In 1910, Irving Mills’ father A.L. Mills founded Northwestern Garment Factory to sell garments for meat cutters to wear in Chicago’s meat packing houses. Two years later, he expanded the business to supply nursing uniforms and changed the name of the company to Mills Hospital Supply. In 1918, Irving Mills joined his father’s company. He was 12. Six years later in 1924, Mills would take over for his father, leading the company that bore his surname.
By 1930, A.L. Mills totally left the company in the hands of Irving Mills, who with his wife Jennie ran and expanded Mills Hospital Supply for the next three decades, pioneering a popular distribution concept that remains in practice today.
With five branches around the nation in 1961, Mills finally sold the company to Cenco Scientific. But Irving Mills would not be out of the healthcare distribution business for long. It was in his blood. Five years later, he helped his sons Jon and Jim found and launch Medline Industries, Inc. Medline remains one of the leading healthcare supply companies today, and is now run by their sons, Andy and Charlie, respectively, along with Jon’s son-in-law, Jim Abrams. In this case, Irving Mills extended his healthcare business career for more than five decades and making him a contemporary of American Hospital Supply’s Foster McGaw (Bellwether Class of 2010).
Certainly, offering consignment requires a level of trust in your customers as well as trust in your ability to supply them. Mills’ longevity in the industry, his flexibility to maneuver production during war-time to maintain his business and the attractiveness of his business by another company with aims to acquire it all indicate a level of commitment to professional ethics and integrity.
Irving Mills clearly sought to make sure his customers were supplied with quality products so that they could provide care to their patients. He instilled in his sons Jon and Jim Mills the desire to provide quality products at affordable prices and a willingness to share that knowledge with customers to achieve a competitive edge. His grandsons would start Medline University to offer continuing education services.
Mills ran one of the many regional hospital distributorships in the 20th century, competing against the likes of American Hospital Supply, General Medical, Owens & Minor and a host of others. While many of those companies no longer exist as independent suppliers, Mills’ namesake company continues to operate and thrive in the 21st Century. Because the leaders of AHS, GM and O&M already have been inducted into Bellwether League Inc. Hall of Fame for Healthcare Supply Chain Leadership (Bellwether Classes of 2010 and 2012), it seems only fitting and proper that Irving Mills join that august group.
Mills pioneered consignment distribution as well as mastered manufacturing and distribution of hospital products.
What would your grandfather think about Bellwether League Inc.’s mission and philosophy and how would he feel about becoming an Honoree?
Irving would smile at first and then he would say that a thousand people deserve honor and recognition before himself. He was extremely modest and self-effacing. He had great respect for the industry. He admired people like Foster McGaw and the pioneers of Becton Dickinson and many others.
What attracted and motivated him to join the healthcare supply chain management field when he did?
I am smiling at this question. In 1924, there was no healthcare supply chain management field. It was a tiny industry and more than half of the babies delivered in the United States, or perhaps two thirds, were delivered in homes, not hospitals. My Dad was 18 at the time and had to support a mother and three younger siblings. His father left him a tiny garment factory, and Irving had to take the factory over and run it. He would sell during the day and attended night school at Northwestern University for 15 years.
For what one contribution would you like him to be most remembered?
By far his sense of charity and selflessness. He never had interest in accumulating significant wealth. He gave all of his money away when he was in his 50s and really devoted his life to helping other people.
If he were to encourage people – either outside of healthcare or just out of school – to enter healthcare supply chain management and strive to be a future Bellwether League Inc. Honoree, what would he tell them?
He would never tell them to strive to be an Honoree. He would simply tell them to work extra hard, be honest and see how you could help other people.
What is the one industry challenge he would have liked to see solved during his lifetime?
I think he was so pleased to see the growth in the hospital supply industry during his lifetime. I believe it was far beyond anything he could have dreamed of. Healthcare in the United States, and throughout the world, has made such spectacular growth in the 20th century that no one could have imagined back in 1924.
How important is effective and innovative supply chain management during tough economic times?
Healthcare supply chain management is more important during good times than tough times. Let me explain. During tough times there are financial pressures to do better. During good times it’s even more important that the industry follows sound practices.
In two sentences or less, what defines healthcare supply chain leadership?
Healthcare supply chain leadership is changing. It should now be concerned with helping the hospitals and other healthcare sites to use the products more efficiently.
If you traveled back in time to when he just started in healthcare what would you tell him?
I hope Irving’s grandchildren and his children would’ve told him that it would all work out okay. The difficulties Irving faced were enormous. As I mentioned earlier, at 18 years old he had to pass up a full-time scholarship to the University of Chicago and go to work. He needed to support his mother and three younger siblings. Despite this and working seven days a week he went to Northwestern University at night for 15 years. During the depression he sold his car and traveled to see his customers on the street car. I hope some of the people reading this will remember what a street car was. During World War II, his siblings and family all served, and obviously some of these people never came back alive. It’s a shame Irving didn’t live longer to see what he started. Certainly, the small good fortune we have would never have been accomplished without everything he did.
The industry together did a wonderful job. First, the hospitals and healthcare delivery systems throughout the country, the doctors’ offices, and nursing homes all did a wonderful job helping to have a healthier United States. The great innovations that were developed in the U.S. spread throughout the world. The companies indeed did good things. Medline and the Mills family were lucky to play a small part in this effort.