Powered by the American Dream

by Oct 26, 2021Business, South Brunswick

When Alton and E.B. Milliken founded Shallotte Electric in 1971, they couldn’t envision the changes that would occur in Brunswick County or that a third generation of family members would be helping the business thrive 50 years later.

The lifecycle of a built-from-scratch business changes a lot over the span of three decades. Products change, one-time employees start their own businesses, locations are added, and grandkids take over the family business.

All of this and more was the case for Alton and E.B. Milliken of Shallotte Electric. The couple built the successful brand from the ground up, and when they eventually retired in 1998, they left it in good hands. Now in its third generation of family ownership, Justin Milliken, vice president and grandson to Alton and E.B., says, “This story is still all about my grandparents.”

Shallotte Electric Family NC

Their journey begins in 1971. After Alton became dissatisfied with his partnership in an existing hardware store, he saw the need in the community for a supplier that focused on electrical and plumbing. So, he and E.B. came up with their own business plan and rented the space that once was the Red and White grocery store on Main Street in downtown Shallotte. Along with their two teenage sons, Al and Jamie (Justin’s dad), they started Shallotte Electric, selling basic plumbing, electrical supplies and water pumps.

Alton, an electrical and plumbing contractor, had the industry experience, but E.B. quickly learned how to manage the business. She handled everything from waiting on customers to ordering supplies, stocking inventory and bookkeeping.

“My grandpa is the one who usually gets a lot of the credit, but my grandma was the backbone,” Justin says.

With no established commercial financial history to speak of in the early stages of the business, the Millikens had trouble securing a loan or establishing credit so they could stock their inventory — until North Carolina Bank took a chance and gave them a $10,000 loan. The Millikens had to drive to Wilmington every day to get inventory, back before Highway 17 became a four-lane thoroughfare.

“My grandparents would drive to Wilmington every night after work to buy the supplies they needed for the next day, then drive back to the store, stock the inventory and get up and do it all again the next day,” Justin explains. “They did it six days a week in the beginning.”

Shallotte NC Electric Center

To make the store seem like it was well stocked, the Millikens staged the shelves with empty boxes to give the appearance of a large supply of inventory. But it didn’t take long before the shelves were filled with real inventory when the Millikens quickly gained a reputation for their full range of products.

“In the early ’80s my grandparents realized that there was nowhere in the area to buy light fixtures and appliances,” Justin says. “So, my grandpa courted GE and got their product lines.”

But for GE suppliers there were certain stipulations, including a required amount of floor space — which they didn’t have.

“That’s when they built the showroom,” Justin says. “We were the original one-stop shop in Brunswick County.”

Over the next few years, the family also added two more locations in Southport and Ocean Isle Beach. As the company grew, so did the number of employees.

“Every person in this county in this business has worked with my grandparents at one point or another,” Justin says. “He (Alton) taught them their trade.”

Shallotte Electric NC Appliances and Lighting

Today, Shallotte Electric employs more than 50 people.

Success and longevity for any business doesn’t happen by accident — especially for family-owned businesses that compete against big box stores. Those that make it do so because they focus on what matters most: customer service and how their products and services make a difference to those they serve. It’s what sets Shallotte Electric apart from similar retailers and especially big box stores.
“We truly feel like we provide the best customer service,” Justin says. “If you walk into a big box store, you might get someone who isn’t knowledgeable, or if you call a European-owned company, you’re just a number. We’ve survived for 50 years because our customers know that we’ll drive to the end of the earth to help them get what they want, even if it’s a 50-cent item.”

Combined, the employees of Shallotte Electric have more than 100 years of experience. They have the know-how to manage a project, whether it’s a remodel or new construction or something in between, from beginning to end.

As Al and Jamie, the Millikens’ sons and original employees, continue to hand over more responsibilities to Justin and other family members, the fourth generation isn’t far behind. Justin’s two young girls are already waiting in the wings. “My six-year-old daughter, Shelby, comes in the store after school a couple of times a week, and I have her count fittings or something like that, so she feels like she’s contributing to the family business,” Justin says.

Alton is now 93 and continues to maintain his heating and air, electrical and plumbing licenses. E.B. is 89. Their health limits their day-to-day involvement at Shallotte Electric, but they continue to be the heart and soul of the Milliken family.

“My grandpa was born in Shallotte in 1928 and raised here,” Justin says. “He’s said it a million times: When he opened his store, there was nowhere in Brunswick County to get anything. Now there’s a hardware store, a big box or a Walmart on every corner. He never envisioned Shallotte and Brunswick County to be like it is today. He and my grandma are truly the last great generation of the American Dream.”

Want to go?
Shallotte Electric
4900 Main Street, Shallotte
 (910) 754-6000

Photography by Laura Glantz