Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Gail Miller, left, serves Shadow Yazzie dinner at a Utah Jazz Thanksgiving dinner celebration on Wednesday, November 23, 2011. Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group, was honored Thursday as the 2012 Athena Award recipient by the Salt Lake Chamber.

SALT LAKE CITY — Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group, was honored Thursday as the 2012 Athena Award recipient by the Salt Lake Chamber.

Miller said she was "deeply honored and flattered" to receive the award, which recognizes successful businesswomen who contribute to their communities.

In her remarks after accepting the award, Miller spoke at length about the history of the business empire she built with her first husband, the late Larry H. Miller, and how she received her business education by observing him and being involved with him as a partner in the running of their company.

"I would just like to tell you a little story about how I came to be a businesswoman," she said. "It was something that I never planned on."

Miller said her story started with two young people who met when they were 12, began dating when they were 14 and were married when they were 21. The young couple moved to Colorado, where Larry Miller worked at a car dealership, before returning to Utah and opening the doors to the Larry H. Miller Co. in Murray on May 1, 1979.

"We were both very independent and strong-willed, but we were a good team and we complemented each other," she said.

Miller described herself as a sounding board for her husband, who valued her opinion and shared business experiences with her daily. Before the Larry H. Miller Group purchased the Utah Jazz basketball team, Miller said she and her late husband discussed the option and decided together it was the right thing to do.

About a year and half before Larry Miller's death in February of 2009, Gail Miller said he called the family together, handed out notebooks and told them there were things they needed to learn. The family met each week up until his death, she said, to prepare for the change in management of the business.

"Through the years, we were truly partners in everything we did," she said. "It wasn't until much later that I realized I had received a pretty good education with regard to how business works. It wasn't intentional. It just happened because of where I was and what I was learning through him."

Miller said she didn't choose to become a businesswoman, but she is one today because she made a conscious decision to continue the legacy she and her husband started 33 years ago. Along the way, she discovered that business is fun, she said.

"It's exhilarating and fun at the same time," she said. "It's also challenging, but many important life lessons are learned through business."

One of those life lessons, Miller said, is that it's all right to rely on a higher power. She also said it's important to remember your values, treat others with respect, give back to the community, look for the opportunities that are all around you, be a student and teach what you know to anyone who will listen.

She also spoke about the necessity for women like herself to be positive examples to the next generation of women leaders.

"Our daughters need to understand there is room for them in this big, beautiful world," she said.

The Salt Lake Chamber gives out two lifetime achievement awards each year, spokesman Marty Carpenter said. The first, the Giant In Our City Award, is traditionally named in the spring or summer, while the Athena Award is reserved for female candidates and is given out each year as part of the Women and Business Conference.

"It's about being successful professionally," Carpenter said, "but also going beyond personal success and contributing to the community at large."

The conference also recognized five women for the 2012 Pathfinders Awards, which Carpenter described as a pre-Athena award. This year's Pathfinders include Sara George of the Natural History Museum of Utah, Debra Hoyt of Questar, Vivian Lee of University of Utah Health Science, Susan Madsen of Utah Valley University and Molly Mazzolini of Infinite Scale.

The Larry H. Miller Group encompasses more than 75 businesses in 30 states, according to the Salt Lake Chamber. Larry H. Miller is also known for ownership of the Utah Jazz, the Salt Lake Bees, Miller Motorsports Park, Fanzz retail stores, EnergySolutions Arena and the Megaplex Movie Theatres.