Over 97 years, sales at Manalapan’s Millhurst Mills have changed, but not the family.

Susan Bloom Special to the Asbury Park Press 

MANALAPAN – Growing up just a mile away from Manalapan-based Millhurst Mills, her family’s nearly century-old business, Karen Hochberg Barnes didn’t expect to play a leadership role in her family’s legacy.

But since taking over as president in 2018 after the untimely passing of her father, NardieHochberg, she’s proud to head up an outstanding team and help take the longtime supplier of building materials in dynamic new directions.

“Entrepreneurship and a strong work ethic are in my DNA; I was encouraged to get a good education and to always be open to learning,” recalled Barnes, 55, a Red Bank resident who began doing jobs like babysitting and helping out at Millhurst Mills at age 12. “In 1925, my great-grandfather Bernard founded Millhurst Mills, which, in its early years, was a flour mill and supplier of building materials. Two generations later, my father, Bernard (“Nardie”)Hochberg, served as president and owner of Millhurst Mills from 1985 to 2018.”

After graduating from Duke University with a degree in English, Barnes began a successful career doing publicity in the publishing field, a pursuit which her parents encouraged. She and her husband eventually moved to Scarsdale, New York, where she took a hiatus from her career to raise her two sons. Once they were grown, however, she felt ready for her next professional challenge — one which ended up bringing her back full-circle to her family’s roots.

“I’d designed our house in Scarsdale with material sourced from Millhurst Mills and a lot of people asked me where I’d gotten my kitchen, which motivated me to launch a cabinetry design business in New York in 2000,” Barnes said. “Years later, after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, customers were flocking to Millhurst Mills to do repairs and rebuilds, and my father called me to say that he needed me there based on my specialty in cabinetry design. I commuted between Westchester and Manalapan for three years and then moved to Red Bank in 2015 to work full-time in New Jersey.”

“At that time, the focus at Millhurst Mills was very different,” Barnes noted. “We weren’t as much a retail business as we were a salvage business, taking trailer loads of building materials off suppliers’ hands following fires, floods, overstocks, bankruptcy, etc. We’d get the material, store it, and sell it, and it was a model that had long carried our business through recessions and competitive market conditions.”

But as she soon learned, times were changing.

“Our kitchen and bath business was run out of a back warehouse, and as demand grew, we quickly realized that we weren’t set up to show products or service customers effectively, so in 2017, we launched Millhurst Design Center, a 5,000-square-foot interactive showroom within our retail building,” she said.

The following year, tragedy struck and her beloved father passed quickly from a brain tumor.

Shocked and distraught, “we did what we needed to do to keep running,” said Barnes, who took over as president of Millhurst Mills in June 2018.

‘People are looking for cleaner, simpler lines’

Today, Millhurst Mills offers everything from molding, paint, hardware, doors, cabinetry, flooring, kitchen and bath design services, outdoor decking, and more, all under one convenient roof.

“What’s dramatically different today is our service. We have specialized professionals in every area and a showroom experience with interactive displays where customers can see and feel products and get inspirational ideas that will help them visualize their entire home project,” Barnes said.

“We’re very relationship-driven and our customers are homeowners, contractors and interior designers primarily from the Shore area, central New Jersey and Staten Island,” said Barnes, who oversees many of Millhurst Mills’ kitchen and bathroom design projects herself with support from a team of seven dedicated cabinetry and tile specialists. “We don’t do installation,” she said. “Rather, we leave that to area contractors who have been referring their customers to us for years.”

Among trends in kitchen design, “people are looking for cleaner, simpler lines like Shakercabinets as opposed to heavy raised panels,” she said. “In addition, while white paint remains popular, people are taking more risks with bolder colors like blues and greens on islands or on accent pieces, and the warmth and natural aesthetic of stained (versus painted) wood is making a comeback.”

As for challenges, “our industry experienced product/shipping delays and ripple effects from the pandemic and it was sometimes hard to manage customer expectations,” said Barnes, who added that, as in many industries, hiring qualified candidates can also be difficult.

Some challenges have been more physical, as was the case this January when a small electrical fire in Millhurst Mills’ nearly 100-year-old retail building damaged its space and resulted in the facility’s closure for three months while repairs were made. “Thankfully no one was hurt and we were able to work around it by setting up operations in a back warehouse,” Barnes said. “Ultimately, we renovated the entire retail store and now have brand new wiring, a beautiful new ceiling, and peace of mind knowing that everyone is safer in our space.”

‘I’m doing what I know how to do’

Supported by a team of 40 whom she describes as “amazing specialists,” Barnes said that she“couldn’t be prouder of our employees, who are the heart and soul of this business and who consistently go above and beyond for our customers and for each other.”

Looking ahead, Barnes is excited for community members to see how Millhurst Mills has evolved and to further engage with the local residents and businesses Millhurst Mills serves.“Our showroom is a great space for all kinds of interactive demonstrations and we can’t wait to reintroduce Millhurst to the community and host more events in the coming year,” she said. “We also plan to display more appliances and integrate more fixtures of all kinds into our hands-on showroom to make things easier for customers and avoid them having to go to all different stores to see these products.”

As a leader, Barnes is grateful for the time she spent working alongside her father and has come to understand that she doesn’t have to fill his shoes.

“My father didn’t inherit the business it became under his leadership. It was something else before him,” she explained. “Similarly, I’m doing what I know how to do, and the community’s response to that has been extremely positive. I feel so blessed that my father was my mentor and role model and I’m so proud to be part of Millhurst Millls’ next exciting chapter,” she said, noting that her 28-year-old son Jake, a vice president on the team, represents MillhurstMills’ fifth generation.

For Barnes, home remodeling and kitchen and bath design remain creative outlets that she thoroughly enjoys. “I love making a space more functional and leaving something nicer than when I found it for the people I’m working for,” she said.

It’s a positive outcome that she believes all visitors will experience at Millhurst Mills.

In a bustling home remodeling market that can often be confusing and overwhelming for consumers, “our employees are extremely helpful, our space is welcoming and inviting, and customers will feel comfortable and relieved when they walk in,” Barnes confirmed. “From beginning to end, we simplify projects, try to have everything here so that people can visualize it, and provide that all-important helping hand to successfully guide them through the process.”

Millhurst Mills

Location: 17 Sweetmans Lane, Manalapan

Phone: 732-462-2000

President: Karen Hochberg Barnes

Founded: 1925