Empire builder: Larry Miller has come a long way since his auto-parts days

Published: Sunday, June 11 2006 11:32 p.m. MDT

Larry Miller joins Jazz ex-star Karl Malone on Feb. 13, 2005, when Malone announced his retirement.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

Not all that long ago, Larry H. Miller was a clerk at an auto parts counter. Then he moved up. Later he managed to buy an auto dealership. Then he bought another. And another. And some other businesses — most prominently the Utah Jazz.

Most Utahns likely still think of him only as a car dealer who owns the Jazz.

But Miller has quietly built what can only be called a business empire, from ranches to theaters, restaurants, race tracks, the Delta Center, movie production ventures, sports apparel stores, real estate development, finance companies, insurance companies, broadcasting, dance studios and more.

Utahns may not have noticed all that because it happened gradually — and because Miller, in his standard polo shirt and khakis, doesn't look or act like a business tycoon.

"The sheer size of it all is surprising to me, too," Miller says. "And I lived it day to day. It sort of sneaks up on you. It's mind-boggling. . . . When I back up and look at how big it's become, it's like I'm watching it happen to someone else."

He built it all by hard work and taking risks, by pursuing opportunities that others missed or dismissed, and sometimes by just pursuing the dreams of his heart — especially any ventures he views as "building bridges" to help or serve others.

That has led to an unusual empire with some quirky parts. Yet most of them somehow manage to build and support each other without suffering major downturns together when, for example, the Jazz have a bad season or when gay-rights groups attempt a boycott of Miller after he pulled the movie "Brokeback Mountain" from his theaters.

The maturing, diverse empire seems to be achieving a sort of critical mass where it is able to explode, or expand, on its own internal power.

And sometimes the empire even spawns new businesses without Miller knowing about it beforehand. An example is the Jazz Dancer Studios, named for the dancers at Jazz games.

The Utah Jazz marketing officers "actually did that without me knowing about it," Miller says. "Frankly, I was not happy, because it doesn't make a lot of money. But it doesn't lose money now, and it's nice, sort of a community thing."

While Miller says he once had to beg, borrow, scramble and fight to paste together risky ventures, it has now become relatively easy to make deals because of the stability of his little empire.

"It's also kind of taken the fun out of it to some degree," he says.

Beginnings

Miller dropped out of college after just six weeks. He worked at several odd jobs, including book binding, framing houses, carrying and mixing mortar, driving delivery trucks and picking strawberries.

The young man who liked to drag-race cars finally found a niche when he was hired to work the counter of American Auto Parts in 1963. Within a year, he was doing the hiring, firing and scheduling and ordering of parts, and he liked it.

He worked for five years at various parts stores before he was recruited by a Denver softball team (Miller's pitching would eventually take him to the softball hall of fame) with the promise of a job as a Toyota parts manager. Miller moved there in 1970.

Miller worked 96-hour weeks and became the highest-volume Toyota parts manager in North America. After four years, he became general manager of that Toyota dealership and then operations manager over its five-dealership network.

When the owner wanted to reassign him to make room for family members, Miller decided to return to Utah. In 1979 he used all of the $88,000 he had managed to save as a down payment on a $1 million deal to buy Toyota of Murray.

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