Vance had arranged to meet me at Piccadilly train station in Manchester for a quick visit to familiarise myself with him and his setup at the Victorian Mill that served as his headquarters. As I climbed into the CRV I couldn't help but think that perhaps the Bentley was in for a service. On the way to his mill in Oldham I had to ask, "So, what do you normally drive?"He looked confused and paused for a moment to think before replying. "This."Was the one word answer. I left it at that.
As we drove from the train station to the mill it was clear to see that Vance was well known in Manchester. At traffic lights people dropped their windows to talk to him. We stopped for petrol and the cashier called him by his first name. Vance shook his hand to say goodbye and at least four cars flashed their lights or waved to us as we reboarded the CRV and left the garage. At this stage I realised I may be in for an interesting ride.
As we pulled into the Maple Mill car park, staff smiled and waved at Vance as though greeting a friend, not a boss. We stepped out of the Honda and proceeded into the mill and every member of staff we passed met him with a smile, a greeting - "Alright Vance?" and reached out to shake his hand warmly. If they were wary or afraid of him they were all hiding it well. I was beginning to wonder what happened to Vance Miller "The Kitchen Gangster" I had come to meet?
I sat on one of the deep , comfortable sofas in the reception area of his enormous open plan office on the top floor of the mill while he dealt with some urgent business, then after lunch Vance took me for a walk around what I can only describe as being the largest warehouse I ‘ve ever been in. We passed by aisle after aisle of of shelves stacked high with kitchen doors, cabinets, washing machines, sinks, taps, handles – you name it. If you have one in your kitchen then Vance had 100,000 of them. At this stage, contrary to a couple of garbled forum posts I'd read whilst researching Vance Miller's business, I knew that this was no scam operation. No one would invest in these levels of stock to operate a scam. It occurs to me that a team of ‘scamsters' would be hard pressed to empty this place in six months, so ‘Fly-by-night' is also probably one of the most inaccurate descriptions I've ever heard of his company.
Later that day Vance drove me back to the station and wished me farewell until our next scheduled meeting one week later. During my journey home I couldn't help but realise that perhaps this was not going to be the story I had thought I was going to write. It was only the first meeting but first impressions told me that maybe this was not the ruthless gangster I'd expected, out to make a quick buck; This was a genuine business man running a slick and professional operation.
My second meeting with Vance was scheduled to last three days. I arrived on Friday to spend the weekend with Vance and his family. This was when I got to know the real Vance Miller.
Vance's typical weekend starts on a Friday about 3:45pm when he picks his two boys up from school. Kent is 15 and Devon is 5. Accompanying Vance to collect the boys, I watched as both children hugged and kissed their father when they saw him and the smile on both their faces when they saw him would warm the heart of any proud father.
From school, we drove to the gym and as I had been previously warned to bring my gym kit, we all got changed and got started. As I feared, I was well out of condition. Even Devon outran me on the treadmill. Fitness is obviously very important to Vance and his enthusiasm has caught on with his whole family. The visit to the gym had obviously not been staged for my benefit. The boys knew their way round the equipment and there wasn't a single person in the place who didn't know Vance or the boys. Vance shook hands and had a cheery word with almost everyone in the place.
After a sauna and a shower, we drove to a house in Rochdale where we picked up Connor, a boy of 15 who was Kent's friend from school and then we continued on to Oldham where we picked up Caylum, another friend of Kent, aged 14. A quick motorway drive took us to Vance's house, an unexpectedly modest two bedroom lodge house inside the gates of a cemetery. I asked Vance how he had come to live in a cemetery and whether or not it bothered him. He replied with a grin,
"I've lived here for over twenty years. In all those twenty years I have never had a problem from any of those dead folk but there have been plenty of problems from the living"
I pressed him again "But why did you choose to live here?"
"It was fifty two grand and Kent's mum bought it many years ago. She pays about £200 per month mortgage on it so I now rent it from her for not much more than that. She's happy because the value of the house goes up all the time, and I'm happy because it's cheap to live here, so I've got no intentions of moving."
We all filed into the house and quickly packed the CRV with blankets and pillows and off we went, destination Wales. We drove for a couple of hours and arrived at a place called Aberdaron, passing through and it literally seemed like we had arrived at the end of the world. We finally stopped where the land met the sea, and there on a cliff top was the family caravan. It wasn't what I was expecting. Not some luxury 40 foot static caravan with electricity and running water, but a hobby touring caravan, no water or electricity attached. I began to wonder what was in store for me this weekend.
Quickly, all the boys jumped into action, showing their experience with their weekend holiday home. Caylum set up and cranked up the generator, Connor pulled out the canopy on the caravan while Kent built and lit a camp fire. I looked around for something to help with,
"Relax, leave ‘em to it" smiled Vance "They love doing all this"
Within fifteen minutes we were drinking mango juice and cooking gammon on the fire. I began to realise that I was going to enjoy this weekend with Vance and the boys.
By one in the morning we were all watered, fed and tucked up in our beds and I had time to reflect on how enjoyable this was turning out. Everyone told jokes and stories in the dark till one by one we had all drifted off to sleep.
The next morning it was 5 year old Devon who was first up and already outside chasing the sheep away. By 10am the bacon and eggs were in the pan sizzling. After a hearty breakfast we all jumped in the CRV and made our way down to the beach. Looking at a line of beach huts all stood in a row, neat and beautiful painted, I noticed one that stood slightly apart, a scruffy green corrugated hut that looked like it hadn't seen paint in fifty years. I was getting used to Vance's off-beat tastes now, and somehow I knew this was ours –and I was bang on the button. Sure enough, we emptied out of the CRV and to my amusement Vance and the boys made a beeline for it. They opened it up and pulled out beach chairs and old but clean and well maintained barbeque set and we set up base camp there for the day.
It was like going back in time to a day out as a kid. Lots of laughing and shouting and playing football on the beach.We even went hunting for golf balls in the shrubs that surrounded the golf course next door, which is probably technically illegal but I have to admit I joined in with the same relish as Vance and the boys. We barbecued, then played cricket and crazy golf. Towards evening, all of us were flushed with the exercise and sea air. The boys loved it and I have to admit that it was one of the best days I can ever remember at the beach. None of us stayed awake for long that night and I drifted off into a long, deep relaxed sleep.
We were all up early the next morning and ravenous for breakfast. We washed up and then it was down to the beach for a jog. To playful taunts and derision from the boys, I cried off after a couple of minutes and sat down, watching them all dwindle off into the distance before they turned and headed back, all carefully managing to run at the same speed as 5 year old Devon without letting him know.
We cooked lunch on the barbeque and after the boys had carefully cleaned it as per Vance's instruction "It'll last us years, that if we look after it, and it'll poison us if we don't!" then we packed everything away and prepared to set off back to Manchester.
Vance dropped me at the train station and we parted company once more. On the way home I found I was smiling to myself a lot as I remembered moments from the last few days. With surprise, I realised neither Vance or myself had once brought up the subject of work. It simply hadn't occurred to me to ask. I felt healthy and energised and the weekend with Vance and his boys was mentally filed away under the heading of one of the most enjoyable and relaxed times I could remember .
My next meeting with Vance was on a warm Wednesday evening. After my lazy weekend at the beach getting to know him better as a person, I was determined to get some answers to my questions that involved more than a one line sentence. As the purpose of these meetings were to get to know more about the man himself, as opposed to the usual ‘in-depth' interview regarding his kitchen business, I decided to find out more about his life-style and the reasons behind those choices. As we sat quite relaxed in his small lounge at the lodge, I set the ball rolling:
Q: Why do you choose to drive an old Honda CRV?
A: "Simple. First of all because it was cheap. I gave 7,000 for it at
the auctions and secondly, because it's a Honda and it does everything I want it to do. It never breaks down, I can pull my
caravan behind it, it's low key and it will fit us all in."
Q: Don't you ever feel like driving a Bentley or something similar?
A: " I don't want something that's flash. I just like to go about my everyday life without attracting adverse attention or
people looking at me. I like it that way."
Q: What about this house then? Frankly, It's hardly the kind of
house that suggests a successful business man lives here, is
A: "Again, I prefer it this way. You only need a lounge, a kitchen, a bathroom, and bedrooms. I don't see the point in having more than what you need. I also like to be warm in winter and big houses tend to be cold normally."
Q: What about the caravan? Most people would expect a millionaire to have a nice house by the beach. You have a mobile caravan. What led to that decision?
A: "I think you might already know the answer to that, you've been there" he grinned, "It's fun and I like the simple things in life. When we go to bed in the caravan we can all talk to each other until we drift off to sleep. It rounds off the day. We couldn't do that if we were all in different rooms. I like sitting around the camp fire with my family. It's cozy and they love it. I also don't want my children to grow up spoilt just because their dad has a few quid. If I give them the best of everything now then they'll have nothing to look forward to.
If they experience an expensive luxurious lifestyle now, then it may be harder for them in later life to keep up with that and it may affect their happiness when they're older. I don't want that. It's easy to go from rags to riches but it's a lot harder to go from riches to rags. I want my kids to make their own choices and not feel under pressure to keep up. I also want them to realise that it isn't money that brings you happiness.
Don't get me wrong, I believe that having money doesn't make you happy but I also believe having no money can make people sad. We are very lucky in that we have enough money to live the kind of lifestyle that we choose to live. My children would be no more happy if we travelled to Wales in a Bentley and arrived at a mansion on the beach than they are driving down in the Honda and arriving at the caravan. If we went to fancy restaurants for our dinner, they would actually enjoy it less than cooking burgers on the beach, I'm sure of that."
Q: So, what is it all about then? Why do you work so hard if you don't want the money and the trappings that it brings?
A: "I love my job. I like the adventure of it all.I enjoy travelling the world and doing the things I do. Things like building factories in the middle of nowhere, mining my own granite and planting my own trees to chop down at a later time. I can't understand why others are content to sit back and not explore deeper into things. I kind of really like exploring. Why on earth should I happy giving the local granite dealer say £250 for a length of granite when I know it's just a piece of rock that been dug out of the ground and then cut and polished.
In the time that it takes me to drive through China and to find a granite mine to buy, I could have gone to Paris for the weekend, had a few expensive meals before flying home, having spent a small fortune. I would rather spend the time on the drive through China and achieve something I feel is much more worthwhile. I can't sit still and I don't go to pubs or clubs so instead I just go and find things that will go into making my kitchens cheaper and my quality better. You won't hear me doing a lot of boasting but I can say this with pride – I know more about kitchens than any other single person on the planet.
From the raw material of any product right through to the finished item. I know all the specifications, where the best quality can be sourced for the absolute minimum price and more importantly – I go and get it. I get a buzz out of it. I only have three hobbies: my family, my work and the gym."
Q: Yes, I couldn't help but notice you go to the gym every day. Why do you enjoy going to the gym so much?
A: " I don't. I hate going. Anyone who tells you that they like going to the gym isn't working out hard enough when they get there."
Q: So why do you go then?
A: " I like the results. You can walk into the gym with a hundred problems on your mind but as soon as you start training they disappear. By the time you come out of the gym, your mind is clear and you have no problems left. You feel fresh and ready to tackle anything. I find it hard to understand how people survive without going to the gym. To me it's a huge part of my life. Where ever I am in the world the first thing that I have to find is the local gym. It's also a great place to meet real people and not pissheads that prop up bars and talk shit to each other. The next day they don't know what they've said or promised each other. I don't do pub talk."
Q: So, why does everyone in the kitchen industry hate you so much, Vance?
A: You would probably hate me too if you were in the job. When they are paying say £20 for a kitchen door and selling it for £30, but I'm selling it direct to the customer for £10 then they are hardly going to say I'm a great guy and my doors are great. Instead, they harp back to stories from 15 or 20 years ago from when I started in the game and say things like 'Oh yeah, Vance Miller. He's a gangster and his kitchens are shit and he'll only deliver half a kitchen and you'll never get the rest of it.' How could they possibly compete unless they told lies about me? None of them know anything about me and I don't bother telling them. They can't understand how I can sell a length of granite worktop for £100 when they pay £250 so they'd rather just assume it's crap. If they spent less time in the pub and more time exploring like I do then perhaps they would also be able to sell at the prices I sell at. Thank God they don't.
Q: What about your criminal record? You've hardly got a clean sheet, have you?
A: I have never been convicted of a dishonest crime since I was a teenager and certainly not in relation to the kitchens industry. As a kid I bought some stolen jewellery and I ended up going to borstal for it. That was over 30 years ago and we're all allowed a mistake or two. I am not a dishonest person . I have been to prison for other offences that weren't dishonest, like kidnapping. Although it sounds like a serious offence, and it is, but it was hardly that I went out, kidnapped someone and then held them for ransom. I caught some burglars in my mum's house. They'd robbed her previously and I had a tip-off they were going to do it again. I held them prisoner in a mill till they told me where they had hidden my mum's jewellery which they had taken in the earlier burglary. I then went and got my mum's jewellery back, along with the guys who had it and I got 18 months for kidnapping. OK, legally it was wrong but my mum got her jewellery back.
Q: So what does the future hold for Vance Miller?
A: I'm just going to carry on having as many adventures as I can, I am going to continue to supply the cheapest kitchen in the best quality materials in the world and I'm going to continue to be hated by everyone in the kitchen industry. I'm going to continue to be the best father that I can possibly be, and I'm going to continue going to the gym."
Q: And are you eventually going to buy a Bentley?
This brought the question and answer session to a close. The next morning Vance drove me to the station and we bade farewell until our next meeting, which was to be a trip to China. I couldn't wait. I think I may have caught a little bit of the adventure bug from Vance.
My views about Vance Miller were very different on my train journey home than what I had expected on my first journey to meet him.
To sum him up, he is likeable, positive and fun to be with. If an extraordinary man is an ordinary man with a lot extra added, then he really is extraordinary.
He is a man who can have anything but wants nothing. Perhaps Vance Miller has got life sussed out. If you want for nothing, then you'll always have more than you ever wanted.