“Together we accomplish great things.” For Stewart McMillan, president and CEO of Task Force Tips in Valparaiso, that’s more than a company slogan. It’s a personal and family philosophy.
“We do so little on our own and so much together,” McMillan says, reflecting on his family and company’s history.
Raised in Hobart, McMillan says he watched his father put in long hours as an engineer for U.S. Steel and as a volunteer firefighter in Gary.
As fire chief, Clyde McMillan knew a new nozzle design would help him and his crews in the field, so he sketched that design on a restaurant napkin in 1968. But the journey to get the nozzle to market nearly broke McMillan’s father financially and emotionally.
But, a bit of serendipity intervened during Clyde McMillan’s darkest hour. “At the time, fire departments across the country were downsizing, and they needed equipment with more nozzle strength, which Dad’s company produced. But he didn’t have the money to make them without an order,” McMillan recalls. “Frank Burke, the fire chief in Syracuse, New York, called Dad and told him ‘Send me an invoice and get those things made and here.’”
Now every year Stewart McMillan presents the Frank Burke Award to an employee who makes a difference in someone’s life.
McMillan was the company’s first employee. Today, Task Force Tips employs 190, and the company is a leader in supplying firefighting equipment throughout the United States and around the world.
The company is dedicated to helping first responders do their jobs safely and efficiently, McMillan says. Flags of more than a dozen nations hang above the headquarters factory, reminding employees how many people are helped by TFT products.
Nozzles and monitors designed and manufactured by Task Force Tips are used by emergency responders in a variety of settings including the fighting of fires in wooded areas, aboard ships at sea and in industrial plants such as refineries. Municipal fire departments, both paid and volunteer, use the products.
The company designs products to deliver fluids, including water and foam, appropriate for each situation, McMillan says.
“Foam helps knock down a fire at a faster rate. If you have a chemical fire, our foam application eductor and bigger nozzle can put down a layer of foam over the chemicals to prevent vaporizing,” he says.
In recent years, the company also has begun designing remote control monitors, including the Extend-A-Gun, which is mounted on a stand and raises the nozzle to reach over most obstacles. Another new product is the hard suction hose that allows firefighters to obtain water from a river, lake, dry hydrants and other non-pressurized water sources.
McMillan takes special pride in the museum located inside the new building in a replica of a firehouse. Historic fire engines, dalmations, helmets and masks trace the history of firefighting, particularly in Valparaiso, and the history of the company.
A modest man, 55-year old McMillan credits his mentors, including his father, and his employees for his company’s success.
“What I always admired about my dad was his integrity,” McMillan says. “My philosophy of leadership all starts with telling the truth. If people don’t know where the goal is, they can’t move the ball.”
Sandy Tomecko of Kouts, an employee for 23 years, nominated McMillan for The Times Business and Industry Hall of Fame, “He treats his employees very well. He gets things done,” Tomecko says. “He makes sure all the employees have turkeys at Thanksgiving. Who does that any more? He has Christmas parties for the children of employees and then there’s the family vacation time.”
“Employees take a bag of information with them on vacation. Wherever they go, they visit a fire department and give the bag of information to officials,” McMillan says.
The reward is that for every family member on the vacation, the employee receives money and a percentage of the gas spent on the trip.
McMillan is also very active in the community, Tomecko says. “He goes wherever he’s needed. He’s a super, kind-hearted, gentle man.”
A pilot for 23 years, McMillan flies a PC-12 turboprop airplane as part of the Angel Flight program to transport those who need medical care. He’s also on the board of the Purdue University Research Park in Merrillville and is heavily involved with the United Way. Both McMillan and his wife, Kathryn, provide support for the Christian Community Action homeless shelter, and Kathryn has served on the CCA board of directors. McMillan was named Community Leader of the Year by the City of Valparaiso in 2008.
Very much a family man, McMillan points with pride to his two children. Kelly, 20, is a nursing student at Valparaiso University. Ian, 8, is a third-grade student.
“I get great joy out of working with people, and changing things to make them better,” McMillan says.
“It’s just a blast.”