Mountain Made: Mills Manufacturing

Mills Manufacturing in Asheville, North Carolina. Mills Manufacturing is one of just a couple of companies in the country with the military contract for personnel parachutes. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

"It's what I've always wanted to do, since I was a young boy," said John Oswald before a slight pause, as a giant grin spread on his face.

"No, I had no idea!"

No idea that he would become president and CEO of Mills Manufacturing, one of just a couple of companies in the country with the military contract for personnel parachutes.

But that's not how the company began. It was founded by Oswald's grandfather-in-law, Ernie Mills, who at the time, had a different operation.

"They were originally making women's undergarments. Bras, corsets," Oswald said.

Then World War II came, and the military came calling, asking the New York-based manufacturer to help in the war effort.

"For WWII, we switched over and started making parachutes," Oswald said.

Then came the Korean War and a move to North Carolina to, as Oswald says, take advantage of nearby suppliers, real estate conditions and a skilled workforce.

"Like a lot of other manufacturers, we looked for space in the Southeast, and so we moved to the Southeast in 1952.

Asheville and Durham were the two locations that were the finalists.

"It was a nice cool, summer day, and so they decided on Asheville solely based on the weather that day, and we've been here since 1952," he said.

Mills Manufacturing remains a family business, currently in its third generation.

Oswald says that right now, there are about 130 employees--but he expects that number to change.

"The last couple of years has been quiet, but demand is really picking up, so we are working to put ourselves in a position for the increased demand that we know we have coming. So for the next 12-18 months, we can be looking at some significant growth," Oswald said. "We're looking to hire and grow our workforce, and so we're looking forward to that."

He says he's also proud of the diverse makeup of his employees.

"About a third of our workforce is native Western North Carolinians, a third of our workforce is eastern European, and then a third of our workforce (is) Hispanic, and we take a lot of pride in that," Oswald said.

It's one of the reasons why anyone who comes to the facility can find work instructions and documents written in a number of different languages.

The same is true for the company's mission posted on the walls.

"Our mission is building products that bring our troops safely to the ground, 100 percent of the time," Oswald said. "If they think about that and think about what we're trying to do, they keep that in mind, that keeps them focused on why we're doing what we do."

That statement is on the mind of Christy King, who says she has family members serving in the Navy.

"If I don't inspect this right, then someone can die," King said.

Oswald says currently, his employees are capable of producing about 400 parachute packs a month, though production has been as high as 1,000 a month.

"Then when you add all the different component items that we do as spare contracts, we're sending thousands of items out of here a month," Oswald said.

As challenging as it's been, it's also been rewarding.

The company received the 2018 Family Business of the Year Award from the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.

"It's been harder than I would have ever imagined, but then the opportunity is still great. And working with all these people, it's like, I wouldn't trade it," Oswald said.

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