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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Utah Jazz CEO Greg Miller talks about the legacy of his late father, Larry H. Miller. Greg is in charge of day-to-day operations of the business empire.

Sitting his corner office, dressed in a leather jacket and business-casual clothes, Greg Miller looks and behaves like a man who is comfortable in the role for which he has trained for 30 years and recently inherited.

He is the leader of a Utah business giant born of the sweat and determination of the man whose name it bears.

In June, he was named chief executive officer of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, which included becoming head of the state's marquee sports franchise, the Utah Jazz.

The circumstance of transferring control of a professional sports franchise to an heir is not all that uncommon, according to Patrick Rishe, associate professor of economics at Webster University in St. Louis and founder of Sportsimpacts, which conducts economic impact studies and market research analyses for professional and amateur sporting events and teams.

He said how smoothly transitions go typically depend on how well the chosen successor has developed and built relationships with the local business community, the media and with fans. Rishe cited examples of similar situations that took place last year with the New York Yankees and the ascension of George Steinbrenner's eldest son, Hank, to team president prior to last season. He said that because of comments made in the media since he has taken over the team, the younger Steinbrenner has been viewed by some "as kind of cantankerous."

And more recently, the St. Louis Rams of the National Football League saw control of the franchise shift to the son of owner Georgia Frontiere, who passed away in January. Rishe said that Chip Rosenbloom, who inherited control of the team, was an unknown commodity to the St. Louis community, making his transition into the public eye a bit more difficult.

He said that transitions are easier for new executives who take the time to remind the local fan base and business leaders that the family cares about the team and has a vested interest in keeping the community informed about the long-term well-being of the franchise.

If you have people in the family who have a passion for the sport, then it makes sense to have as seamless a transition as possible, he said.

When the Jazz lost their beloved and charismatic owner last month, the team drew upon its collective passion, competitive nature and mental toughness to overcome the intense emotional adversity that came with such a loss. In so doing, they used the values and lessons they could have learned from the man who had been the face of the franchise and a local business legend for more than a quarter of a century.

The same could be said for the team's current top executive.

In an interview with the Deseret News, Greg Miller said that while "technically" his mother, Gail, is the legal owner of the Jazz, he was in charge of day-to-day operations of the business empire built from the ground up by his iconic father.

Gail Miller has done few media interviews, preferring instead to keep a low profile and to allow Greg Miller to take the lead on business matters, including the Jazz.

"She's certainly welcome to be as involved as she wants to be," he said. Her role may eventually be more of an adviser to what kind of growth opportunities the group of companies may pursue in the future, he added.

He noted that his mom currently plays an active role as a member of the parent company's 13-member advisory board that meets monthly to review business matters, and she offers her insights on various issues under discussion.

The privately owned Larry H. Miller Group is made up of more than 80 businesses, including 39 car dealerships with operations in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah, according to the company Web site.

In December, Forbes.com estimated the Utah Jazz to be worth $358 million.

In Utah, the company also owns the Salt Lake Bees, Miller Motorsports Park, EnergySolutions Arena and The Fan Sports Network, which includes KJZZ Ch. 14, KFAN 1320 AM and ESPN Radio 1230.

In addition, the Miller Group owns movie theaters in Salt Lake City, Lehi, Ogden, Sandy and South Jordan. It also owns an advertising company, a financial-services company, a catering company, Fanzz Sports Apparel and the Utah Jazz Store.

He said that despite the current state of the economy, each of the Miller Group's various business sectors has been profitable, including the automobile dealerships.

"The dealerships and the insurance company and the finance company are the engines of this organization; that's where our profit is generated," he said. "We've eliminated all nonessential personnel and made the tough cuts where necessary, and it's paid dividends literally and figuratively.

"We are fortunate that we are still generating profit in the aggregate," he said.

Regarding the Jazz, when asked about the team's future and if the team would ever leave Salt Lake City, Greg Miller said that as long as the franchise was economically viable, it would remain in Utah.

"I am as closely aligned with my dad's feelings about how important the Jazz are to Utah and the importance of keeping them in this market as a person can be," he said.

Greg Miller said that financially the team is "doing OK" and it always has the safety valve of using funds from the other businesses "if they find themselves in a loss situation," which he said has happened in the past.

He said that currently the team's sponsorship revenue has decreased just 1 percent from last season, which was a record for the franchise in that category.

While his mother is the legal owner of the Jazz, Greg Miller's responsibilities as chief executive officer include representing the team on the National Basketball Association's Board of Governors and being the ultimate voice on business decisions involving the team.

He noted that his brother Roger is involved with the groupwide information technology operations, while another brother, Steve, is the new- and used-vehicle inventory manager. He said that his youngest brother, Bryan, is involved with the operations of the Miller Sports Park, but his sister, Karen, is not involved in any of the businesses interests.

In explaining how he initially got involved in the family business, he recalled that when his family used to live in Colorado, they had come to Utah in April 1979 on a family vacation. He said his odyssey began when he accompanied his father to a Midvale restaurant for a lunch meeting with business associates who owned a Toyota dealership in Murray.

"As we were walking over to the cash register to pay for lunch, my dad said to them 'When are you going to sell me your Toyota store?' " he said. "They said, 'How about today?' "

They proceeded to write out the financial details of the deal on a cocktail napkin, he said.

"I was 12 years old at that point," Greg Miller said. "We moved over here in August, and a week or two after that I drove with my dad to the dealership for the first time."

He said his first job was putting "Larry H. Miller Toyota" logos on the trunks of cars and installing license plate frames.

His father gave him other tasks, too. "He said, 'When you're finished doing that, there is a broom in the parts department. Go sweep the lot,' " Miller says.

Over the years, Greg Miller has held numerous positions within the various businesses, he said.

"I've worked in the parts department; I've worked in sales, at the insurance company; I've worked at KJZZ, for Prestige Financial Services and other ancillary companies," he said.

Greg Miller said he managed some of the car dealerships as well and even branched out on his own from 1989 to 1991 — a move prompted partly by the frustration he felt while growing up without his father at home very often.

"I remember telling my dad that I didn't want anything to do with the car business," he said. "I was mad at him because he was gone so much, and I resented the fact that he wasn't around. I just thought it was the car business doing that."

He said that the experience of building his own graphics and signage company helped him move out from his father's shadow and prove that he could be successful in business.

He said that later he was able to appreciate the sacrifice his father had made to help build the business empire he now oversees.

"He was a huge influence in my life on both sides of the ledger as far as teaching me what I wanted to be, and he also taught me a lot about what I didn't want to be," he said.

"I have the luxury of being with my kids more because my dad sacrificed his time with me to create the foundation that gives me the opportunity to have a great job and make enough money to feed my family and pay my bills without working the 80- or 90-hour weeks that he did," said the 43-year-old father of six.

He said that spending quality time with his family regularly is a priority he intends on maintaining in spite of his business obligations.

"It's really important to me to see all my kids awake every day," he said. "I try to have a meaningful conversation with all six of my kids every day."

He said that because his older daughter is married now, keeping that vow is more challenging, but he maintains regular contact with her, as well.

He said he also tries to create a sense of family unity with trips to some of the same special places his parents used to take the family during his childhood, like camping and four-wheeling near Moab. In his office, he shared a picture of his family on a camping vacation with his dad cooking hot dogs on an old Coleman stove.

"Every year, for four or five years in a row, we would throw all of the gear into the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser and go to Moab and go check out these old dirt roads and do cool stuff," he recalled fondly. "I really, really developed a strong love for that, and now that I share those same experiences with my boys, it's even more special."

Greg Miller said that while his father may have been the driving force behind the family business, his mother's role was always that of a "supporter" rather than someone who was directly involved in daily operations, something that was appreciated by his father over the 43 years of their marriage.

"He drew a lot of strength from knowing he had her there to just kind of put him back together at the end of the day every day, so he could go out and slay all the dragons and do whatever he needed to do," he said. "He knew that he could come home and have my mom dust him off and feed him and send him back out the next day to do it all over again."

He said that his father set for him a good example of how to develop a winning tradition in a fiscally responsible manner, particularly with the Jazz. He noted that the team would have to make some important financial decisions following this season, including trying to retain key players such as Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Paul Millsap.

He said that those issues would be tackled individually when the time comes with the aid and counsel of team president Randy Rigby and executive vice president of basketball operations Kevin O'Connor. Whatever moves are made would be in the long-term best interest of the franchise, he said.

"I want to build on the greatness that's been established in the Jazz organization and find ways to improve going forward," he said.

E-MAIL: jlee@desnews.com