As fate would have it, Greg Miller was there when it all began. He was there the very moment his father, Larry H. Miller, the former stock boy and car-parts manager, unwittingly took the first step in building what would become a multibillion-dollar business empire.
He and his father were stuck at his grandmother's Salt Lake home with nothing to do one April day in 1979 while visiting from Denver. Larry and Greg decided to kill the afternoon by going for a drive. Eventually, they wound up at the Toyota of Murray dealership to visit a longtime business acquaintance named Hugh Gardner.
Larry took Gardner and his partner, Tony Hernandez, to lunch at a small Mexican restaurant, and Greg tagged along. After they finished eating, they stood up to leave when Larry asked, half in jest, "When are you going to sell me your dealership?" It was an old gag between them, a ritual they had practiced for years. Gardner always turned him down, and they laughed. But this time Miller was stunned when Gardner replied, "How about today?"
They sat back down at the table, and Greg watched as they began negotiations right there in the restaurant. He heard them haggle over the value of the assets and real estate. He saw them write the terms of the deal on the bottom half of a check stub.
Just like that, the 35-year-old Miller, who had worked for car dealers most of his adult professional life, became a car dealer himself, for $3.5 million.
Greg was 12 years old that day.
Now fast forward to 2008. Greg is 42 years old, his father 64. Weakened by a heart attack and other health issues, Larry handed his oldest son the keys to the empire this summer, naming him CEO of the Larry H. Miller Group. At a press conference announcing the transition, Greg mentioned to the media that he had been working for his father for 30 years. His father did the math when he heard this, and smiled.
"I guess he figures his clock started that day when he was 12," the elder Miller says. "And I wouldn't dispute that."
So here is Greg, sitting in his office on the 10th floor of the Jordan Commons office tower in Sandy. He has been charged with overseeing a collection of 74 businesses that do more than $3 billion in sales annually. This includes an NBA franchise, radio and TV stations, restaurants, car dealerships, movie theaters, advertising and finance firms, sports arenas, a race track, a movie production company, ranches, a real estate development company and a professional baseball team.
"It can be daunting if you let it," says Greg Miller, "but I'm not starting from scratch. My dad has been so conservative economically that we are extremely sound financially. Most of our businesses are seasoned with very capable people who know their industries better than I do. I just need to provide them with the resources to do their jobs."
Not that there's any pressure. During a meeting of the company's advisory board at Jordan Commons, Larry participated via speakerphone from his hospital bed. At one point, he told the group, "You are collectively representing my life's work, so don't screw it up."
The first thing observers tend to do in these situations is make comparisons, so let's do things in their proper order. In looks, Greg couldn't be more different than his father. He is 6-foot-4, with blue eyes and a full head of hair that he mousses up in that carefully disheveled look that's in vogue these days. He is trim and fit from hours spent on the back of his old Trek 5200 road bike, pedaling hundreds of miles around Salt Lake Valley. Instead of wearing his father's uniform of sneakers, jeans and a Jazz-logoed polo shirt, he is wearing a white shirt and tie.
But he is very much his father in many ways. He possesses Larry's uncanny memory for dates and facts. He has some of his father's famous emotions he mists up when he discusses his family at one point. He has his father's relentless work ethic and drive. He is similarly restless and struggles to sit through seminars that are longer than an hour or, for that matter, even to lounge on a beach in Hawaii. He possesses his father's native intelligence and penchant for expression and introspection.
Like the old man, he was a lousy student, but a dedicated one once free of a formal classroom. "My dad wasn't a good classroom student, and I inherited that from him and seem to be passing that onto my kids," he likes to say. Somewhere, his former teachers at Alta High are rolling their eyes. Greg Miller, a CEO?!
It was always understood that Greg, the oldest of Miller's five children, would take over the company, but no one knew when it would happen. In 1994, Miller told his son, "I've always assumed that when I'm not CEO of this company you will be." It was one of the few times the subject was addressed so directly.
Then Larry was hospitalized in June by a heart attack. His stay in the hospital stretched to 59 days after a number of other serious health problems nearly killed him. It became clear he was not going to make a rapid recovery and that he would require months of rehabilitation to regain his strength. That, combined with the forced resignation of one of his right-hand men, hastened the need for transition.
One evening, the Miller family was gathered for a lengthy visit in Larry's hospital room when Greg decided the time was right to address the issue head-on and perhaps ease the transition. "I would never, ever knowingly do anything to make you feel like I was trying to push you out or accelerate this move before you want to do it," he told his father. "It's important that you know that. But if you do want to make that transition, I'm ready."
"It was a special moment," says Larry.
A few days later, Larry called Greg to officially pass the baton. "You've stated how you feel about things," he said, "and I think you're ready, and I think we need to go ahead and do it today. Call a press conference for this afternoon."
The press conference turned into a combination of an update on Larry's condition and the transition of the company to his son. Greg was taken aback by the large turnout of media.
"I was the same guy I was at 4 o'clock that I was at 5 o'clock, and I wondered what changed?" he says. "I realized it has little to do with me; I stepped into a world that was built over many years of hard work by my dad."
Greg's path to the top was not as easy as you might imagine for an heir apparent. As he shows a guest around the Jordan Commons office, he smiles and says, "Come here, I've got to show you something." He points to a dent in a metal file cabinet. "That's where I put my fist one day when my father fired me. I think it's a rite of passage for sons to get fired by their fathers."
Like his father, he learned the car business from the ground up. Soon after Larry bought the first dealership, Greg began to sweep car lots and attach license-plate frames to the vehicles. As a high school student, he worked in the parts department, taking inventory, putting away orders, pulling parts and delivering them.
He considered another line of work for a time. He studied computer graphics for one year at Utah Tech and another year at the University of Utah. After dropping out of school, he sold cars for his father for a year and then started and managed Performance Automotive, which brokered printing and chemicals to Miller's dealerships. He grew bored with the job after a year.
"It was time for the next step," he says, "but my dad was busy with the Delta Center (construction) and didn't have time."
So he left his father's employment. It was the first of many bold moves Greg would make. If there's the perception that the younger Miller grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth, it's wrong. He yanked the spoon out of his own mouth. Certainly, he has been given opportunities that are rarely available for a businessman, but he consciously chose the more difficult road on several occasions over the years when an easier, safer and more lucrative way was readily available through his father.
He started his own graphics company, printing and selling signs, stickers and T-shirts in a friend's basement. The business grew rapidly and necessitated moves to a West Valley office and then to his own home basement, where he and his wife, Heidi, endured lean times.
"I was terrified of the mailbox," Greg recalls. "It was all invoices and bills coming in and very few checks."
He remembers one night especially when he and Heidi were cranking out orders in their basement at 2 a.m., as they often were. Heidi, who was pregnant with their third child, was wondering aloud how they were ever going to make it.
"We're just going to have to work harder," Greg said.
Heidi stopped what she was doing. "Greg, it's three in the morning. How can we work any harder?"
They worked harder and the company grew so big that it brought Greg to a crossroads: He had to decide whether to invest in new equipment and hire more employees to keep up with the volume, which meant committing to a long-term career, or sell and move on to something else.
"I decided I didn't want to be a graphics guy the rest of my life," he says.
He sold the business and returned to work for his father, first at the KJZZ TV station, then as assistant general manager of the Golden Eagles hockey team until it was sold.
In 1996, he was hired as construction manager charged with overseeing the various buildings that the Miller Group was constructing. Two years later, his father announced during a family vacation that Greg would become operations manager over two used car lots and two auto finance firms. Greg was shocked. His only experience in the car business was selling cars, sweeping the lot and working in the parts department. It was like giving the Utah Jazz's coaching job to the equipment manager.
"I was skipping a lot of valuable steps to become operations manager," he says.
The used car lots were saddled with problems from the beginning that weren't of Greg's doing, and they lost $330,000 on his watch. A year later, Greg, just 31 at the time, was invited to fill a seat on the Miller Group's executive committee alongside his father and his top two executives, Dennis Haslam and Richard Nelson. It was a prestigious, high-paying job, but after only a few months on the job, Greg continued to be haunted by the money that his car lots had lost. He considered it a stain on his record. He requested what amounted to a huge demotion to run a car dealership.
"I appreciate the opportunity," he told his father of his executive committee appointment, "but I feel I need to redeem myself."
"I put you in a tough spot," his father replied. "Put it behind you and move on."
But it continued to gnaw at Greg. He finally convinced his father to give him another shot at running a dealership. He was named general manager of the Stockton-to-Malone Honda store.
He produced fair but not great results until Ed Mansfield, who oversaw Miller dealerships in Colorado Springs, took him under his wing. He flew to Salt Lake City twice a month for 18 months to mentor the young Miller. After 3 1/2 years, Greg Miller was profitable enough that he was appointed general manager of the Toyota of Murray store, the crown jewel of the family auto business and the place where it all began. Applying Mansfield's lessons, he produced monthly sales records in 35 of the 50 months he was there. He had redeemed himself.
During those eight years he was running dealerships, Greg recalls, "There were three times my dad gave me that look that only a dad can give and said, 'You running this car dealership is a luxury this family and this organization can't afford. I need you here with the management company where I can teach you what you need to know.'"
On Aug. 17, 2005, his unofficial CEO apprenticeship began in earnest. He was given no official title and no explicitly defined job description. He moved to the 10th floor, as it is known in the company, to learn from his father and his lieutenants.
After a year on the job he was miserable.
"I wasn't making a contribution to the organization," he says. "I was freeloading. I was collecting a check and not earning it. I was going nuts ..."
In June 2006 he invited his parents, Larry and Gail, to his house for a meeting with him and Heidi. "This is your organization," he told his father. "I respect your right to do what you want with it. But I need you to know that if you're not comfortable with my ability to take on more, or if there's not room for me in this organization, I'm fine; I just need you to tell me. If there is room, then let me take that next step and be productively engaged. If not, I'll do my own thing."
Larry named him senior vice president of operations for the Miller Group. Most of his responsibility was overseeing the Miller Motorsports Park, a $105 million asset.
By the time Greg was appointed CEO earlier this summer, it was as if he had graduated from Miller State U., and the press conference was his graduation ceremony. Larry has been meeting with his wife and four sons Greg, Bryan, Roger, Steve (all have management positions in the company) for three to four hours every Monday at his hillside mansion for the past 20 months to discuss the family business and pass along his methods and philosophy.
"The meetings were to help prepare us to take on greater responsibility when Dad decides to give it to us," says Greg. "It's been like a university."
Greg has been nothing if not earnest in trying to prepare himself to fill his father's big shoes. Since he began working side by side with Larry three years ago, he has filled an entire notebook with meticulous notes of everything his father said, including the Monday meetings.
A week after Larry was hospitalized and a month before he was named CEO Greg visited a half-dozen of the company's top executives to pick their brains about the various family enterprises. He filled a legal pad with notes from those interviews and then consolidated those notes and created an index of the information. The index alone is 2 1/2 pages long.
He also keeps a manila folder that he calls his "succession notes file," which he has filled with letters and e-mails and notes he has made on scraps of paper, including an old parking permit. They are the collected wisdom of everyone from John Stockton and LDS Church leaders to his parents and Mitt Romney.
"If someone had planned a course of study, I don't know if it could be better than what I've experienced," says Greg, who has worked in nearly every phase of the Miller firm over the years automotive, communications, finance, construction, real estate, insurance, sports. The only thing he hasn't been involved with is the company's most visible asset, the Utah Jazz basketball team.
"I am probably most nervous about the Jazz," Greg says. "I have grown up on the car side (of the family business). My plan with the Jazz is to learn, but also to rely on the people that have gotten us where we are, Kevin (O'Connor), Randy (Rigby) and Bob (Hyde). The biggest decisions will find their way to me, though, and there are many big (free-agent) decisions to make at the end of next season. I don't intend to make those in a vacuum. I will bring my dad into the decision. I would be foolish and arrogant not to involve him. There's too much wisdom and experience there not to involve him."
As much as Greg has learned from his father about how to do things, he makes special mention that he also learned what not to do from his father. For one thing, he doesn't work so much that he neglects himself or his family. Inspired by his father's health problems, Greg decided he was heading down the same path one day last January after consuming his third Whopper of the week. He hired a personal trainer that day and began a diet consisting of six small meals a day and fruits, vegetables and other healthier foods. A dedicated cyclist for three years, he hired a cycling coach for a time and intensified his exercise regimen. He is on track to bike 4,000 miles this year. He bikes as many as 100 miles on a given Saturday and has participated in several 100-mile cycling events.
Greg has lost 29 pounds in nine months. Heidi packs four meals each day for him to eat in the office. "I got tired of eating garbage and feeling fat," he says as he dips apple slices into peanut butter at his desk. "My dad certainly influenced me. I learned a lot about what I want to do and don't want to do."
That includes being home with Heidi and their six children in the evening. As Larry is the first to admit, he was rarely home while working 80 and 90 hours a week building up the family business. Greg grew up angry and resentful because of it. He has scars on his hand from punching his fist through walls and doors. He was kicked out of Alta High School late in his senior year, and he had to finish his schooling at Brighton High.
As a teenager, he once stood at the top of the stairs in the family home and shouted at his father, "I hate the car business. I'll do anything but the car business!" All the Miller boys said as much at some point, but they all work for Miller now.
"The difference is I spend time with my kids," Greg said years ago. "I am their father figure. I make a great effort to see to that. It's the benefit of hindsight. I can recognize the void in my life. I don't want to perpetuate those mistakes. I attend the dance recitals and coach the Junior Jazz teams."
Earlier this year he announced to his family that this is "the Year of 100 Adventures." He has planned 100 activities he will do with one or more members of his family in 2008. They include everything from major vacations he took his family to see the Red Sox play the Yankees in Yankee Stadium on July Fourth and to France to see the Le Mans Classic and the Tour de France to simpler activities, such as fishing in Idaho, Jazz games, four-wheeling in Moab and hiking mountains. They are on pace to climb the 29 highest peaks in Utah this year.Greg pauses and closes his eyes for a moment, as he and his father are wont to do when they are in deep thought. "Of course, I recognize that I can do these things because of what my father did," he says. "It's like my dad says, the difference is I have a rich daddy and he didn't. He worked so hard for so many years and created this resource that makes it possible for me to work 50 hours a week and have a family life. He paid the price for what I am doing. I need to give him credit."
E-mail: [email protected]