The below interview originally ran in the January 2017 edition of The New Pioneer magazine. It is reproduced here with the express written permission of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.


Chuck Mills

Q&A with Charles D. Mills, President of Mills Machine Company, on his company’s use of the State Trade Expansion Grant Program offered through the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.

What initially made you decided to apply for the STEP grant?

“Since the grant was written for international marketing programs and I had always wanted to translate my website into several other languages, it was a perfect fit for my company. We chose Spanish to be the first language for translation because we were expanding our export market in Mexico, Central and South America.”

How has having your website translated into Spanish helped to increase opportunities/actual sales results?

“Our distributors have commented on how helpful the translated site is for them and their customers in trying to explain our product line and the advantages of our custom designed products.”

How did STEP funds help you save money in the long term?

“The STEP grant funds supplemented our investment for the translation costs which saved us several thousand dollars.

“As a relatively small company I probably would not have been able to come up with the money to translate my site, that is why I had not done it sooner.”

Describe the application process for the STEP grant.

“The application process was pretty involved but the questions were simple and straight forward. It requires you to define and update your international business plan which is always a good exercise for any business to do on a regular basis.”

What recommendations would you give other companies looking to apply?

“The STEP grant that I was awarded was $5,000 (the current cap is $2,000) and the cost of the translation plus the software and labor required to put that on our website cost us a little over $8,000. So, the new cap of $2,000 would still help but we obviously would have a lot more investment from our side. You could possibly at least translate your home page. The first thing that you need to do is contact your webmaster and see what is required to embed the software into your website and then shop around for a translation company that has good references in translating your industry’s terminology. Be aware of the different dialects and try to find some middle ground where people from different regions can understand your information. Use any local contacts that you have to provide guidance and translate your industries terminology into their language.”

What are some key takeaways from your experience?

“Do your homework, have a plan of what type of marketing that you want to apply for. You could translate your website or a brochure, attend ExporTech, exhibit at a trade show or whatever type of marketing that would grow your company.”

What is the primary reason peer companies should consider this grant other than the export portion?

“Take advantage of your tax dollars to supplement your marketing efforts to grow your company globally. Ninety-five percent of the world lives outside of the United States so take advantage of the opportunity and let’s grow the economy!”

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Read more about Chuck Mills and his century-old Oklahoma business in this profile from The Oklahoman.

(Top photo credit: Photo by Jim Stafford, For The Oklahoman.)

One of the more common questions a drilling manufacturing company head always gets in times of cheap oil is how badly is it impacting their business. Yet Oklahoma’s Mills Machine Co. faces no such problems, as the company’s diverse product line for all earth drilling needs, from the water well to mining industries keeps it in a regular supply of customers. We spoke with OKGIT member and Mills Machine Co. President Chuck Mills about his company, its domestic and international clientele and the future of Oklahoma exports.

 What does Mills Machine Co. do?

“Mills Machine Company (est. 1908) is a third generation, family owned business headquartered in Shawnee, Okla. Mills is a leading manufacturer and distributor of a complete line of earth drilling tools, bits and related accessories for water well, environmental, geo-thermal, construction and blast hole mining industries.

Chuck Mills.

Chuck Mills.

“We serve these industry customers in both domestic and international markets, offering standard and custom-crafted products that include hollow stem augers, stabilizers, hole openers, underreamers, casing cutters, pipe handling tools, drilling adapters, soil sampling equipment, claw bits, core bits and other drilling accessories.

“Mills has earned a reputation for quality products and for its innovative customer solutions. Based on years of service in multiple drilling industry sectors, we have developed the unique capacity to modify existing products from one industry for use in another, often resulting in cost savings to the customer.”


How many employees do you have in Oklahoma?

“Mills currently employs 22 skilled professionals at our Shawnee facility, which includes our corporate and sales offices, manufacturing facilities and warehousing and distribution operations.

“In past years, Mills employed as many as 65 skilled workers, but with increased mechanization through computer aided manufacturing (CAM), we were able to streamline our production of standard industry products. In producing the custom-crafted products Mills is known for, we maintain a highly skilled and innovative workforce.

“By focusing on our core business and providing the best possible customer service, Mills has been able to serve a broad and growing domestic and international clientele from one central location in Shawnee.”


Can you give me an idea of how much Mills Machine Co. relies on exporting its products outside the U.S.?

“The mix between our U.S. and international product sales varies at times depending upon economic conditions here and abroad, but as a general rule approximately 25 percent of the standard and custom-crafted products we produce are sold internationally. While the specific international customers may vary with time, we have sold our products in approximately 70 worldwide markets.”


What are some of the challenges Mills Machine Co. faces in exporting from Oklahoma?

“Thankfully, we don’t have any significant challenges or obstacles in exporting our products from here in Oklahoma. We’re fairly close to the ports of Houston and New Orleans and transportation is efficient and cost-effective.

“Communication is no barrier because English remains the international business language. In addition, there are a variety of service providers, including freight forwarders, agents, international banks and attorneys to help manage the process.”


You’ve said before that despite the cost savings associated with moving production elsewhere, you’ve made a conscious effort to keep Mills Machine Co. in Shawnee, Okla. What’s the calculation there for you as a small business owner?

“Companies relocate or open satellite facilities to get closer their customers and to sell more products. While that can be an advantage, there is also the potential disadvantage of increased overhead and higher production costs which affect profitability. This is particularly true in the highly populated coastal markets where the cost of living and taxes are higher.

“As a manufacturer of drilling tools, I would rather be here in Oklahoma, the crossroads of America, in one manufacturing and distribution facility. Here, we can best manage and control process, production and distribution. Also, since we manufacture both standard and custom-crafted drilling tools and accessories, we have an added advantage. Our customers come to us because very often they are looking for a specific product solution that only a custom manufacturer can provide.

“In fact, I’d say that since we are a custom or niche manufacturer, we can produce our products from virtually anywhere and customers will find us as a result of our aggressive marketing efforts.”


In terms of when Mills Machine Co. first began producing items for export, is there any advice that you’d give to firms in Oklahoma who are considering forging international ties and exporting?

“Let’s begin with the good news. The landscape for exporting has improved dramatically since Mills Machine Company began exporting from Oklahoma more than 35 years ago. The world has shrunk due to a robust infrastructure of resources and services available to assist companies interested in exporting opportunities. The Internet and digital technology have helped tremendously, offering tools, information and services for both the novice and skilled exporter.

“To those interested in exporting, I’d say the time is right. With an estimated 95 percent of consumers living outside the U.S. and 80 percent of the buying power residing outside our country, there is potentially a huge untapped market of opportunity to grow Oklahoma businesses through exports.

“To the uninitiated, it may appear to be complicated and risky, but there are both governmental and private resources to help guide businesses through every step in the process. I predict that here in Oklahoma, the infrastructure to support exporting capabilities will take another leap forward in the coming months.”

Chuck Mills.

Chuck Mills.

As the deadline for renewal of the Export-Import Bank of the United States’ charter approaches at the end of June, some congressional representatives promise they’ll allow the vital American economic tool’s existence to lapse.

In an article by Andrew Taylor of the Associated Press, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling said he wants the bank’s charter to expire without a vote and said that “the momentum is in our favor.”

“This is going to be a critical vote, or hopefully a non-vote, on the future of the Republican Party and the future of our economy,” Hensarling said.

Despite pleas from House Speaker Jon Boehner that such a move would risk thousands of American manufacturing jobs for workers whose products are shipped abroad and guaranteed through the EXIM Bank’s export credit insurance, it appears Representative Hensarling’s move to kill the vital government program may succeed.

The OKGIT’s Chuck Mills, who is also the 2014-2015 Chairman of the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce and a third generation small business owner and exporter, penned an op-ed in the Tulsa World countering claims that the EXIM Bank is government subsidized corporate welfare and a burden on Oklahoma’s small businesses.

According to Mills, “the bank is a government agency that has, in fact, returned $7 billion to the government since 1992, while enabling businesses like ours to enter to new markets through the safety net provided by the bank’s export credit insurance offerings.”

Randy Kellogg

Randy Kellogg

He also touched on the repercussions should the bank’s charter not be renewed, writing “Three generations of my family have been manufacturing quality earth drilling products worldwide for a range of drilling types, right here in Shawnee. We sell drill bits, augers, and other equipment overseas, with exports now accounting for about 20 percent of our business. The export-import bank enabled us to cultivate many of these overseas opportunities — which would ultimately be jeopardized if the bank lost its charter, along with our 20 employees.

“In the Sooner State alone, since 2007, over 115 businesses received export-import bank financing that supported over 7,000 jobs. Losing that financing and the bank’s credit insurance offerings would deliver a harsh blow to businesses throughout the state.”

The OKGIT’s Randy Kellogg, an approved lender with many years of experience in assisting Oklahoma firms do business with EXIM, also spoke in favor of the charter’s renewal at the group’s March 2015 meeting.

“Export-Import helps keep a level playing field for Oklahoma companies on international markets…it doesn’t help finance foreign governments as some critics suggest or only benefit big companies. Its financing helps smaller manufacturers who are indirect exporters when they supply firms like Boeing Company…”

Sawyer Manufacturing Co.

Sawyer Manufacturing Co.

The most obvious success story of EXIM’s support on Oklahoma-based businesses is Sawyer Manufacturing, which was just named the Small Business Administration’s National Exporter of the Year.

In an EXIM feature on the Tulsa-based small business‘ use of the banks financing, Sawyer Manufacturing’s Vice-President Dave Hembree said  that “the ability to extend credit on international sales allows us to grow our business in existing international markets and export our products to new countries by giving our international distributors more flexibility to invest and market our products. Credit terms provided to our international distributors in these markets allow them to better compete, so it makes our U.S. made products more competitive in the international markets.

While the focus of presenters at the 32nd annual Oklahoma World Trade Conference was raising Oklahoma companies’ online profile and protecting their digital assets once there, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin was on hand to present awards to six companies for their more traditional exporting work.

The 2015 Oklahoma Governor’s Award for Excellence in Exporting went to Broken Arrow, Okla.-based Control Devices Inc. The firm is a leading manufacturer of pipeline pig tracking and communication equipment for domestic and global customers. Its 48 employees each have specialties in a diverse set of skills, from electronics, mechanical design, software and firmware programming, machining and more.

The Oklahoma District Export Council’s Export Champion Awards went to:

The U.S. Commercial Service’s Export Achievement Certificate went to:


Closing out a successful 2014, Shawnee-based Mills Machine Company was honored by Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Mark Costello for its innovative commercial success and investment in Oklahoman jobs. Commissioner Costello presented company owner and president Chuck Mills with the Entrepreneurial Excellence in Oklahoma Award.

“I am constantly in awe of Oklahoma and the many successful and profitable private companies that I have been exposed to,” said Costello. “Each of these amazing business owners has a unique story about why they started their company and how it has evolved over the years. I want to honor these entrepreneurs for their commitment to Oklahoma and for their success in creating opportunities for other Oklahomans.”

The award was presented at the company’s Shawnee manufacturing facility on Dec. 18, 2014.

“Our company has been under the leadership of the Mills family for 106 years here in Shawnee,” commented Mills upon receiving the award. “But none of our success would have been possible without our loyal and hardworking employees.”

District 17 Senator Ron Sharp and District 26 Representative Justin Wood, who represent the Shawnee-area at the state capitol, were also in attendance. Both presented commendations to Mills.

Founded by the Mills family in 1908, Mills Machine Company is a leading manufacturer of earth drilling tools. It has become a multimillion dollar company providing a full line of specialty earth boring tools and accessories for water, mining, construction, utility and environmental applications. Under current owner and president Chuck Mills, the company has expanded to new domestic and international markets over the past 35 years.

Mills focus on investment in Oklahoman jobs is reflected in his service as the acting Chairman of the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce and the Governor’s Council for Workforce and Economic Development. Mills’ has previously served as the chair of the Oklahoma Governor’s International Team, an organization he continues as an active member.

The Entrepreneurial Excellence in Oklahoma Award recognizes Oklahoma-based entrepreneurs who have created profitable employment for their fellow Oklahomans and to foster a positive business atmosphere. Legislators, local Chambers of Commerce, civic organizations and the public nominate deserving businesses regardless of size or age, though the decision of award winners is left to the labor commissioner.

(Pictured above: (Left to right) Commissioner Larry Costello, Rep. Justin Wood, Chuck Mills, Sen. Ron Sharp, Shawnee Mayor Wes Mainord.)