Nine Questions with Thomas Miller, CEO of Metal Forms Corporation

What do you make at Metal Forms Corporation (MFC)?

We manufacture steel forms and other products that are used in infrastructure and construction projects such as roads, bridges, barriers—even wheelbarrows. When MFC began in 1909, the original product line included vertical and circular forms for tanks and silos. Between 1910 and 1913, construction of concrete homes took off—notably the Edison Estates in Gary, Indiana, which included hundreds of homes and apartments constructed for workers at the U.S. Sheet and Tin Plate Company. Besides manufacturing, invention has also been a cornerstone of MFC–over 40 U.S. and foreign patents have been awarded since our early days.

How long have you and your family been running the business?

My grandfather, G.H. Miller, my father, Harold, and my uncle, Harvey, were all part of the foundation for the family business. My grandfather became involved with the Koehring Machine Company in the early 1900s which guided MFC into the manufacturing of steel forms to build concrete roads, curbs and sidewalks. In the later part of the 1950s, my high school days, Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Law was signed and large-scale highway construction really began in earnest. My father and Sam Lilly, the MFC Superintendent, developed an improved paving form design that would support the heavier paving machines being used, which led to the purchase of Curbmaster of America [a manufacturer of automatic curb and gutter machines]. This set the stage for the direction MFC would take as my involvement increased. For a time after I went away to college, I worked for straight commission for my uncle and father, handling a large swath of territory out west. In the early 1970s, my father became the sole owner of MFC and I moved back to Milwaukee and continued working in sales, then on to management. After my father’s death in 1981, I became the sole owner.

Given Metal Form Corporation’s long history in the neighborhood and its proximity to the Beerline Trail, how have you seen this corridor evolve over the years?

In MFC’s early years, we were heavily reliant on the Beerline for receiving materials and shipping product. Toward the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s, trucking replaced the rail for our operations, though the Beerline was still operating. During the difficult economic times in Milwaukee, around the 1980s and 1990s when some major manufacturers were moving out of the city, there were some issues with the trail’s appearance and crime was a concern, but recent improvements—paving the trail, adding signs—have really made the trail attractive and better used.

You’ve recently invested in the appearance of MFC’s exterior—exposing windows, painting and adding an artistic element to the façade. These improvements aren’t necessarily critical from a sales perspective for you; why did you make this investment?

We spend about 80% of our lives at our jobs. I believe this should be a positive experience, not only from the perspective of providing a great work environment from a management perspective, but also the space we occupy should be inviting and a part of the neighborhood. There have been significant improvements in the neighborhood over the years and we wanted MFC to be a part of that.

What do you see as most important for Milwaukee’s continued success?

It’s important that Milwaukee is able to retain businesses and compete with other cities economically.

What do you consider the most interesting aspect of Milwaukee?

Milwaukee is one of the best “smallest big cities”. We’ve maintained some of the more attractive aspects of smaller cities but have the amenities of a larger city.

Have you traveled to other countries?

Yes, I’ve traveled to quite a bit over the years, mostly to European countries, though I’ve also been to South America. One of my favorite places to visit is the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, between Denmark and Iceland.

What is your favorite sports team?

Since I went to college at Notre Dame, I continue to suffer through their seasons. Closer to home, I’ve always been a Hilltopper and fan of Marquette.

What is your favorite public space in Milwaukee?

The Beerline Trail, of course!