No one knew what to make of The Kid when he first started showing up at the office as Larry Miller’s sidekick. With no explanation from the boss, Steve Starks appeared one day, a complete stranger to the brass at Larry H. Miller Group. Suddenly, he was sitting in on board meetings, participating in deals and hanging out in Miller’s office for hours at a time. He was — as some would note later — the Brad Pitt character in “Meet Joe Black,” and just about as popular.
Who was this kid, the "Rudy" look-alike, just 28 years old and an outsider? How did he become Miller’s fair-haired boy and he hadn’t even come up through company ranks? When he began showing up at meetings without Miller, some in the company grew suspicious.
“Everyone else thought he was a spy for Larry,” says Scott Bates, president of LHM real estate and Starks’ friend. “Steve just showed up, and Larry hadn’t said anything. No one knew who he was, and people avoided him. He was sort of alienated for a while. The reaction wasn’t always positive.”
Miller had hired The Kid one day while they were sharing an elevator. That he saw something in him there can be no doubt. He gave the rookie unprecedented access to him and his dealings. Years later, after Miller had died, his son Greg found a note in a box. “I think you’ll want to keep this,” he said, handing the note to Starks. The note recorded something Larry Miller had said during one of their monthly family meetings: “Steve Starks, flat-out superstar — as good as it gets, will be one of the five best employees we ever had.”
Earlier this year — six and a half years after Miller passed away and just eight years after he was hired — Starks was promoted to president of Larry H. Miller Sports and Entertainment. It places him among the top five in the organization, whose four divisions are each headed by different presidents under the direction of CEO Clark Whitworth.
Starks was given the job title earlier this year as part of a major restructuring of LHM management that included the resignation of Greg Miller as CEO. Starks now oversees one of the most visible entities in the state, which includes the Utah Jazz, the Salt Lake Bees, Miller Performance, EnergySolutions Arena, KJZZ TV, The Zone sports radio network, The Tour of Utah cycling race and All-Star Catering.
“Larry took Steve under his wing and had him sit in his office and watch him do deals and take calls and learn what he did,” says Gail Miller, Larry’s widow and the owner of LHM. “He spent a lot of time with him. Larry talked about how sharp he was. There was some sentiment that he got favoritism, but Steve earned his way. He’s proved himself.”
For Starks, the promotion completes a meteoric rise in a company in which three of the top five executives of LHM management have been employed by the company for nearly 30 years. So what else is new? Starks has been fast-tracked since he graduated from Weber High at 17. Assistant to the president of his Mormon Church mission at 20. Student body president of Weber State at 21. Head of Nolan Karras’s gubernatorial campaign and Rep. Rob Bishop’s congressional campaign at 26. Head of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s advisory board at 27. LDS Church bishop at 31. LDS stake president at 34. LHM president at 36.
“He’s a very gifted person, very low maintenance, very results-oriented, very collaborative and communicative, and he has a great perspective on life,” says Greg Miller. “His values are where they ought to be. When I was CEO, I always felt when he was part of the conversation, good things were likely to happen.”
Starks, the son of a long-haul truck driver and former LAPD cop, is a self-made man who grew up in an old farm house in Huntsville and paid for his education by driving bread trucks, working on golf-course maintenance crews and hanging siding. Now he finds himself overseeing the 10 wards and nearly 5,000 members that comprise his LDS stake — a collection of multiple congregations in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — while also overseeing a vast corner of the Miller empire.
And, yes, in answer to your next question: Every day he finds himself thinking about how the Jazz can win that championship. No one lets him forget it, anyway.
“I love the 70-year-old woman in my stake who meets with me and then on the way out of the office she tells me what we need to do to improve the Jazz,” says Starks. “I love that. You know people are passionate about it.”
Starks likes to tell the story of when his father bought tickets to take him and a brother to see the Jazz play in the 1997 NBA Finals. They sat in the top row of the Delta Celter, up against the roof, in the nosebleeders.
“He bought scalper tickets,” says Starks. “It was a sacrifice for my dad to buy those tickets.”
Starks comes from a humble background in which he was instilled with a work ethic. Because of financial difficulties, the family moved nearly a dozen times before he reached his 12th birthday, living for a few years in a mobile home. His parents – Steve Sr. and Debbie — literally met by accident. She witnessed a car accident, and he was the first cop on the scene. He asked her for her number to wrap up his report. Steve Sr. eventually moved the family from California to Utah after deciding the stressful life of an LAPD beat cop was not for him. They settled in Huntsville, and Steve Sr. became a long-haul trucker, hauling loads to the West Coast. The job, of course, required him to be away from home for long stretches of time. Starks occasionally accompanied his father on such trips just to spend time with him.
“Our circumstances weren’t great, but we had a very loving home and a close family,” says Starks, who, during a two-hour discussion, frequently mentions his hard-working parents — his 69-year-old father still works the swing shift as a security manager and his mother raised seven children. “I take a lot of pride in being Debbie’s son and making her proud.”
After graduating from Weber High, he completed a year at Weber State before leaving to serve a two-year LDS Church mission in Mississippi, which he calls a “transformational experience. I loved the work. I was never so happy as I was riding on a bike on dusty roads and knocking on doors and talking to the people about faith and family.”
After his mission, with less than $100 in the bank, he held down several jobs and applied for grants to pay for school. He returned to Weber State University, planning to teach LDS seminary, but other possibilities presented themselves. He got involved in student government through a friend and became one of two finalists to be vice president of the student body. When the other finalist was disqualified on a technicality, Starks argued for his reinstatement in front of a school court. Impressed by this noble gesture, his VP rival urged him to run for president as a write-in candidate and pledged his support, which consisted of making signs and planting them around campus. Stark, a sophomore, won the election.
He completed several internships and did a study abroad program at Cambridge, and then graduated with a degree in integrated studies. The student government experience, which exposed him to the legislative process of approving budgets and working with trustees, led him naturally to politics.
He worked as an intern for Sen. Orrin Hatch in Washington and then was hired by Nolan Karras to direct his campaign for governor. Karras had been impressed by his volunteer work in his behalf in previous campaigns, and thus a pattern was established. As soon as that campaign was finished, Bishop, who had observed Starks’ work for Karras, hired Starks to manage his congressional campaign. As soon as that was finished, Huntsman, who had seen Starks’ work for Karras, hired him as one of the managers of the governor's transition team.
The job required Starks to meet with government and business leaders throughout the state to make recommendations on how to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of state government. Starks presented the governor with two large, three-ring binders of such recommendations. Huntsman was so impressed that he decided to continue utilizing Starks and the transition team as an outside advisory group even after he took office. Starks and Huntsman personally invited Miller to serve as chairman of the Utah Policy Partnership (UPP).
After 18 months at UPP, Starks wanted to move on. He was riding with Miller in an elevator to a meeting at the Zions Bank headquarters when he told the entrepreneur that he planned to go to business school and asked if he would write a letter of recommendation. Miller paused and thought about this a moment. He had observed Starks while serving at the UPP and, like so many others who had seen the kid in action, he was impressed. “I’ll write you a letter,” he began, “but I would also like to talk to you about another option that included you coming to work for me full time.”
Later, during a three-hour lunch, Miller told him his company’s graying management team needed some youth on the “bench.” Miller offered him employment without giving him a specific job, explaining only that he would work with him personally for a while. “Over time the right role will emerge,” he said. This was typical of the intuitive way Miller did business and Starks bought into it. The first day Starks reported for work, Miller took him to his office and he became Miller’s shadow. “I just followed him around,” says Starks. “I went to meetings with him. He would make calls and I would listen. He was so open. I heard everything he was dealing with.” They talked about their mutual interests in business philosophy, baseball, history, great leaders, but mostly Starks received a crash course in business from a master.
“He would spend more time in Larry’s office talking to him than (presidents in the company),” says Bates. “It was a unique situation for a young guy.”
Says Stark’s wife, Camilla, “It was strange. He’d come home and say, ‘Well, I sat in Larry’s office today and listened to a phone call.’ ”
Two weeks into the job, it finally occurred to Starks to ask Miller for a few details. “Larry, we never talked about compensation,” he said. “What are you thinking?”
Miller proposed an amount, and Starks agreed. “OK,” said Miller, “talk to Linda in HR and tell her you’ve been hired and that this is how much you’ll be making.” Says Starks, “I went down and introduced myself to Linda in HR and she had this look on her face like what?! She asked me if I had filled out an application. Nope. She asked when my starting date was. Two weeks ago.”
Looking back now, Starks recalls, “It was such a great learning experience watching him put together deals. If I had to pick any single thing I learned from Larry, it was this: You can approach a business transaction with transparency and honesty and with the goal of both parties benefitting. When I started doing deals for the organization, I discovered our reputation was so strong that people wanted to sell to us instead of other companies. They would seek us out. I know of several situations where they sold to us even though we weren’t the highest bidder. It’s because they care about the type of organization that will acquire their life’s work and they want their employees taken care of.”
Like many in the company, Starks wanted to work in the sports and entertainment division. Miller said that was fine, but he needed to have a broad range of experiences to complete his education and to perhaps uncover hidden abilities. He was given a wide range of assignments.
Starks organized Miller’s Teach the Teacher program, which took high school teachers to various historical sites to inspire their teaching and eventually included a collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough. Starks oversaw the publishing of Miller’s biography, “Driven,” and produced several analyses of business projects Miller was considering. On his own initiative, Starks even sold cars on the showroom floor of Miller dealerships for a month on weekends and week-day nights just to learn that side of the business.
When Greg Miller took over as CEO for his father, he reorganized management and turned two divisions into four. During a meeting with several executives, Starks was promoted to executive vice president and put in charge of Landcar Insurance Companies. Hearing this, another of the Miller executives entered the room and said, “I wonder if you ought to rethink that. He’s so young. I’m not sure he’s ready for it.” Starks replied, “I appreciate that, but I think I’ve got this one.” According to Bates, Landcar had record profits that year and continued to grow annually.
By everyone’s account, that has been Starks’ M.O. He changed Landcar’s name to Total Care Auto and grew it into other businesses. He also was charged with overseeing LHM’s acquisition division, Saxton Horne Communications, Megaplex Theatres and Fanzz Sports stores.
“He was really capable and good at fixing a problem,” says Gail Miller. “He could see what needed to be done and do it. When there were problems, it was ‘Send Steve.’ ”
Greg Miller agrees: “Whatever assignments he’s had he’s done a good job with them, and he’s had a variety of assignments.”
Friends and neighbors tend to ask Starks how he finds time for it all — the church job, his career, family. Like his late mentor, Starks likes to go on long drives on canyon roads to clear his mind, but unlike his mentor, he tends to leave the job at the office and restricts the hours he works so he can be with his family, which includes Camilla and their three daughters.
“That’s the question we get asked the most,” says Camilla. “People are in awe of all he has going on. I keep thinking I need to come up with an answer. We just do it; that’s the job and the calling, so we make it work.”
They sit down together with a calendar to carve out time for family, dates and vacations. Certain days and evenings are off-limits for anything but family. “I don’t want my children growing up resenting time spent away working,” says Starks, who drives his daughters to school every morning and uses the time to talk, listen to ‘80s music and maybe have a spelling Bee. “That’s the best part of the day,” he says.
After reflecting at length on all that has happened to him in recent years, Starks pauses for a few moments and then says there is something he needs to say. "I haven't been given these opportunities because of my intelligence," he begins. "The Lord has been kind to me and guided me. I've been blessed with opportunities and people who have taken an interest in me. Because of that I feel a sense of obligation to fulfill whatever it is He would like me to do to bless my family and other people."
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]