James Kyle is currently the president and CEO of Millennium, a national distributor of fiber-optic networks serving the communications industry. James’ vision of having a distribution business designed to deliver solutions to markets where network owners and contractors struggle to receive products and resources they need to be successful began in 2003 and today has over 9 distribution centers around the country that offers just-in-time inventory, same day/next day shipping, and local delivery services. As well as supplying thousands of products from over 250+ vendors to meet clients’ needs, Millennium’s dedication to help their clients grow includes offering extended terms and leasing options, in addition to providing field training and support for products and equipment.
Prior to founding Millennium, James was VP of Business Development for GS&M, a manufacturer’s rep firm servicing independent telephone companies with fiber test equipment. While helping to grow GS&M to $30 million+ in gross sales, James gave up his role and equity stake to start Millennium.
Over the course of 15 years, James has actively contributed to industry organizations across the U.S. and remains committed to education, personal growth, and the development of the communities where Millennium operates.
Tell me about your early career.
In the mid-1990s, I was a young 20-something year old without any guiding light or degree to provide some focus. I was living in the Chicagoland area working in the mortgage industry. I was good at what I did and I really liked helping people. Apparently, I was good enough to get the attention of one of my clients who owned a telecom test equipment rep firm. He liked my drive, my enthusiasm, and my creative, individual approach that he asked me if I’d be interested in changing career paths. After about six months, I took the jump out of residential mortgage lending and into a larger unknown as an independent rep on test equipment I knew nothing about.
Luckily, I had some really helpful training with manufacturers of fiber-optic and DSL technologies from both Silicon Valley and South Carolina and used the same personal approach I had used when doing mortgages and applied it to telecom industry. I applied the same principles of wanting to help my clients with equipment to construct and test broadband networks.
Over the course of four years, I worked my way through the ranks and I became a VP of Business Development and began buying into the business for an equity stake. During that time, I saw a reoccurring problem: there was a need for local inventory with experienced staff to support these contractors and end users who were building these networks. No one was doing this in the Illinois/Wisconsin region. There were far too many projects experiencing delays due to materials being late, and often times, it was the wrong materials when it did arrive. Seeing the projects get delayed, contractors losing money, and broadband rollouts get delayed provoked me to start Millennium and give up my stake in the former business. Since then, I’ve lead the company to supply more than 3,000 clients nationwide with 9 warehouses and 68 employees. We’ve had the honor of being on the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing companies three times and created opportunities for a number of people to excel within the business.
How did the concept for Millennium come about?
After the telecom bust in 2002, the market became flooded with used equipment. The demand dropped as some of the competitive carriers collapsed, so I shifted my focus on consumable materials for communication networks, specifically fiber-optic cables and conduit. These items seemed to be a pain point for contractors and telcos alike, and those pain points were making it difficult for them to connect rural towns with broadband throughout the Midwest. I officially started Millennium in 2004, but the idea and planning were a few years in the making. The mission of Millennium came from the needs of our clients to get the right materials and have them delivered on time, every time. We wanted to supersede our client’s traditional experience with material distributors. To do this, we needed to bring in local inventory and have the ability to deliver to job sites while staying in constant communication with their field personnel. Supplying product for a project is kind of like a domino effect – once one piece gets delayed, all the material components need attention to change schedule, change delivery times, and even locations. There are always multiple balls in the air.
How was the first year in business?
Like most businesses, Millennium’s first year was extremely challenging and fragile. There are so many hurdles facing a new business, especially in the distribution space where it is capital intensive and difficult to prove a value proposition. Initially, lack of capital was the hardest to overcome. Most banks are too averse to credit risks to throw money at a new business, so it took every penny from our personal savings and retirement, coupled with a loan from my grandmother to buy inventory. Without enough funding to hire a staff, I became the salesman, delivery driver, and accountant for the first couple of years. I was fortunate that two strategic vendors, Hubbell and Duraline, took a chance on me and Millennium. They were the first to offer credit terms and distributor pricing which paved the way for Millennium to stay in operation and secure agreements with many others through the years.
What was your marketing strategy?
Focus on underserved markets and companies with less than $50 million in annual revenues. This allows us to provide real value through handling just-in-time deliveries, product suggestions, and flexible credit terms for companies that didn’t have the resources to do this without Millennium’s service.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Millennium experienced some explosive growth in the first three years, growing more than 480% in that period to revenues of $6.8 million. By the end of the third year, we had hired a staff of seven people and constructed our first owned warehouse to distribute from.
How do you define success?
Success to me is two-fold. First, our clients need to be more successful and profitable by doing business with Millennium. That’s reflected not just through our product pricing, but also by keeping materials in stock for them and making sure that their projects are always on time in regards to the materials required. Second, success is defined by the number of employees at Millennium who grow professionally and personally by being part of our team. Creating opportunities to excel for both our clients and employees is always on the forefront of our planning for success.
What is the key to success?
Company culture. Defining the core values and aligning our marketing efforts with a long-term vision is the key to success. One person cannot drive a successful, healthy company, so the only way to achieve traction is by bringing together people with strong core values to execute a well-defined plan.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
It’s important to belong to a strong group of peers and advisors. After trying out a few different groups, I am in Vistage 3361, and have found that good mentors, peers, and a business coach will help provide direction and hold me accountable.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“Begin with the end in mind.”
“I know you have big dreams for yourself, but don’t forget how far you’ve come already. Remember the days you prayed for things you have today.”
“I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.”
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
In 2014, I was faced with the challenge of completely restructuring the management structure to allow the organization to scale up. In the process, I found that some of the people we had in the company, longtime friends in the business, were no longer able to scale with the needs of the company and it was impacting our ability to service our clients. Nothing prepares you for sitting across from someone who helped build the business and telling them that, through no intentional action of their own, we must part ways. That was one of the most challenging emotional days for me as an entrepreneur.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Fear of letting down the clients and coworkers. As we’ve grown, clients and coworkers have come to rely on, and trust, Millennium. As individuals, it would be easier to give up in the face of adversity, but knowing that we must push forward for the greater good provides a deep-rooted sense of energy and desire to win.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
1) Plan your target market, come up with your vision for the business ten years from now, and always stick to your core values.
2) Initially, you will need to work in the business, a lot. It will consume your time and energy and at times be extremely stressful. Remember that it’s an investment in your dream and it should feel natural.
3) Finally, when the company can support it, hire the best people for the roles you fill. Too often as entrepreneurs, we hire people we think we can manage rather than finding the people with the best skillset to take it to the next level. Make sure that those people share your core values and they’ll execute a vision that even you may doubt when getting started.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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