In its 125 years as one of the United States’ leading milling companies, King Milling has survived two world wars, the Great Depression, a fire that destroyed its mill in 1943, several major floods, record-high wheat prices in the early 1970s, the recent global economic collapse, and the premature deaths of several key leaders of the family business.
Statistically speaking, surviving all these hardships through five generations puts Lowell, Michigan, U.S.-based King Milling in very select company. During a banquet commemorating the company’s 125th anniversary on Sept. 12, King Milling President Brian Doyle put the company’s longevity in perspective.
“Only 33% make it to the second generation, only 11% make it to the third generation, and only 3% make to the fourth,” he said. “And they don’t have any stats beyond that, because there are so few family businesses that make it to the fifth generation and beyond. So we are very happy to have made it this far.”
Or as Brian’s cousin, Jim Doyle, senior vice-president of King Milling, put it: “125 years: Not bad for a company that was purchased at a bankruptcy sale (for $20,000). Talk about humble beginnings. Any business, let alone a family one, surviving 125 years has much to celebrate.”
And celebrate they did, as more than 200 people attended the ceremony at Notos restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, including dozens of current and former King Milling employees, suppliers, customers, local and state government officials, friends and family members.
“We’ve been baking bread with King Milling flour for 73 years,” said Cindy Havard, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Grand Rapids-based Coles Quality Foods. “They are a fabulous vendor and are fabulous to work with. You don’t find the quality of people any better than you do at King Milling. The Doyles are wonderful.”
René Steiner, who represented King Milling’s primary milling equipment supplier, Bühler Inc., at the event, said his company also has a special long-term relationship with the Doyle family.
“Culture-wise, King Milling and Bühler are very similar in that they are family-owned businesses that are mainly interested in long-term investments, not just a short-term profit,” Steiner said. “We do whatever we can for the long-term success of our company and so does King Milling.”
Keys to Success
Speaking to World Grain prior to the banquet, Brian Doyle said the reasons for the company’s longevity were its ability to customize its flour production for the exact needs of its customers, being vigilant about reinvesting its profits back into the business and putting family relationships at the top of the priority list.
Brian said he and his cousins, Jim Doyle, senior vice-president, and Steve Doyle, vice-president, have heard the horror stories of other family business falling apart over petty personal disagreements and are resolute in not letting that happen at King Milling.
“The family part is important,” Brian Doyle said. “It is very important that Jim, Steve and I get along and hopefully pass that along to our kids. It is a family business first and a business second.”
Two other principles that have been passed down through the generations are being debt averse and reinvesting profits, Brian Doyle said.
“We’ve plowed almost every dollar back into the business,” he said. “We’ve tried to stay ahead of the curve in terms of technology. We were one of the very first milling companies to use pneumatic conveying back in the 1960s. We were one of the very first mills to run automated back in 1982.”
And as any King Millling customer can attest, the company has always been willing to go to any lengths to customize its flour products to meet the needs of its clients.
“We are not one of the big milling companies so we have to be nimble,” Brian Doyle said. “One nice thing about being a small mill is we can be nimble. We mill a lot of different products, different flours and different wheats. We blend it and produce the flour that the customer wants.”
Havard said King Milling’s ability to deliver a very specific type of flour is critical to her company’s success.
“We actually have our own special blend,” she said. “They will accommodate anything you need, especially when the new wheat crop comes in. They are very cognizant of working with us and getting the right protein blends to make it work.”
Whether it’s customers, suppliers or employees, King Milling boasts numerous long-term relationships. Nearly half of the company’s 50 employees have been with King Milling for 10 or more years. And all of the company’s 13 retired employees who are still living worked for the company 16 years or longer.
Brian Doyle noted that many of the company’s customers have bought King Milling flour for decades, and it has purchased wheat from one of its suppliers for 100 years, and in return, sells midds back to that supplier. King Milling has even used the same accounting firm since 1917.
Surviving the greatest challenge
While King Milling endured some trying times over the past century and a quarter, the single greatest threat to its existence occurred on March 7, 1943 when the company’s wooden mill burned to the ground. The mill was completely destroyed along with thousands of bushels of wheat.
The temperature the day of the fire was -18 degrees F. Water that was sprayed on the building by firefighters froze almost immediately upon reaching it.
Brian Doyle noted that at the time of the fire, the United States was in the middle of World War II, and building materials were in tight supply with all available materials going to the war effort. Securing building priorities from the War Production Board and Certificates of Necessity from the War Department, assembling materials and recruiting skilled labor for a new mill seemed almost a hopeless task.
“All the able-bodied people were overseas at war, so it was younger boys and old men working on the mill rebuild,” Brian Doyle said. “They poured concrete by hand right there. They used a pulley system with buckets to raise it up. Amazingly, they built it in basically the same number of days it took to build our new mill in 2013. It was phenomenal. They worked around the clock. Those guys had to be animals.”
The responsibility of overseeing the mill rebuild, which took a little over two years, fell on the shoulders of company president, William Doyle, Brian Doyle’s grandfather. The stress took a heavy toll.
Ten days after the mill reopened, in April 1945, William died of a heart attack while on a business trip in Chicago. He was 54 years old.
“I’m sure the stress of all that was bad on his heart,” Brian said. “The Doyles didn’t have longevity anyway due to heart disease, but that had to be a contributor to his early death.”
Because William’s brother, Charles, had died in 1943 due to complications from a stroke that he suffered seven years earlier, the next in line to run the company was 23-year-old King Doyle, who at the time was serving in the U.S. Navy on a destroyer in the South Pacific. Because of his father’s death, the navy gave King Doyle a 90-day leave, as his ship was in dry dock from a kamikaze attack. The war ended before the leave was over and the navy released King from active duty.
So it was up to King and his 15-year-old brother, Mike, to keep the family business moving forward.
“There was a guy out of Topeka, Kansas (Milton Fuller), who was a friend of my grandpa’s who came to Lowell to help with the business for four years,” Brian Doyle said. “He helped teach my dad the business and how to grow it.”
And grow it they did. During their 50-year tenure as the company’s leaders, from 1945 to 1995, King and Mike accomplished the following:
- Increased the mill capacity to 5,400 cwts.
- Increased wheat storage capacity to 2.8 million bushels with the addition of 900,000 bushels of storage in the 1970s and 1 million bushels in the 1980s.
- King Milling become one of the first mills to switch from a bucket elevator system for conveying flour to a more sanitary pneumatic system.
- Newer transportation systems were introduced, including bulk trucking and a system capable of loading 500 cwts of flour into a truck in just under 4 minutes.
- Bought property owned by C.H. Runciman Company which had been operating as a producer of navy beans and eventually converted it into King Milling’s current main office and from a bean processing facility into a whole wheat mill.
- Implemented a wheat heating process that deactivates enzymes in wheat, enhancing shelf life and improving other end-use characteristics.
Became one of the first flour mills to apply color sorting technology to wheat by installing the first Sortex machine in the A Mill in 1978.
As proud as the Doyles are of their past, they are even more optimistic about the company’s future. A new, 5,000-cwt “B” mill, built in 2013, brought King Milling’s daily white flour milling capacity to 12,500 cwts and its overall milling capacity – the Lowell milling complex also includes a whole wheat mill with 4,000 cwts of capacity – to 16,500 cwts, making it Michigan’s largest milling facility.
“We thought we could grow into this capacity over several years and surely avoid seven-day weeks for our millers,” said Jim Doyle, noting that the facility incorporates the latest and most advanced milling technology. “Well, we’re already operating seven days a week. To put some perspective on this growth, it took the company 96 years to get to a milling capacity of 5,000 cwts per day. We started up the new 5,000-cwt B mill in 2013 and now, less than two years later, all the additional capacity has been sold.”
As part of the expansion, a new millfeed load out system was built which is capable of storing over 500 tons of millfeed and loading out a 25-ton truck in 15 minutes.
Waiting in the wings to assume leadership of the company are the fifth generation, Patrick and Regan Doyle, sons of Brian. Patrick, who received a bachelor’s degree in food business management from Michigan State University and a master’s degree from Kansas State University, is being groomed for the management side of the business.
“I wear a lot of hats,” said 29-year-old Patrick. “I help Jim with wheat purchasing and my dad with flour sales. Basically I do a lot of general managing.”
Meanwhile, younger brother, Regan, 26, is immersed in the operations side of the business. He graduated from Kansas State in 2011 with a milling science degree and then attended Bühler’s Swiss School of Milling, where he received six months of intensive training.
“Regan is a very good milling engineer,” Brian Doyle said. “He is an understudy to Steve (Doyle).”
Brian Doyle said he is confident all the pieces are in place for King Milling to continue its reign as one of the United States’ most successful flour milling enterprises.
“As King Doyle often would say, ‘You can’t stand still. You are either falling behind or going ahead.’ We intend to follow that advice and move forward.”
Important dates in the history of King Milling
1890 – Superior Mill in Lowell, Michigan, U.S. files for bankruptcy and is purchased by a corporation owned by Francis King, his son, Francis T. King, Charles McCarty and Reuben Quick for $20,000. They named the company King Milling.
1896 – Forrest Mills, then owned by Charles Wisner, merges with King Milling and Wisner gains some ownership of the company.
1900 – Francis King dies and Francis T. King becomes King Milling president.
1911 – Thomas Doyle purchases the company shares of Charles McCarty.
1927 – King Milling purchases Peckham Furniture Company, which at one time was the largest sleigh manufacturer in the world. The Peckham operations were converted into a poultry and livestock feed manufacturing facility headed by William Doyle, youngest son of Thomas Doyle.
1934 – Francis T. King dies. Charles Doyle is named president.
1940 – The Doyle family purchases the King family’s shares of the company.
1943 – Charles Doyle, who suffered a paralytic stroke in 1936, dies in 1943. Young er brother, William, is named president.
1943 – The King Milling’s flour mill burns to the ground, and the company is unable to produce flour for two years while a new mill is constructed.
1945 – The new mill opens, but 10 days later company president William Doyle dies of a heart attack.
1945 – William Doyle’s oldest son, King, who is serving in the U.S. Navy at the time of his father’s death, returns to Lowell to serve as company president at age 23.
Mid-1960s – King Milling is one of the first mills to convert from a bucket elevator system for conveying flour to a more sanitary pneumatic system.
Late 1960s – King Milling develops and implements wheat heating process that deactivates enzymes in the wheat, enhancing shelf life and improving other end-use characteristics.
1978 – King Milling becomes one of the first flour mills to apply color sorting tech nology to wheat by installing a Sortex machine in its A Mill.
1995 – King Doyle and his brother, Mike Doyle, retire. King’s son, Brian, becomes company president; Mike’s sons, Jim and Steve, become company vice-presidents.
2004 – A fifth floor is added to the original mill built by William Doyle and much of the old milling equipment is removed and replaced. This addition increases milling capacity from 5,400 cwts to 7,500 cwts per day.
2010 – King Milling becomes the first flour mill in the world to become SQF certified.
2013 – A new mill, named the B Mill, is built in 2013, bringing King Milling’s daily white flour milling capacity to 12,500 cwts.
2015 – King Milling celebrates its 125th year in business.