very well run company,he said.

Asset liquidation a key service
Mr Webster believes that Mill Machinery’s expertise in handling asset liquidations sets it apart from its competition.

“A properly planned liquidation brings in considerably more money than an auction,he said.

“We manage the process from determining pricing to dismantling and shipping. If this isn’t managed properly, parts go missing and machinery gets cut up into unusable pieces. We know how to break it down, ship it and put it back together again.”

He further stated that forging relationships with OEMs is a big part of the process. “We buy parts from OEMs, but our business isn’t selling spare parts: machinery performs best when refurbished to original specifications. We’ve had an OEM refer business to us because they knew we’d done the same job previously, with excellent results.”

Internet boosts business
Today, all companies utilise the power of the Internet. According to Dave Cowan, that wasn’t the case when he first realised its potential 15 years ago.

“I recognised what the Internet offered when I was with my former employer. We were the first to use it as a sales tool and it is still our primary marketing tool today,he said.

Al Webster maintains the site. Clicking on reveals the company’s three main categories of business –Reconditioned/pre-owned machinery; Liquidation services; and Magnum panel handling equipment.

Digging deeper reveals a cornucopia of machines, entire processing lines and ancillary equipment, complete with photographs and detailed descriptions – a very informative and up-to-date site.

Bright future
Dave Cowan, Tim Peterson and Al Webster  see a bright future for Mill Machinery, provided they continue to employ their formula of buying and selling at the right price, while maintaining tight control over costs.

Al Webster agrees, although he did admit that sometimes things don’t go exactly to plan.

“There’s a perfectly good press that we’ve owned for the past several years and although we don’t seem to be able to sell it, probably because of its odd size, we’ve been able to sell a few platens and recoup our cost. Sometimes you buy a piece for a single component and that covers your investment,he said.

Mill Machinery sees growth opportunities outside North America, particularly in Asia.

“Asian companies buy from us because we sell machinery that performs at the level to meet their needs and at the price they’re willing to pay,said Mr Webster.

However, while Asia beckons, he still sees plenty of opportunity in North America.

“The mills that remain in North America are dynamic and well managed. They want to add capacity without spending big capital. And they want to add value, which they can do, for example, by purchasing a refurbished press to make overlaid panels, or a speciality saw to do T&G (tongue & groove). That’s where Mill Machinery has plenty to offer.”

With its substantial inventory, skilled and experienced staff and the ability to make old machinery as good as new again, Mill Machinery appears to have found the secret of ‘turning trash into treasure’.