CEO of Chroma Technology, Paul Millman. Photo: Dake Kondracki.
Retires after 29 years as CEO of Chroma Technology in Bellows Falls
by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine The Age of the Cowboy Entrepreneur may have come to the end of its trail; Paul Millman retired as CEO of Chroma Technology at the end of April.
An iconoclast and a socialist, Millman was one of the founders of Chroma in Bellows Falls. He was the company's public face and creator-of-culture from its inception as an employee-owned optical filter start-up 29 years ago to the internationally respected $34.5 million manufacturing powerhouse it is today.
He's definitely a cowboy capitalist, although he would prefer the word “pirate.” He'll settle for “oddball.”
“I'm really proud to be part of a long line of oddball businessmen in the state of Vermont,” Millman told me recently. “I like being a part of a group of people who didn't fit the mold. They didn't fit what the world thinks of a CEO, whether it was a president, CEO, owner or founder. There's a lot of Vermonters who have created incredible companies. Some got sold, but not most, and I'm proud to be part of that group: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Alan Newman, Will Raap, Don Mayer. I may not know all of them, but I know that they exist.”
Millman will be followed as CEO by Chroma's current Chief Financial Officer, Newell Lessell. Chroma's current Chief Technology Officer, Janette Bombardier, will add the role of Chief Operating Officer to her responsibilities.
Millman possesses an unusual combination of character traits.
He's brash. He's funny. He's outspoken. He's gregarious. He understands business, especially sales. He's a world traveler with a vast catalog of drinking stories and a penchant for Singapore Airlines.
“It's sexist because they still call women who work on the plane stewardesses; they're all stunningly beautiful; I think you have to be in order to get the job. They have men they call stewards and they're all very handsome. They're all multi-ethnic, the food is great and they treat me great.”
He's an unrepentant socialist, yet he believes socialism only furthers sales. He wears his heart on his sleeve for Chroma.
He may be a flame-throwing iconoclast, but Millman has found a way to influence the heart of Vermont's conservative business establishment.
He was a director on the Vermont Business Roundtable for more than 10 years. He served on the Healthcare Financing Business Advisory Council that former Governor Peter Shumlin put together when he was exploring single-payer health care. He's been on the board of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. He's been chair of the Vermont Employee-Ownership Center. He's on the board of ValleyNet. He served as the president of the Westminster Fire and Rescue Assoc.
In 2016, Millman received the Terry Ehrich Award for Excellence in Socially Responsible Business from VBSR.
“When I look at the people who got that award before me, and after me, they're a pretty impressive group of people,” he said. “And they're all still active. They all still care. So I'm very proud to be part of that.”
Recently retired as CEO of Chroma Technology, Paul Millman, in front of a spring snow. Photo: Randolph T Holhut
Millman was “the entrepreneurial passion of Chroma,” Lessell said.
“That was the key role he played,” Lessell continued. “He had a total commitment to two things: the customers and the employees. He wanted Chroma to be a model employer and the best filter company in the world. I think he succeeded. He had partners, but he brought the passion. We went from a small job shop doing a lot of customer work to a world leader doing a lot of high volume work. We've evolved as a company and I believe we'll continue to evolve that way. Paul held the company to a very high standard as to how we treated the workforce and meeting the customers' expectations. He pushed us beyond our capabilities to do that. From my perspective, both of those were top priorities, and I intend to maintain them.”
Founded in 1991, Chroma manufactures optical filters for the scientific, biomedical, photonics and imaging industries.
“An optical filter takes light and breaks it into its component colors,” Millman explained to me. “There are scientific tests dependent on seeing the fluorescence of something. Sometimes they use our filters at zero degrees. Sometimes they’re tilted. Sometimes they’re bigger. Sometimes they’re smaller. Sometimes they go into a robot. Sometimes they go into a microscope. They’re all optical filters.”
Chroma has offices in Bellows Falls, Burlington, Yokohama, Xiamen City in China, and Olching, a town just outside of Munich, Germany.
“Because our customers are there,” Millman said.
A Chroma subsidiary, 89 North in Burlington, makes illumination, advanced imaging and emission systems.
Chroma employs approximately 155 people and last year posted $34.5 million in sales. This year, as the scientific community ramps up its search for tests and vaccines against the novel COVID-19 virus, sales will be much higher.
A former bartender and salesman, Millman created the perfect job for himself at Chroma.
Essentially, he roamed the world drumming up business and servicing customers.
“My job was to make Chroma famous,” he jokes.
He regularly traveled to Germany, Singapore, China and Japan, with stops along the way in Israel, England, India, Eastern Europe and Korea.
“We have a fast growing business in Korea,” Millman said.
Bartending was good preparation for the people-oriented Millman.
“Bartenders listen to stories and tell stories,” Millman explained. “I use stories as a way of selling. Both jobs involve hanging out with people. Having rapport with customers is essential. This is a way of business I learned early on and it eventually made me successful at Chroma. When I travel for Chroma, I feel I am visiting friends. But of course, they are customers.”
At 73, Millman is nothing if not entertaining. In another lifetime, he could be a great second lead in a Martin Scorsese movie, except that he's Brooklyn Jewish instead of Mulberry Street Italian.
He comes out of the same milieu as Bernie Sanders, but while Sanders is a Roosevelt Democrat, Millman is what was once called a Red Diaper Baby — someone born in the Communist era and raised on Marxist thought.
These teachings have stuck with him all of his life, which is why founding and succeeding with an employee-owned, socially responsible company means so much to him.
“I'm proud of creating a company where wealth is shared,” Millman said. “I think Lou Gehrig said he was the luckiest guy in the world. Well, maybe he was. But I am too, because I actually got to put into practice the things that I was born to believe in. And I got to show that it works. In spite of what my uncle said.”
I know you're wondering, so what did his uncle say?
“Many years ago, when my mother was still alive, I took her down to Florida to visit with my aunt and uncle,” Millman said. “Chroma was, I don't know, four or five years old, and we were just obviously going to become successful. And my uncle said, 'You're a schmuck.' And I said, 'What?' He said, 'You're a schmuck.' And I said, 'Why am I a schmuck?' And he said, 'Because you gave away the company,' meaning that the employees got to own it. So in spite of the fact that he thinks I'm a schmuck, I like it.”
Some of the other words used to describe Millman are “fascinating, intelligent, provocative and outspoken.”
They came from recently retired Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell, who served with Millman on the Vermont Business Roundtable.
“He's a man with a big heart,” Powell said. “I'll always remember when I visited him at Chroma. I loved seeing Paul as an entrepreneur and business leader. He has a lot of the qualities that I routinely admire in successful business people. He was scrappy. He had a lot of grit. He had a lot of passion for people. He cares about the people he works with. He was a real leader in a B Corp-style of leadership. Chroma brings a lot of precision and quality to what they do. They have a passion to bring solutions. And Paul built a successful Vermont company. I want to celebrate those who do that.”
Vermont's economic guru is David Coates, a retired accountant and an economic advisor to five governors. Coates may be his conservative opposite, but he says that only makes conversations with Millman more interesting. His respect for Millman is enormous.
“Paul and I met through the Vermont Business Roundtable,” Coates said. “Some things we don't agree on. But we discuss them rationally. I really like the guy. He's in your face. I've seen him get in two governors' faces. He questions these governors about various things, about whether they have the commitment and funding so we can have good strong schools in Vermont. Now he's passionate about pre-K education.”
Coates said he agreed with Millman about the importance of early education, but he would choose to fund it incrementally. Millman wants to take a quick dive into the deep end.
“He'd like it all at once, and that's kind of the way he is,” Coates said.
The pair have clashed — not about having a single-payer health care system but on how to fund it.
“I disagree with him on single-payer because we can't afford it,” Coates said. “I chaired the task force on that for the state of Vermont. I feel the government can't usually do things that great. I'd rather see the private sector handle health insurance. Shumlin is one of those governors whose face he got in.”
The odd couple also agreed on solutions for Vermont's serious unfunded pension liabilities problem.
“He came up to me after my first presentation on Vermont's unfunded pension liabilities,” Coates said. “And he said, 'David, I don't disagree with you.' It surprised the dickens out of me. I thought he would be just the opposite. So I asked him, 'What you do for your people?' And it turns out that Chroma has more benefits than probably any company in Vermont, large or smaller than his. It's expensive, but it's worth it if you can afford it.”
Millman “punches above his weight,” Coates said.
“I consider Paul a friend, even though he's a tough guy,” Coates said. “He was a huge promoter of helping the victims of Tropical Storm Irene. He and I were tied to the hip about that. He gave a lot of his time, and he was generous with his money and all of those other good things. That's part of that social responsibility concern he has. That's Paul. But he really likes to fight for the little guy. That passion? I think he was born with that.”
Millman's views have challenged the world of Vermont business, said Vermont Business Roundtable President Lisa Ventriss.
“He came to the organization, maybe, as a skeptic, but I think the mission-focused work really appealed to him because he's got that heart,” Ventriss said. “Over time, he really became one of my most passionate members. The organization plays a unique role as a convener of big thinkers and opinion-shapers. We provide a place for people to come together and try and solve business problems, but we're also looking at problems the state has. How do we make high-quality childcare available for working families? How do we get the state into that because we felt it's an economic imperative? There was a definite place for Paul and he's been great to work with.”
Millman is not a fan of conventional wisdom, Ventriss said.
“Part of what he has done is challenge the members' opinions and perspectives on issues,” Ventriss said. “He's among the more progressive politically. We have people from the far left and far right and it's a wonderful mix of views. But Paul is a passionate advocate for his priorities, especially the early childhood initiative. He brings that kind of care and nurturing to his relationships with people. He's been provocative around where he believes the state should be investing its resources, so he's suggesting those dollars should go to early childhood rather than business recruitment and retention. His view is that if we create a system that provides that kind of care for working families, that is a recruitment strategy.”
Millman helped shape the Roundtable's policy agenda and its messaging, Ventriss said.
“Even in light of the fact that he's retiring, he continues to be participatory,” she said. “He's one of those guys who shows up, the lights are on and he's ready to go. He's engaged and active. He's definitely opinionated. But he's a softy. He's a very kindhearted guy. He's pretty tireless. When he gets involved in something, he will stay with it. He can be trusted to speak the truth all the time, even if it's hard to hear. I consider him to be a very good friend and loyal member.”
According to Millman, the Vermont Business Roundtable may be one of the most humane of its kind in the country.
“The Roundtable is, amazingly, wonderfully involved in trying to protect the least-paid workers in the state,” he said. “That's quite a remarkable thing.”
Last year, he pointed out, the national organization, Business Roundtable, which is composed of 180 heads of the very biggest U.S. companies such as 3M, Aflac and Amazon, recognized for the first time that shareholder value is not the only purpose of a corporation. Also important, it finally decided, are customers, employees, suppliers and communities.
“And all of a sudden they were thinking about things that we've been thinking about for a long time,” Millman said. “VBSR, as an organization of progressive businesspeople, does an amazingly good job at that. But I think in my time in business and politics in the state of Vermont, we've become more caring. We've become more open to the idea that business should be more than just making money. And I love that, you know. That change is something I feel proud to have been a part of. And it continues.”
If there's a downside to Millman, it's that he is sometimes difficult to deal with.
He freely admits it.
“I am not the most tolerant person with my colleagues,” Millman said. “I'm impatient. I want people to know things by osmosis. On more than one occasion, I have crossed somebody in a way that, at the time, I didn't understand. I didn't understand that I couldn't expect people to know what was in my head. And I expected everybody to understand everything. That's not possible. Call it unconscious disrespect?”
He thinks some people find him intimidating.
“I don't always guard what I say,” he said. “And sometimes that freaks people out. I don't wish to be intimidating, but it's who I am. It's impatience, generally. So I have not always been the greatest manager. I think I am a pretty good leader, but I'm not the greatest manager. I still think I'm better off imagining the company than I am managing the company.”
Millman's long-time assistant, Kate Guerrina, left his employ last year.
“Kate was one of those people who suffered from me,” Millman said. “She was my friend and we adored each other, but I was tough on her.”
I located Guerrina at Concepts NREC, where she is now their marketing manager. I asked her why she stopped working for Millman.
“I stepped away from Chroma to take the opportunity to support another Vermont-based, B2B manufacturer,” Guerrina said. “As it happens, they are an employee-owned company, and with a strikingly similar business profile to Chroma, but in a different industry altogether. It was a smooth transition.”
Guerrina said she learned a lot by working so closely with Millman over 20 years.
“Let’s start by saying I had to laugh when I saw the national responses to Bernie Sanders’ speech style after the Democratic debate last August,” Guerrina said. “People said Bernie sounded angry. He didn’t have to yell. And all the Jewish families from Brooklyn yelled back 'WE’RE NOT ANGRY. THIS IS JUST HOW WE TALK.'”
Millman is fierce in his alliances and values, Guerrina said.
“Over the last 30 years, he has cultivated customer relationships into enduring friendships and remained committed to the employee-owned structure for Chroma when others said to sell. He’s confident and determined, and as evidenced over the last three decades, he cares deeply about the success of Chroma, it’s customers and each of the employee owners and their families. Paul has always had a way of bringing people together for a cause, whether it was protesting social justice issues in the '60's, rallying employees to make a manufacturing deadline, or gathering legislative support for Vermont families for marriage equality and healthcare. I’m looking forward to seeing where he puts his energy next.”
Dimitri Garder is the CEO of Bennington's Global-Z International, a data management company.
He met Millman when Shumlin appointed them both to the healthcare council.
Later, Millman recruited Garder to the Vermont Business Roundtable.
Garder regards Millman as a mentor and said his views “have changed the way I think about my own business and my life.”
“Paul is an astute businessperson who has an honest understanding of his strengths and weaknesses,” Garder said. “He is a superb communicator and is skilled at challenging assumptions and conventional thinking. I believe that a great deal of his success comes from his willingness to look at tough problems from an unconventional perspective, and to bring enthusiasm, creativity and persistence to the most challenging issues. Paul is a person of great integrity and ethical values. He believes profoundly in the worth of individuals and in the principle of economic fairness for all. He’s not ideologically rigid but holds his views with passion and honesty. His views have evolved over time, and he has the type of balanced perspective that most of us spend our entire careers trying to develop.”
Garder said he did not see a contradiction between capitalism and Millman's belief in social and economic justice.
“Paul has leveraged the strengths of both of those systems to the advantage of Chroma, its customers and its employees,” Garder said. “The primary structural difference between an employee-owned company and a more traditionally structured private business is to whom the economic benefits accrue. Rather than benefits accruing to private investors, Chroma’s economic gains accrue to its employees. Through that model, Paul and his partners have implemented a successful business that aligns with his world view. I do think this is rare, although not totally unique.”
Vermont has a strong tradition of employee-owned businesses, many of whom are viewed as leaders nationally in promoting models of employee ownership.
“In the current crisis that we’re facing with the coronavirus pandemic, many business leaders are rethinking their views on the balance between investors, customers, employees and community,” Garder said. “They are facing uncertainty over whether the current balance is sustainable, or even whether it’s based on sound moral and ethical principles. My belief and hope are that on the other side of this crisis, more people will approach business the way Paul does. Rather than approach business as extractive, Paul approaches business as an additive and an integral part of a highly functioning society.”
Millman has managed to make the Vermont business biome respect his principles, Garder said.
“What I value most about Paul is his integrity, and his willingness to challenge status quo,” Garder said. “As an example, during his tenure as a board member of the Vermont Business Roundtable, Paul routinely challenged conventional thinking on the toughest issues that the group faced. His knowledge, passion and honesty were viewed by the group as strengths, and at the end of annual meetings when the microphone was passed around for perspectives, members often called for Paul to share his views. Not everyone always agreed with everything he said, but almost everyone agreed with some of what he said. Above all, they respected his views and his passion to share them. After his board term expired, the board has found that others are needed to step up and play that role in order to keep the thinking diverse, creative and dynamic. The Vermont business community has been tremendously fortunate to have Paul as an ally and a leader, and he has made a lasting contribution to our state.”
Millman was born in 1947 and grew up in New York City public housing. His father, Sidney Millman, was both a high school social studies teacher and an antiquarian book dealer.
He taught at Midwood High School in Brooklyn. His book business specialized in economics and sociology. He was a union representative.
“My mother, Evelyn, was a community activist,” Millman said. “She was president of the board of the United Community Center in East New York in Brooklyn. She tried to change the world. She lived in Brattleboro for the last 12 years of her life.”
Both of his parents were socialists.
“I was the eldest child of first generation Jewish socialists who taught me the value of hard work, to honor workers, and to strive for equality among people,” Millman said. “For me, employee-ownership is visceral.”
His younger brother, Jonathan, teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
Millman's first jobs were the urban equivalents of a newspaper route: delivering groceries and pizza.
Back then, New York City routinely gave schoolchildren passbooks and taught them about saving accounts and compound interest. Millman loved to save.
"It wasn't like I saved a lot of money, but I saved," Millman said. "I loved the end of the day, after delivering groceries, and having change in my pocket. It was a great feeling. It occurred later on when I was a bartender. I'd go home at night with dollar bills in my pocket, and it was a great feeling. Those are two very memorable moments that were the same."
At Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Millman spent four years flipping burgers at the school grill to earn spending money.
"It was great," Millman said. "It was the social hub of the school. Also, I was hyperactive and I couldn't stand being in my room. So it was a great place to be. Hyperactivity does good things as well as bad things."
Millman left Antioch before getting his degree and went to New York. In January of 1968, he was part of the group that founded the underground newspaper Rat.
"For what it's worth, I interviewed John and Yoko when they were bedding in for peace in some hotel in Montreal," Millman said. "Then I moved to the Liberation News Service."
In 1969, he got a BA in the social sciences at the New School for Social Research in New York. He had no idea what he wanted to do.
Photo: Paul Millman at a Rolling Stones concert in northern California in 1969. Courtesy photo.
In 1970, Millman found himself tending bar in Portland, OR, and sharing a house with three roommates and a girlfriend. When it became clear that his housemates were moving on, he "decided to be an adult" – for the first of many times – and returned East to earn a graduate degree in teaching from Antioch College of New England in Keene, NH.
"I thought it may be a sign that I ought to do something and get a real job," Millman said. "Teaching was the only thing I could think of doing. But I didn't plan on staying in New England. I was intending to go back to Oregon. I applied for a license in Oregon and they said, 'You just think the degree's reciprocal, but you have to take all these courses in Oregon history.' I never went back."
Millman moved back to New York and started waiting on tables while he waited for a teaching job to open up.
The restaurant he chose to work at, the Horn of Plenty in Greenwich Village, trained him to be a bartender. It was love at first sight.
"My first day working was Mother's Day 1974, the busiest day of the year in the restaurant business," Millman said. "It was insane and I loved it. Bartenders have control in ways that almost nobody else does. When you're working, you're the master of that world. All sorts of interesting people come in, and you're multi-tasking, mixing drinks and talking and all at high speed. For me it was wonderful."
He eventually lost that job for "covering up for another employee," then taught in a day care center, then moved on to Public School 147 in Williamsburg (Brooklyn).
"There had just been a court ruling and they had to provide educational programs for emotionally handicapped children," Millman said. "They went on a hiring binge. I had no training in that area, but I got hired. Unfortunately, the next year New York City went broke so we all got laid off. That was the last time I taught."
Friends who imported Indian wall hangings put him on as a salesman.
When that business failed, he started selling brass beds.
When he was fired from that, he sold imported knickknacks for a while.
Then friends from Students for a Democratic Society offered him a job at a new start-up.
"We were switching into capitalism because we needed to earn money," he said. "We needed to live."
While waiting for the company to open, Millman got a job tending bar at the Sky Dive, a restaurant and bar on the 44th floor of the World Trade Center.
Once again, he loved the work.
"It was great," he said. "I came home every week with $600 or $700 in cash. Once again I have this pocket full of change, I have three-day weekends, AIDS has not yet become apparent to the heterosexual community. I'm 33 years old and I'm a bartender and I'm having a fabulous time."
In due course, Millman again was fired.
"And the business we were going to start never emerged," he said. "At this point I'm 37. So I went from bartending jobs to waiting jobs to bartending jobs for the next three years. Every year a new crop of actors come to New York, and so a new crop of waiters comes to New York – because actors wait on tables. Every year the waiters were getting younger and I was getting older. And I would say, 'I don't belong here anymore. I'm getting too old.’"
His last New York job was managing the famous Blue Note jazz club.
Photo: Paul Millman in 1982 where he was working as a bartender at the Skydive Bar in the World Trade Center, NY. Courtesy photo.
"It was awful," Millman said. "More often than not it wasn't jazz but fusion or pop jazz like Billy Eckstein or Phyllis Heymans. All of them were great, but after the second night of hearing the exact same words? Rest his soul, he's now dead, but Mr Eckstein would say the same thing about Mel Torme every night. Every night he called him the 'velvet frog' because he hated him. He thought he should have gotten the fame that Mel Torme got. After the second night of two sets, you'd heard it all. It was sort of a dead end."
Coming To Vermont
In 1987, Millman was 40. He wanted to relocate close to aging parents, so he drew a circle on a map. He explored Raleigh, NC, Chicago and Louisville, KY.
Then he went up to Brattleboro because his cousin lived in Newfane. He loved it from the start.
"I said, 'I know this place’," Millman said. "'It's like Yellow Springs. I'll stay here.' I started looking for restaurant jobs but the good ones were taken."
As a last resort he went to the state employment office.
"Nobody I ever knew had found a job at the state employment office," Millman said. "But I talked to this guy, and I'm literally walking out the door when he said, 'I see you have sales experience. Have you ever sold a product you thought was worthwhile?' I said 'No.' He said, 'Would you like to try?' I said, 'I'll take any job.' He said, 'Call these people at Omega Optical’."
Omega Optical made scientific filers. When Millman called for an interview, he apologized because he didn't have business clothes. They told him to just "look neat," so he ironed his jeans.
"I went to this church and got escorted to a choir loft by these hippies who weren't wearing shoes," Millman said. "And I'm worried about not having a tie? So I get interviewed by everybody, and it was Memorial Day weekend, my brother was visiting, we were all at my cousin's, and I get a call saying, 'We'd like you to come and work with us for $8 an hour.' I said 'Huh?' I never heard of a sales job that was hourly, and I hadn't made $8 an hour since graduate school. I said, 'I don't think I can do this’."
Millman's brother pointed out that Omega was offering to pay him to spend a summer in Vermont; he could go back to New York in the fall. Then Robert Johnson, the founder and owner of Omega, called and offered him $9 an hour.
"No one had ever been offered $9 an hour to start," Millman said. "I said, 'Fine.' My attitude was I was going to stay until the fall and then move on. I didn't know where."
It took Millman time to learn the business.
"I started answering telephones and talking to customers and not understanding what they were talking about, and asking questions and relaying answers and probably giving terrible advice, who knows?" Millman said. "Around Labor Day I went back to New York for a visit. And I was driving back north and all of a sudden I said, 'Vermont feels like home.' That's when I decided to stay."
Slowly, as he began to understand the optical business, he became a good salesman.
"I began to understand what their customers wanted," Millman said. "My attitude towards sales was customer service. You make it so you have something that somebody needs, and you service it properly. Then they'll buy it."
About three years later, Millman was fired for insubordination.
"Bob Johnson hired somebody to be our boss who had no experience in the industry," Millman said. "And he paid him exorbitantly more than he was paying the rest of us. It created a difficult work situation because we were doing the work and he was getting the money. Ultimately, the conflict was too big and Bob Johnson fired me."
At the time, when VBM asked Johnson about this, he said it was his belief that Millman wanted to get fired.
"He was terminated for disobedience of his sales manager," Johnson said. "But it was pretty clear that it was an intentional act. There were repeated acts of not following the direction of his supervisor."
Obviously, being out of a job was nothing new to Millman. He reacted with equanimity, applying for a job with Ben & Jerry's. The job title was “director of euphoria.”
"It was a job I could do," Millman said.
But things were starting to happen at Omega.
Production manager Dick Stewart resigned, partly to protest Millman's firing and partly to consider starting a competing company.
Soon six former Omega employees were talking about it.
Besides Millman and Stewart, there was Wendy Cross from customer service, machinery manager Frank Kebbell and filter designers Jay Reichman and Wim Auer.
These became the six founders of Chroma. Only three are still working.
Photo: Aerial of Chroma Technology. Courtesy photo.
"Five men and one woman," Millman said. "One of the original ideas for a name of this company, which was a joke but I think we should have done it, was Peter Pan Optical, for Wendy and five boys who refused to grow up." (Millman later began a personal relationship with Cross that recently ended.)
These rebels with a cause started with $180,000 and 2,800 square feet at Cotton Mill Hill, Brattleboro's business incubator.
"Nobody had money, but I had savings," Millman said. "I said I'll rent the space for five months, and if it doesn't work, then I lose the money. Big deal. We were going to make optical filters. Omega made optical filters. We thought we could make them better, and we did. I knew the business, I knew the customers, I had been the only salesman there. It wasn't my fault I got fired. I didn't want to be fired. So we started gathering equipment and building the space. There wasn't even a door from the outside to the building, we had to build the door. We bought used equipment."
Chroma’s products were initially sold to scientists who attached the filters to microscopes for their research, but as Millman explains it, “We moved from supplying end users to manufacturers of microscopes and other biotech equipment. This was taking place in the 1990s at the beginning of a bio-technology revolution.”
Chroma did compete with Omega in the beginning; in fact, it outbid Omega and several other optical companies to get its very first customer.
In 1995, Omega retaliated by filing a $20-million lawsuit against Chroma, accusing it of stealing trade secrets.
Chroma successfully defended itself, but not until it had spent more than $2.5 million in legal fees.
Omega is no longer Chroma's chief competitor.
“There are other companies from this world, very significant companies owned by very big companies, that do incredibly good work, that I see as competition,” Millman said. “We're all trying to cut into everybody else's business.”
Millman’s role in sales and shaping the company culture continued as Chroma grew over the years.
In its first year, the company had sales of approximately $318,000. In 2019 the total was $34.5 million.
Employee count grew from about a dozen at the end of 1991 to 155 worldwide, most in the Bellows Falls facility.
Chroma moved there in 2003, then doubled its space in 2017.
Chroma acquired 89 North after a failed attempt to acquire a different company out West.
“At the very last minute, the deal fell through,” Millman said. “I was hungry to diversify, because our work was pretty niche oriented. I wanted to set up a company that was more involved in instrument manufacturing.”
Chroma, including 89 North, has been employee-owned from the beginning. Everyone who works for Chroma is a shareholder in the parent company,
“Social justice is integral to the worker-owned concept at Chroma,” Millman said. “Under its unique structure, Chroma profits are equally shared by workers in all job categories.”
Over the years, salary structures have changed.
“At least it is objective in the way it gives raises,” Millman said. “So if there's a $2,000 raise, everybody gets the $2,000 raise. If it's a 5 percent raise, everybody gets the 5 percent raise. In other companies, people working next to each other might have different salaries because they get different raises. That was a completely forbidden idea from my perspective. So I'm proud of our salary structure.”
Chroma employees have a say in how the company is run.
Ribbon Cutting at Chroma Technology in November 2018, with Senator Patrick Leahy and Governor Phil Scott. Courtesy photos.
“I'm also proud of the fact that that people who work at Chroma feel entitled to participate in how Chroma should work,” Millman said. “I'm proud of the fact that we have, relatively speaking, a minimalist management structure. People take responsibility. And as a work group they can set their schedules. They don't need a manager to come in and say, 'Here's the schedule.' They don't need a manager to come in and say, 'This is what you should do today.' Because they have a broad understanding of everything else that's going on in the company and how they fit into that. So they know what they have to do that day, because it has to feed somebody else.”
Millman's ideas have been challenged, even at Chroma.
“We had a CFO at the time who wanted to experiment with other salary structures besides the one we had at Chroma,” Millman said. “He wanted to show that we'd be better off with a salary structure that rewarded skills, or a salary structure that rewarded great work. Something like that. And these are things that I have a hard time with. I understand a salary structure that's more market oriented, but I have a real hard time with the idea of a merit-based salary structure.”
What is the problem with a merit-based salary structure?
“When it comes to the idea that somebody makes that judgment, I believe you enter into the world of subjectivism,” Millman said. “All sorts of things enter into the picture at that time. Do I like that guy? Does that guy kiss my ass? Therefore, I'm going to favor him. I've worked in places where that's how you did it, and I hated it. So what we've tried to do is to create a salary structure that's as objective as possible. And I think we succeeded, mostly. I'd like to believe that it's going to survive into the future, but I've already heard rumblings of merit-based raises.”
Millman said one of his proudest days at Chroma came when he learned that one of his employees was buying a house.
“And this was not somebody who ever expected to be able to buy a house,” Millman said. “And Wendy pointed out to me that this was happening, and that it was happening because of what we've created. And that was a moment of great pride and satisfaction.”
Another moment of pride came in Chroma's early days, when the company developed a lens that helped advance the war on cancer.
“There was a researcher out in Los Angeles who was developing a treatment for breast cancer,” Millman said. “He was studying breast tissue from — if I remember correctly — Australia. He needed to be able to look at the cancer, which was stained red on the background of tissue. But that was also red. He needed to be able to separate the cancer out. We made filter set, after filter set, after filter set for him, for free. We made it until we got the right one. And so we helped, you know, cure that kind of cancer. We didn't make the medicine. But we gave this guy — who also didn't make the medicine — the tool to do that.”
One of the hardest times for the company came when it lost a large customer in 2012-13.
“So we were flat for about three years,” Millman said. “But we've consistently grown since then. Does that mean that our competitors haven't taken some of our business? Yeah, they have. Partly because we could not always satisfy customers as rapidly as they wanted to — because we were trying to satisfy everybody. So our competitors stepped in and took some of our business. But it was more than made up for by other business.”
Because of its generous benefits package, Chroma does not have a difficult time recruiting workers, Millman said. But that doesn't mean they recruit from Windham County.
“We have people that drive four days a week from the Boston area,” he said. “And we have people from all the other parts of Massachusetts. We have people from as far north in Vermont as Norwich. We have people coming from places in New Hampshire. We had somebody who left because his family did not want to relocate to Vermont from the Boston area. He got a job there with a very good company, but came back and now he commutes. We can recruit when there are people to recruit. We have an easy time getting people to apply. We don't have always have an easy time these days, getting people with either the skills or the attitude that we want.”
Attitude is as important to Chroma as high level skills.
“We can teach some skills,” Millman said. “Where we have a really hard time is higher level skills, engineering skills, management skills, because they're not floating around the county. And it's going to get harder. According to statistics the Dept. of Labor sent out, Windham County is going to lose something like 20 percent of its workforce by 2030. To retirement. And they're not coming in to replace them. For all the best of intentions, none of the programs that are designed to bring people into rural communities will work.”
The problem, Millman insists, is that a rural life holds no attraction for younger people now; they want to live in cities.
“I read an article about a town in Texas that was doing all the great stuff that Vermont does,” Millman said. “They're paving the railroad tracks so that people can bicycle. They're creating paths for people to walk. They're having parks for dogs. They're having other parks for babies with mothers, and things of that sort. And they still can't attract people. Everybody's trying to make the quality of life better. The fact is, it's the market that tells you where people go, and they ain't going rural now, and that's a real problem. They don't want to drive cars. They don't give a hoot about cars. In the world that I grew up in — and I wasn't a big crazy car person — but I knew that I wanted a car. They want entertainment, they want culture. I can't say I blame them for that. They want to live in a city. I understand it.”
Social mores may change again with the COVID-19 virus, of course.
“Maybe nobody's going to hang out anymore,” Millman said. “Maybe the way business is done will change. Some years ago, at a Vermont Business Roundtable membership meeting, there was a young woman who talked about the company that she created in Burlington. They do projects. And the projects may have one group in San Jose and one group in Portland, and one group in Vermont. And they work together on a project. They're not owned by the same company. They are independent of each other, but they coalesce around a project. It's a different way of working. I couldn't do it, but it's impressive. I don't think we could do it in a manufacturing environment.”
Around The World
To the best of his knowledge, Millman believes he may be the only bartender roaming the world selling optical filters to people he calls friends.
“I have to pretend that I don't have an ego, OK?” he said. “But to the best of my knowledge, there isn't anybody. There aren't others who perceive their work the way I perceive my work, and who bop around the world being with people.”
“Bopping” around the world often involves hard liquor, Millman said. He shared a story.
“So one time I was in China, at a large optics exhibit in Shenzhen,” he said. “And we were going out to dinner with the engineers and the purchasing staff of a large customer. We're sitting up at this big round table. And the CEO of the company came over. He and his brother are both CEOs. One is the outside guy and one's the inside guy. Of course I appreciate that because that's how I think things ought to be.”
The CEO said his guests had not shown up and asked if he could join them.
“We had a great dinner,” Millman said. “And then at the end, he said he wanted to pay the check. And I said he can't. I said, 'We invited your staff to dinner so it's our dinner.' He said, 'After, we'll retire to an Irish pub.' An Irish pub in Shenzhen, right? It happens to have an Irish bartender, right? In China you can buy alcohol by the bottle. There were maybe seven of us from his team and three from our team. I don't remember exactly. He bought a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. He got a pitcher with ice and water in it. He poured about a quarter of the bottle of Johnnie Walker Black into the pitcher with ice in it and gave it to everybody else. And he and I proceeded to drink the rest of the Johnnie Walker Black. And then he bought another bottle of Johnny Walker Black, poured another quarter of it into that pitcher with ice for everybody else, and he and I proceeded to drink the rest of that bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. Because in China, drinking is a competitive sport among business leaders. I won. But I didn't feel great the next day.”
How can a person drink so much liquor at one sitting?
“It may be a Jewish secret,” he said, laughing. “I've read this, but I also may be making it up. That there's a Jewish gene that stops the metabolizing of alcohol. And so you just piss it away. You get just so drunk and that's it. Now, is that true? I don't know if it's true. I believe it's true. So I act accordingly.”
Lenses In The Time Of Plague
Last month, at the heart of the COVID-19 virus pandemic, Chroma faced an unprecedented call for its products. Meeting the onslaught of demands caused it to work flat out.
“PCR, or Polymerase Chain Reaction, is the primary instrument for testing this virus,” Millman said. “There are variants on the theme, having to do with imaging, quantitativeness and automation, but PCR is the umbrella technology. The demand for that instrument has grown dramatically. The demands on the part of the companies that make that instrument have grown dramatically. And the demands on us, by those companies, have increased dramatically just the last three weeks.”
In laboratories around the world, scientists are working to find vaccines.
“One company we make lenses for got an order last Friday for close to a million dollars,” Millman said. “That company needs to build these machines as fast as they possibly can do it. And we got notified — we got a questionnaire yesterday that said — 'Can you supply us? Can you continue to supply us on time when we increase our volume? When we double our volume? So we are sitting in the position of having to supply these systems, these companies that make these systems, and they have the highest priority. We also have other customers, but these have the highest priority right now.”
How does Chroma ramp up manufacturing when people need to maintain a six-foot distance between themselves and the rest of the world?
“We have the most bizarre scheduling I’ve ever imagined,” Millman said. “And they’ve done an incredibly good job. In all the departments that we have, we can work at any given moment with half the number of people. We’ll able to continue manufacturing even with the shutdown. We’re going to put some more people on, but mostly we’re just doing it with creative shifts and creative scheduling. ”
In terms of dollars, Millman estimated that the COIVD-19 virus will add about $2 million more to the bottom line.
“So, if last year we shipped $34.5 million, this year we’ll ship closer to $38 million, or maybe even $39 million,” he said. “And this has been just in the last two weeks. Our shipments over last year’s are over 10 percent higher. But they will be higher than that in order to meet the demand. I don’t think we’re the only company that’s experiencing this. I think that anybody who is in the medical field, with those kind of customers, is experiencing this.”
Is COVID-19 the last of these strange bugs?
“No it's not,” Millman said. “The world has to be better prepared to diagnose it faster. I mean, we know that one of the problems was we didn't have the instruments to diagnose people as rapidly as we needed to be diagnosed. So we couldn't isolate the people who were sick already because we didn't know who they were.”
Millman's departure from Chroma was more muted than one would expect. No celebrations, no parties, no water pitchers of Johnny Walker Black and ice. Because of the quarantine, Millman had to stay at home for most of April. He quietly faded away.
“There was supposed to be a company BBQ and retirement party, but it was canceled,” Millman said. “There is supposed to be a 30th anniversary and retirement party but I don't know when it will be. I will have a series of parties in the countries where I do most of my work. But I went to Chroma on Wednesday for an emergency meeting, which I joined from my office. Other than that situation, and occasional phone calls with Newell, I'm effectively retired.”
Millman likes living in Brattleboro, but he, too, is drawn to cities.
“Brattleboro is getting to be, you know, OK,” he said. “It has restaurants, some of which go out of business periodically, and others stay very healthily in business. And Brattleboro certainly is an interesting town. But I really think I want to be in the city. I've been saying it long enough, so it must be true, right? I grew up in a city and I like that way of life. I like being able to walk places and such. Certainly you can walk to places in Brattleboro. But it's not the same.”
Millman doesn't think he wants to return to New York.
“I'm not sure that I can live in New York anymore,” he said. “I visit New York and I can see that you lose something when you leave it. You lose the ability to have eyes in the back of your head.”
The new virus and the need to quarantine have made it “incredibly obvious” that Vermont needs a family leave policy, Millman said.
“We need more than just lip service,” Millman said. “And we don't need it to be a privatized system, which is what our governor and the governor in that state next door to us want to do. They want to have a voluntary program where the individual workers’ pay into it. So that when they need paid time off, they can have it. But they've got to pay into it! With what? This man wants to know.”
Main Street Alliance has been leading the effort to get paid family leave and paid time off.
“The Legislature passed some not particularly wonderful programs for both of those things,” Millman said. “But I think that our experience now is making it crystal clear. If you don't have a decent security policy, then people go to work! So imagine if everybody who was sick went to work! It's insane. That there are still politicians that don't understand that absolutely flabbergasts me. I'm bewildered by that.”
Another issue that concerns him is pre-school education and childcare. He sees them as critical parts of workforce development.
“Some years ago I heard a presentation by Dave Finney, who was at that time president of Champlain College,” Millman said. “He spoke on the disparity in children's vocabulary, in their reading, in their math, when they are five years old. Some came from middle class families, and some came from upper class families. And some came from working class, or from poor families. And by the time they enter kindergarten, the kids from middle class and upper class families had twice the vocabulary — or three times the vocabulary. It was some incredible number. And they didn't catch up. I've been working with Let's Grow Kids on that. And the Vermont Business Roundtable? It's a big issue for them. We need people to go out to work and if they have to stay home because they can't afford childcare, what's the sense? So right before the virus thing took hold, we had the beginnings of a business committee to try to figure out how to finance universal childcare.”
Millman will remain on the board of ValleyNet.
“ValleyNet is an independent fiber company that is wiring the towns in the Upper Valley,” Millman said. “With any luck, they'll come down to southern Vermont, too. They created the model for town involvement in bringing fiber to communities which the big companies didn't wish to do. But I was willing to bet on this. Once they've done it, the big companies will pay a lot of money and buy them.”
Over the years, Millman has fielded many offers from companies that wanted to buy Chroma.
If the majority of the employees — as shareholders — decide they wanted to cash out, the company could be sold for a great deal of money.
Millman shudders at the thought.
“Chroma could sell for a fortune,” Millman said. “It has not yet been a possibility. But I don't predict the future. I get a lot of inquiries from companies, and some of them are in our industry, and they're really reputable companies, and I know the people, and they really good people, and some of them actually would like to buy and hold us. That's opposed to typical venture capital people who buy and build up value and then sell. And the way they build the value is they get rid of employees.”
There might come a day when Chroma will need to sell itself. One of the possible reasons might be growth.
“If we can't manage growth, then maybe we need to ally ourselves with another company,” Millman said. “This is not necessarily something that other people think about, but it's part of my fantasy about empires. If allying us with another company could make us a giant company, that would be fun too.”
This is a bittersweet time for Millman. He has struggled with the decision to retire. He feels changes coming at the company he's devoted himself to, heart and soul, and is not sure he likes what he sees coming.
Yet he's 73 years old.
I sensed that he was telling himself he's doing the right thing by leaving now.
“The days when it was completely joyous for me are gone,” he said. “Even when we got sued, it was still completely joyous. Every day of the trial I had a great time. I wasn't allowed to go to trial every day, but the days that I went, I had a great time. And I still want to be a pirate. That's exactly right. I still want to be a pirate.”
Once the virus crisis abates, Millman will visit friends in Portland, Oregon, a town he loves. Then he's coming back to Vermont to figure out the rest of his life.
“I just want to put distance between me and Chroma,” Millman said. “I don't know that I want you to say this, but it's a love affair that's gone sour. A love affair that's gone on too long. How about that? You can't feel as intensely as I felt about that company and be willing to watch changes that reduce the intensity. I don't know that anybody else felt as intensely about that company as I did. And that doesn't mean that other people didn't feel intensely about the company.”
At the end of our interview, Millman shared what he called the biggest secret to his success.
“I say it's a trade secret and that's a joke because I say it out loud all the time,” he said. “The secret is customer service. The real secret is, is if your customers trust you, and they believe that you're going to do what you say you're going to do, and they believe that you're going to do it in the most fair way possible, then they stay with you. They come to you and they stay with you. It's gonna be very interesting to see how Chroma evolves over the next two or three years. I think I'd like to watch it from afar. Very far.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.