Larry H. Miller — car dealer, Utah Jazz owner, philanthropist, entrepreneur, Utah icon — died Friday at his Salt Lake mansion at the age of 64 after a long battle with various health problems. Miller's health declined steeply after he suffered a heart attack in June 2008. That was followed by kidney failure, gastrointestinal bleeding and other problems associated with gout and type 2 diabetes. It took surgery, eight pints of blood, two liters of fluid and 59 days in the hospital to save his life. He was hospitalized three more times during the next seven months. He was considered clinically dead on five different occasions during that time, once as recently as December, but was resuscitated.
Each time Miller worked valiantly to regain his strength and mobility, undergoing rigorous physical therapy, but there was always a setback.
His feet riddled with infection and diabetic ulcers, Miller had both legs amputated 6 inches below the knee on Jan. 23.
Miller knew he was in a desperate battle for his life. The night before he was to undergo the amputation, he was asked about the prognosis. "They don't know," he said.
Miller's downhill slide continued.
On Feb. 12, doctors gave Miller more bad news: He had contracted calciphylaxis, a rare disease that strikes a small percentage of those suffering renal failure or undergoing dialysis. The disease calcifies blood vessels, blocking the flow of oxygen. There is no cure.
With continued dialysis, calciphylaxis patients can survive several months. But after weighing his options for a couple of days, Miller told his wife, Gail, and his family that he would not undergo dialysis. "He didn't want to live like that," Gail Miller said. "His only concern was me. He didn't want to leave me alone."
Miller is survived by Gail, his high school sweetheart whom he married 48 years ago, and their five children — Greg, Roger, Steve, Karen and Bryan, as well as 21 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
During one wistful moment while recovering from his heart attack, Miller said, "You know, I don't want this to sound boastful, but I really have had an extraordinary life."
Miller's story is a chapter out of Horatio Alger. A poor high school student and a college dropout, he started his professional career as a stock boy in an auto parts store and, through the sheer force of his personality, work ethic and natural intelligence, became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Utah history, and one of its most prominent residents.
Miller was born and raised in Salt Lake City. He graduated from West High School with a 1.77 grade point average, but was also named a National Merit Scholar. He dropped out of the University of Utah after just six weeks. He worked a series of odd jobs for a time before he found a home in car-related businesses. In 1970, he moved to Colorado, where he became a parts manager and eventually general manager for car dealerships in the Denver area. During a vacation visit to Salt Lake City in 1979, he passed a dull afternoon by visiting an old acquaintance in the car business. By the end of the day, he owned his first dealership, purchasing a Toyota store from his acquaintance after writing up terms of the deal on a blank check.
Things happened fast after that. Miller not only became the 10th largest car dealer in the nation, with 42 dealerships in six states, but he also began acquiring other businesses in the coming years. The Larry H. Miller Group eventually included 74 business enterprises — movie theaters, auto dealerships, a world-class race track, a movie production company, an advertising agency, ranches, restaurants, TV and radio stations, a real estate development company, an NBA franchise, a professional baseball team, an NBA arena, a motorsports park, sports apparel stores and various philanthropic organizations. At one time they produced $3.2 billion in sales annually. He turned his CEO duties over to his oldest son, Greg, after suffering the heart attack in 2008.
All that Jazz
The most visible asset of Miller's business empire is his NBA franchise. Six years after buying his first car dealership, he bought half the Jazz to prevent the team from leaving Salt Lake City. Fourteen months later he bought the second half, again to keep the team in Utah.
Miller considered the Jazz his "gift to Utah." With a net worth of only $4 million, Miller convinced six lending institutions to loan him $8 million to buy half of a moribund basketball franchise that had lost $17 million in its 11-year history and, in its best year, had lost $1 million.
In 1986, it appeared the Jazz were about to leave town again, and Miller appeared unable to prevent it. He actually picked up a pen to sign a contract that would complete the sale of the team, which not only would have erased his original $8 million debt but would have given him a tidy $6 million profit — double his net worth at the time — for just a 14-month investment. After a long pause, with his pen hovering over the contract, he finally tossed it on the table and told co-owner Sam Battistone he couldn't do it. To buy Battistone's share, Miller passed up the fat profit and took on even more debt — to the tune of $14 million — for a total debt of $22 million.
A few years later, when a new collective bargaining deal and escalating salaries threatened the existence of the Jazz in Salt Lake City, Miller once again risked all by building an arena that would bring the team new revenue streams (parking, concessions, suites, more seats/ticket sales) necessary for survival. He built the Delta Center (now EnergySolutions Arena) for $73 million. His investment in the Jazz had now reached close to $100 million.
The Jazz immediately became profitable under Miller, but, true to his original stated intentions, he never considered the team an investment or an appreciating asset. He received several offers each year to buy and move the team, some for as much as $400 million, but he never gave them serious consideration.
The hallmark of Miller's ownership of the Jazz was loyalty and stability. He hired coaches and general managers and stuck with them, whether it was aging Karl Malone and John Stockton or coach Jerry Sloan. He was rewarded with one of the winningest and most consistent teams in professional sports — a team that qualified for the playoffs 22 times in 25 seasons and played in two NBA Finals.
In a way, Miller worked himself to death. He labored maniacally for most of his adult life — 80 to 90 hours a week for 20 years. Later in life, he castigated himself for neglecting his family and leaving the rearing and nurturing of their five children to his wife. But later, in another reflective moment, he also noted that something good came from his obsessive work ethic that might not have been achieved otherwise: He provided good, high-quality jobs for 7,000 people and their families.
When he was involved in a project, Miller immersed himself in it for days and months at a time, neglecting sleep and food. The pace he maintained at such times — and throughout much of his career — would have been hard on anyone, but especially a man with type 2 diabetes. There were days when he would rush out the door without eating breakfast, armed with only a candy bar, and by the end of the day the candy bar was uneaten and Miller had gone without a meal, risky behavior for a diabetic.
Miller loved projects and often found himself spending an inordinate amount of time working on details that no CEO would have bothered with, such as researching what type of trees to plant in front of the Delta Center or what window blinds and concrete to use in the building. But he reveled in opportunities to learn something new and enjoyed becoming an expert in something such as shade trees and concrete.
He also enjoyed putting together creative deals to finance his businesses, and, as his purchase of the Jazz demonstrated, he was masterful at it. He lamented later in his life that his business transactions weren't nearly as fun anymore because his reputation and bank account made them so easy and straightforward. When trying to put together 11th-hour financing for his first purchase of half of the Jazz franchise, he crashed a meeting of bankers and told them, "Fellas, I don't want to run your meeting, but I'm going to tell you something. I got my first telephone in my name when I was 12 years old because I was on the phone all the time. My parents had to sign for it, but I had to pay the bill. Since that time, I've been paying bills, and I've never missed a payment on anything in my life. If you can find a delinquent payment, turn me down. If you can't, make this loan."
They made the loan.
Miller liked to call himself a "bridge-builder," a man who could get things done in the community, often as a third party. He resisted the lure of political office because he believed he was much more effective as an independent, bipartisan citizen, albeit one with many high-level friends and connections.
He donated $50 million to build the Salt Lake Community College campus, and, as he was wont to do, was involved in many of the details of the project. He also paid for BYU's baseball and softball complex, the scoreboard at the University of Utah and a chair in the school's English department.
Through it all, Miller, a demanding, hard-working, tough businessman, was a soft touch. He was famous for his tears, which were shed at almost every press conference he ever held, whether it was Karl Malone's latest contract or completion of the Delta Center. He was compassionate and sensitive, and loved to collect art. Statues surrounded his hillside mansion, and the walls of his home were covered with original paintings.
Miller's influence touched nearly everyone in his home state, whether it was through the car dealerships that lined State Street, or his movie theaters, or his pet TV projects (the Joseph Smith Papers), or his professional baseball and basketball teams, or his TV and radio stations, and so forth. Even Miller, in his reverie later in life, couldn't help notice his was an extraordinary life.