From its earliest beginnings, The Mill is a family business. In 1886, entrepreneur Henry Reckord built Reckord Mill, a four-story flour mill alongside the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad featuring the latest automation technology. According to the Maryland Historical Trust, the new mill was the sole industrial operation in Bel Air from the 19th century to the start of World War II. The mill stayed in the Reckord family until 1957, when H. Smith Walter purchased it for $40,000 and renamed it Bel Air Farm Supply. In 1986, Walter sold the business and surrounding property to his grandson, Henry Smith Holloway, who has spent the past 26 years building on the success of its two previous owners.
Growth of the Mill
Holloway says when he took over operations in 1986, Bel Air Farm Supply was still very agriculturally based. Realizing that the traditional crops business, which requires extensive equipment and facilities, was not the best fit for the downtown Bel Air location, Holloway made the decision to shift his focus to animal nutrition.
“When I started working for my grandfather in 1983, we primarily worked with dairy and crop farmers. When I took over, I tried to maintain that historic segment while also working very hard at expanding the equine portion,” says Holloway. “There was a need for nutritional management support, so we went out and hired people who knew what they were doing and provided them with the products they needed.” Holloway says his strategy paid off, adding, “We were very fortunate, during that period of time, that both dairy and horse farms in the area were growing and doing well, so we mirrored that.”
He also recognized an opportunity for more new business through expanded retail. In 1997, Holloway nearly quadrupled his retail space, making it more user-friendly while garnering awards for historic preservation and design in the process. “Our expanded retail area allowed us to reach out to that suburban homeowner with bird feed, pet supplies and lawn and garden products, as well as carrying products for someone who owns a thoroughbred horse farm or is milking 100 cows,” says Holloway. He also changed the name to The Mill to better reflect the changing nature of the business’s operations.
A year after the new retail store opened, the Southern States cooperative across the street offered to close its doors if The Mill would become a dealer. Holloway said yes, and four years later became a Southern States distributor in Whiteford and Black Horse. A fourth facility was added when close friends who owned a feed store in Hereford approached him about joining forces. Two more centers in Hampstead and Red Lion, Pa., followed, giving The Mill a total of six locations, with Holloway as the common denominator among all the owner groups. While some centers focus more on crops or agricultural products, they all feature retail and together offer a wide range of products for The Mill’s diverse customer groups.
Competing With the Big Box Stores
Holloway admits that the big box stores are actually among his best referral sources. “We definitely staff differently than a retail store would. Even though it costs more, it gives us a big advantage in that we have half a dozen people that can tell you what to do if you have a disease on your roses.”
Holloway says that because most home products are watered-down versions of what is used on the commercial side, The Mill staff who handles both have a better understanding of how they work. A customer can bring in a soil sample and The Mill will test it to find out the problem – and recommend a solution. He and his staff have heard all kinds of questions about how to install a lawn or set up a nursery bed, and customers even bring in a limb from a tree to see if it’s dying or salvageable. “Home Depot can’t answer those questions or may not have the product to fix it,” Holloways says.
Holloway says this highly personalized service will continue to drive The Mill’s business moving forward. “Every farm is a different scenario – do you have high quality pastures or not? Are you feeding grass, hay or alfalfa? Breeding a horse to win the Maryland Million or to compete in a small local race? Raising hens for eggs for your family or to sell at a farmer’s market? We have folks on staff who can give or find the information to set you up so that you can meet your goal.”
He also points out that The Mill actually has better pricing on certain products such as fertilizer or seed because it does such a huge volume on its agricultural business side. Finally, he emphasizes, “People buy from people. That’s what differentiates us from online suppliers, too. You may have the greatest insecticide for stinkbugs in the world, but if they can’t tell you how to apply or use it, you’re not going to get rid of them.”
The Mill of the Future
“We have to be a leader in new technology. We have to have the newest and best products and methods to feed your 500 Holstein cows, 50 thoroughbred brood mares, or pet cat or dog,” he says. He is also committed to maintaining an educated staff, offering trainings a couple of times per month so that employees can keep up on the technical side of new products and services.
The Mill is also quick to respond to market trends in each of its diverse service areas. Holloway says that while retail carried the business 10 years ago, today commercial agriculture is very profitable, with demand for U.S. corn and soybeans at record levels. On the livestock side, because of different worldwide events and a drought that reduced the U.S. beef cow herd to 1950s levels, supply is low and demand is high, creating opportunities in that market.
Holloway also tries to leverage trends such as the growing farm-to-table movement. Events such as The Mill’s “Chick’s Night Out” attract 100 people or more to each educational session on raising and caring for a chick from a day-old peep to a hen of laying age.
In terms of marketing, Holloways says his best tool is good old-fashioned word of mouth, followed closely by in-person interaction. In addition to hosting events such as Chick’s Night Out and an annual Equine Dinner Meeting, staff attends and sponsors outside events such as horse shows and races, 4-H meetings and even a pig show at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.
All in the Family
While Holloway purchased the business from his maternal grandfather, agriculture is in his blood on both sides of the family, going back hundreds of years. Today, Holloway is joined by his wife as well as five cousins from both sides of his family who are key employees. When asked if that makes things easier or harder, Holloway deadpans, “You probably should ask them; from my standpoint it’s pretty good.” I95