A solid foundation: Celebrating a mentor, entrepreneurship

When Mike Miller purchased Crow Paving/Jay-Pac in 2014, he knew he had to find the right person to lead the Morrilton firm and help it reach its potential. It proved no easy task.

“I’d been looking for someone to run this company; I’d been looking for quite a while,” he said. “Things I was looking for were experience in the construction industry, hopefully an engineering degree and some experience. I also wanted that personality, someone to lead people and grow something much bigger than you are.”

When Miller met Brian Rohlman at a fundraiser, the longtime entrepreneur got the inkling he’d finally found his man. Rohlman, an engineer, had spent a decade in the construction industry in Russellville, but was chomping at the bit for a bigger challenge.

Crow Group’s Mike Miller (left) and Brian Rohlman at the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet.

“I was always starved for opportunity,” Rohlman said. “I’m a tireless worker. I want to win. I want to leave an impact on my career, community, all those different things. I just needed something to fall my way.

“That first time I met with him, I went home and talked to my wife and told her I couldn’t even describe what Mr. Miller was like or what we talked about. I couldn’t capture it in words other than I just felt like I had to take a chance.”

Time has shown both men’s instincts were dead-on. After what both acknowledge was a period of adjustment, the owner and his president have led the little company to remarkable heights. Over the past five years, Crow Group (the name changed in January) has grown from 20 employees to nearly 100, and revenue has jumped from $2 million to more than $35 million, annually.

Services have also expanded from paving and asphalt production to include water/wastewater construction, commercial construction, industrial construction and broader heavy civil construction and stand-alone engineering services. The company’s market reach covers three states with clients in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“We’re altering and changing and delivering our product with service differently than our competitors do, better than our competitors do,” Rohlman said. “That’s resonating with our customer base because we’re going out to the customers and determining how they want construction engineering delivered to them. We’re adapting, instead of just trying to be the status quo.

“I’m always challenging our personnel here, don’t do what everybody else does. We’re doing it differently. We’re going to give it our own flare and flavor. It’s been very positive.”

By his own admission, Rohlman had to grow into his leadership style and for that he credits Miller with steady guidance and mentorship. Miller, for his part, said the duo’s hard-won success has come from Rohlman’s growth and willingness to learn.

“The thing is, the older you get, the more you understand that most times people learn going through life by making mistakes,” Miller said. “You put a guy in a position to make decisions, even if you know a guy’s making a mistake, sometimes you’re better off letting him make it, because he’ll remember it.”

Both men said they understand and appreciate one another’s skillset, even if they don’t always take the same approach. Miller calls this a competitive advantage because it provides more than one way to address challenges while moving toward common goals.

“Quite frankly, once you realize where the goal is and where you want to go, nobody’s going to do it the same way,” he said. “However (Rohlman) has to get to that goal. As long as the end result is the same, I don’t complain about that. Go on. His method, in all likelihood, is at least as good as mine, if not better.”

Miller’s deft touch with developing leaders is the result of a long line of entrepreneurial efforts. Born to North Carolina farmers, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Clemson University and started his career with Anheuser Busch. In 1996, he founded Cooling & Applied Technology Inc. in Russellville and in 20 years grew employees from 11 to nearly 200.

He and his wife, Suzan, also owned Point Remove Lodge and Point Remove Winery in Hattieville for many years. Today, the couple owns all or in part 10 companies in the River Valley, experience Rohlman said is invaluable to the continued success of Crow Group.

“We’re defining our culture every day and one thing that helps in that is Mike’s experience,” he said. “He has launched numerous successful businesses. That’s a road map there. My challenge is to harness his principles and put them into practice and generate a culture and identity that’s our own at the Crow Group, principles that we know are proven successful.”

Last November, Crow Group was recognized by the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce for its new headquarters as Business Site of the Year, having repurposed an old Coca-Cola bottling plant at a cost of $2 million in renovations. And Miller received the group’s crowning honor, 2019 Earl Love Business Leader of the Year.  

Even with the many moving parts his career represents, Miller said his success boils down to some very simple elements.

“One thing I think that’s made me successful is, for a long time I wasn’t smart enough to know that I had the ability to fail,” he said. “If you don’t know you can fail, the fear of failing is not nearly as bad. There is a lot of truth to that.”

Dwain Hebda