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Monday, May 20, 2013

MOVERS and SHAKERS: Jo Miller, President of Maine Woolens Our Coverage Sponsored by Hallak Cleaners the Couture Cleaner

Jo Miller

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Born in Winslow, Maine, Jo Miller has always been creatively motivated and a committed patriot. With a nearby New England upbringing, Jo had sights on New York from a young age. Manhattan was always part of her dreams. Jo's mom and dad had honeymooned at the Commodore Hotel in 1935. The memories of New York were alive in the stories they told Jo of the city recovering from the Great Depression: The Rockettes, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the traffic (mostly Fords, Chevys and touring cars) and the interminable lights of the City. This made even bigger impressions on them as they grew older and she grew up. For her, Manhattan was always a destination.

After graduating from the University of Maine with a B.A. Degree she took classes in Geology at Rutgers University, where she helped her first husband with his field research. In 1976, Jo accepted a job at Colby College as an lab instructor in geology. She taught there for 4 years during which time she also learned to knit, spin and weave through various seminars offered in the area. She soon became a member of the Maine Spinner's and Weaver's Guild and partook in many "sheep to shawl" exhibitions winning many First Place and Second Place prizes along the way. 

In 1980 after the birth of her last child, Jo put together and sold a line of fabrics to a local mill to reproduce. She loves to design cloth. Going to museums, reading Women's Wear Daily and all the trade papers Jo always has a good eye for trends that become mass market winners. She sold several 1000 yards of her designs to designers and then found a mill to produce the yardage. In 1985, when the mill that was doing her designs didn't meet delivery dates she decided to open her own mill. She approached the Small Business Administration for a business loan, got a second mortgage on her home and started a company called JSP Designs (years later it became Maine Woolens after many twists and turns). During the time she was waiting for the SBA to approve her loan, Jo interned with Cascade Woolen Mill in Oakland, Maine. Here she worked alongside dressers, weavers and menders learning her trade. To be in manufacturing means literally learning to cope with everything that goes wrong on a day to day basis.

A person starting a manufacturing business has to be prepared for all the things that go wrong in one day. People being out, equipment breaking down, supplies not coming in on time, customers demands changing, are just a few of the situations one confronts on a daily basis. You wake up asking yourself what will go wrong today. To many people the demands are just too much. If you are a problem solver and a decision maker or a take charge kind of person like Jo is you can handle the daily frustrations. Her attitude is every problem can be manipulated into a workable solution. When the building where she was renting space was sold and she was sued by the new tenants for making too much noise she regrouped and merged with another textile mill in Lisbon Falls, Maine.

The year was 1989, and she and her husband divorced. Growing up as a second generation immigrant family(of French descent) the emphasis was always on being American. Speak English and follow the trends of American society which included working in manufacturing. As a family, Jo's family prized the job her father had in a paper mill.   They appreciated daily that the owners of the mill not only gave him a job but were concerned about his family, his health and his family's education. Employees felt good about working. The mill always had a large float in the Memorial and Fourth of July parade and the feeling of being proud to be an American was felt throughout the town.

From the time she became employed by Miller Industries she began traveling to New York City on her own every other week. Usually the sales visit was for four days, Thursday, Friday(10 hour work days ) Saturday to explore the city and Sunday get back home. She visited 295 and 265 Fifth Avenue for textiles, making sales for her company and Miller Industries. Jo visited knitting mills in Brooklyn and on Long Island and she sold to Liz Claiborne and 525 Made in America and many others, yarns from Miller Industries. For 10 years, she got to enjoy the City as only an outsider can. Jo watched the skaters at Rockefeller Center, took in plays and musicals on Broadway, and listened to Mozart and Mahler in the Philharmonic at the Met. She enjoyed French cuisine at the Biaritz, fusion at Maison Japonaise, and other wonderful meals at the Parker Meridian and Roxy's and Ben's Deli's. No one could have been more appreciative of the opportunities afforded to her by clients.

Back in Maine, she worked closely with the owner of Miller Industries developing new yarns and patterns in weaving. He was her mentor and she credits him with teaching her the ins and outs of the textile trade, most notably how to run a mill with 100 people working for you and getting out 5000 blankets a week. He was very intelligent.  They married in 2000 after a long association. In 2003 she left textiles to take care of her husband who was ill. Being without a job in textiles was difficult and in 2009 she partnered with her son, John, (who had grown up with weaving and NYC stories all around him) founded Maine Woolens, a blanket and throw company located in Brunswick, Maine. Dedicated to quality and preserving Maine jobs, Maine Woolens employs 17 full time people and produces 800 blankets per week. Maine Woolens enjoys exhibiting at the Javits Center twice a year in the Home Textiles Shows, meeting old and new friends and business associates from the metropolitan area. Jo believes the bright lights are as brilliant as they were when her parents visited 68 years ago. We are absolutely thrilled to present Jo Miller as our latest Mover and Shaker!!! Peachy Deegan interviewed Jo Miller for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: What did you like to create as a child and how did it turn out?   Do you still have it?
Jo Miller: I learned to sew doll clothes by hand by the time I was 6 years old. Wove potholders on the little red stationery looms for fun and started knitting scarves when I was about eight. Tatting was the one skill that eluded me for years but it is the one sample of my early attempts that I still have. When my children were young I passed off the doll clothes for their dolls. 

What is your first patriotic memory? 
 Memorial Day parades where they did a 21 gun salute to the fallen veterans.

What stories that your parents shared with you as a child about Manhattan would you like to share with our audience?
 The Commodore Hotel stayed in my parents mind as the most beautiful and cosmopolitan of hotels. It was such a short walk to Times Square and the Empire State Building. But the most exciting story was climbing up the Statue of Liberty.They loved the ferry boat ride to the island and the view it gave of the city which seemed so big to two people from rural Maine. My dad who was always afraid of heights climbed all the way up the narrow stairs into the crown of the statue. Here he stayed but my mother, ever the adventurous one, went all the way up Lady Liberty's arm before coming back to join him in the crown. The view there was spectacular. But on their 35th wedding anniversary when we went to NYC as a family of five, Dad took the elevator up the pedestal base of the statue but declined walking up the narrow steps again to get to the crown. My mom of course raced to the crown and was very disappointed that the arm was closed off.

We love your patriotism however do you do practice any French traditions? 
Mostly with the foods I eat. I love butter, cream and have an enormous sweet tooth. A meal is not complete without a rich, sugary dessert. I still go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve and come home to a meal of Tourtiere pie at 1A.M. followed by opening presents. 

How do you think Manhattan has changed for the best since then and what would you have preferred it retain from that time? 
It is still a huge melting pot but there seems to be less assimilation with the new immigrants. I think there is a greater division between the haves and the haves not. The city itself is still vibrant and passionate and on the cutting edge of fashion and trends.

What motivated you to study Geology and what should everyone know about Geology that they might not know yet?
I studied geology so I could be my first husband's field assistant and so that I could be able to comfortably talk to him about his work.

What do you enjoy knitting the most and do you come up with your own patterns? 
I really prefer knitting small projects now, like mittens, hats and socks . I can usually get those done. I rarely work from a pattern as I like to mix up techniques so I can learn something new. Entrelac knitting being my favorite now.

Where do you get your creative inspiration from? Everywhere. Inspiration is all around us. Magazines, books, tv and especially nature.

What does manufacturing in the USA mean to you? 
We were one of the greatest manufacturing countries in the world. We made nearly everything we needed here, providing jobs and creating a strong economy. When manufacturing went overseas we not only lost jobs, we lost a piece of our identity and we lost our middle class, along with our middle class values(most notably the ability to create a life for our families by our diligent work habits). The middle class has disappeared because jobs have disappeared. Manufacturing in the U.S. means more job opportunities, growth of the middle class and building a stronger economy not based on "futures" but on solid workmanship.

What should everyone know about Maine Woolens?
It's a company founded on love of country, people and textiles.

What styles are great for summer by Maine Woolens? 
Gingham checks (great for beach blankets and picnic blankets as well as bed blankets) MacKenzie cotton blanket for lightweight warmth and great nubby 100% cotton Richmond throws.

What blankets should Seamus the bunny get excited about for the upcoming football season? 

What should everyone know about the State of Maine? 
Its people are down to earth and sincere in their efforts to help others. And, winters aren't as bad as they used to be.

Where are the best Maine lobsters? 
Barnicle Billy's, Shaw's Wharf Lobster Pound and Young's Lobster Pound. Ogunquit, New Harbor and Belfast respectively. (There is no such thing as a bad Maine lobster!)

What makes a great entrepreneur? 
Creativity, keeping ahead of the competition, not being afraid to listen to the competition and empathy for those who work for you. You can't do it alone.

What are your best problem-solving strategies and how can we learn from you? 
There is no such thing as a problem that can't be solved or reduced to some extent. Embrace every challenge. Life is a game. What is important today will be less important next week tomorrow. Love, family and a sense of something greater than ourselves are the most important things to remember. Balance is essential to a good life and to good management.

What made your late husband Mr. Miller an excellent mentor? 
He always demanded more than I thought I could give and that made me try harder. He was intelligent, extremely well read and always looking for the next "best" thing. He never rested on his laurels but continued to develop into his eighties.

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence? 
Certainly it started with my mom who always said, "do it right or don't do it at all". "Always give it your best shot and you'll have no regrets"from my dad.

What are you proudest of and why? 
I'm proudest of my children because they are "good" people. I'm also proudest of my ability to try everything even if I fail miserably and of the fact that I am a true survivor.

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do? 
The Heimtex Show in Frankfurt, Germany

What honors and awards have you received in your profession? 
None really except in my early years with ribbons from fairs. However, when anyone buys my blanket or throw I feel it is an honor.

What one word best describes you and why? 
Incorigible because I like to laugh and have fun but I'm also pretty serious.

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan? 
Broadway Play

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan? 
Henri Bendel's

If you could hire anybody who would it be and why? 
Rafa Nadal because I could play tennis with him when I wasn't working and it would be a great work out. Can you tell I'm over 50?

What is your favorite drink? 
Orange juice 

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a cocktail party? 
Haven't really been to one. Too busy raising kids and working.

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan? 
Biaritz (wonderful sweetbreads)

What is your favorite Manhattan book or favorite character in Manhattan literature? 
My mind draws a blank but I love to look at tourism books on Manhattan so I can plan my next trip.

Who would you like to be for a day and why? 
I've never wanted to be anyone else but if I had to I think I'd choose Betty Davis because she said and did what she wanted. That would be a freedom.

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why? 
A chair in Carnegie Hall. I've never been, always wanted to see Itzhak Perlman there.

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience? 
Walking from 99th Street to 32nd Street and back.

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else? 
Drink in all the ambiance and vibrations of a great city.

If you could have dinner with any person living or passed, who would it be and why? 
Vladamir Horowitz because I loved his musianship and piano playing.

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience? 
Hearing and watching the Brahms Piano Concerto #3 played by the Philharmonic at the Met and seeing my first opera (La Boheme) at the Met.

What do you personally do or what have you done to give back to the world? 
I try to treat people as I would like to be treated and help out whenever, wherever and whomever I can and I have raised 3 socially conscious children whom I hope will always be aware of others needs along with their own.

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here? 
The horse drawn carriage rides in Central Park is the most overrated and the genuine goodness of most of the people the most underrated

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it? 
The timeliness of the stories and the diversity of the content from historical to trendy.

Have you tried The Peachy Deegan yet and if not, why not? 
No, I haven't because I'm not much of a drinker.

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you? 
 I'm better looking than my picture. I have an Old English Sheepdog named Annie who is my best friend and a new kitten named Gabby.

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers? 
via email:

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