Matt Gade, Deseret News
SANDY — Becoming the leader of a highly successful family business empire can be a blessing and a curse.
It is difficult to meet expectations when you follow in the footsteps of a self-made, highly driven, larger than life personality known for exceptional business savvy as well as the occasional emotional outburst.
But there is opportunity in the challenge of developing your own leadership style while still staying true to the values established by the organization’s iconic founder, who also just happened to be your father.
Such is the life of Greg Miller, who for the past five-plus years has led the multibillion-dollar business enterprise started by family patriarch Larry H. Miller.
In July 2008, Greg Miller was named chief executive officer of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, which included becoming CEO of the state's marquee sports franchise, the Utah Jazz.
Recently, Forbes magazine valued the Jazz at an estimated $535 million, generating approximately $131 million in revenue with an operating profit of about $17 million — making the Jazz the No. 17 most valuable franchise in the 30-team National Basketball Association.
Privately owned, the LHM Group comprises more than 80 businesses operating in 46 states with about 10,000 employees and total assets valued at $2.6 billion. The corporation includes 52 car dealerships, as well as finance, insurance, real estate, sports and retail properties generating annual overall revenues of approximately $4.3 billion, according to the company website.
In the years since Greg Miller became CEO, revenue and income for the LHM Group has more than doubled. Miller attributes the growth to a collaborative effort to streamline operational costs and increase efficiencies across all business entities.
“We’ve worked hard to make improvements wherever we can,” he said. As an example, he noted that in 2009 the automotive group was retaining about 73 percent of its bottom line.
“That means we were subsidizing (other businesses) with 27 percent of the net profit,” Miller said. “There were a lot of dollars going out of that big hole.”
To mitigate the problem, the company sold off unprofitable or marginally profitable stores to put its efforts into stores in which they could receive a better return.
“That is one way we have been able to maintain profitability,” he said. “In 2013, we retained 96 percent of our net profit.”
Playing to strengths
Miller said that overall growth has occurred within the various divisions of the LHM Group. The organizational chart includes Miller Automotive Operations, Total Care Auto, Prestige Financial Services, Miller Family Real Estate, Miller Sports Properties and Miller Retail Properties — all reporting to the LHM Management Corp.
Miller said since taking over, he has worked to help the corporation “play to its strengths” by building on the successes of its most profitable business segments.
“We’re going to make a concerted effort to identify what we do best and do more of it,” Miller said.
That's prompted the LHM Group to move away from businesses that were not long-term moneymakers despite numerous attempts to make them profitable.
Case in point: the Mayan Restaurant formerly located at Jordan Commons in Sandy. The establishment was a dream property of his late father, but, Greg Miller said, “It was a struggle from the time we opened it.”
“(My father) spent a lot of money in the theming and had a lot of fun bringing it to life, but when it came to operating it, we had a lot of difficulty making it work,” he said.
After many years of losing money, Miller said he made the difficult decision to close it down — something he knew would not sit well with his father at the time.
“Once my dad got wind of that, he said, 'You know, Greg, I don’t appreciate you taking apart my life’s work.'”
He responded, “I can see how you feel that way, but the way I see it is that the minute we closed that operation, our profitability increased by $3.1 million a year, because that’s how much it was costing us.”
He said being able to make prudent yet challenging business decisions and see them pay off reinforced his belief he could lead the company effectively after his father died.
Miller said his workday typically begins around 8 a.m. and can run to as long as 11 p.m. on some Jazz game nights. He said he prefers working with people who have extensive knowledge and experience in their fields of expertise and have exceptional capacity to get work done.
“I’d like to play a meaningful role in helping us accomplish our objective, but I know I can’t do it all myself,” Miller said.
He said one of the biggest differences in management styles between him and his father is his willingness to allow the executive leadership team to handle the responsibilities of running their individual divisions rather trying to do it all, as his dad had a tendency to do.
“At some point, the organization grew to a size where (my father’s) entrepreneurial leadership style wasn’t the best for it,” he explained. “There is no question that I’m not the entrepreneur my dad was, but I have other skills that he didn’t have that are serving the organization very well today.”
He said his ability to be more collaborative, delegate responsibility, give direction and let others “do their job” has helped build a sense of confidence throughout the organization.
“I really think that is the reason we’re enjoying the success that we do today because we’re spreading the load out over such broad footings,” Miller said.
He described his mother, Gail, as “a saint” who has made a smooth transition from her involvement in the first — or “1.0” — generation of the family business under its founder to the current 2.0 generation led by her son. Today, there are also about a dozen third-generation, "3.0," family members working within the LHM Group.
“She seems to know instinctively when to chime in and offer her wisdom and when to just sit back and let things run their course,” he said. Miller considers his mother a savvy businesswoman who provides valuable input that has helped greatly in the success of the business.
Miller said he admired his dad in many ways but noted that his father’s dedication to building his business and resulting absence at home impacted their relationship and his development.
“The lack of time that I was able to spend with my dad in a personal setting had an impact on me,” he said. “I resented that for a long time. But, later in life, I realized that there were a lot of other blessings in the shortage of time I was able to spend with him.”
He said he knew, as a young father, he didn’t want his kids to feel the same way about him, so he made the decision to spend time every day with each of his six children. Miller and his wife, Heidi, also have four grandchildren.
“I determined that I was going to be a father that was engaged in their lives,” he said. Today, despite the fact that four of the kids are out of the house and have their own families, he still tries to connect with them several times a week.
“Sometimes we text, but I always prefer to talk face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice,” Miller said. He also makes an effort to have lunch with them weekly if their schedules permit, he said.
Everyone getting together and spending quality time, as a family, is also very important, he said.
Miller, who enjoys adventure travel and collecting Land Cruisers, spent time this past year with his youngest son and some friends on an expedition trekking across Antarctica, having previously visited five other continents. In September 2012, Miller and his team successfully circumnavigated the northern hemisphere, driving approximately 18,000 miles across North America, Europe and Asia.
“The goal is to drive the same vehicle on all seven continents,” he explained. He is looking forward to completing this journey in early spring of 2014 in South America, he said.
Miller often describes the good fortune that has occurred in his life and has befallen his family in their business prosperity as “blessings.” He attributes it to the positive role faith has played in his life and the heavenly guidance he receives in leading the business.
“Divine intervention is a huge part of how this organization is run,” Miller explained. “We have what we have in large part because God wanted to give it to us or at least make us stewards over it.”
He said one of the lessons he has learned over the past five years is that the organization is a great resource that will likely outlive all of those who lead it today. He also said that he takes seriously his responsibility to mentor those next-generation family members who will run the business when he retires one day.
“Properly managed with wise stewardship, this organization can continue for a long, long time into the future,” Miller said.
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