SALT LAKE CITY — Gail Miller is the matriarch of the Miller family.
You know the Millers as the owners of the movie theaters you might frequent, the car dealerships you may have visited and, perhaps most notably, the professional basketball team that as of Saturday night has won 21 of its past 23 games.
Just over nine years ago, Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller died at age 64. Before his passing, Gail was often found by her husband's side. But in the near-decade since his death, Gail Miller has embraced a role she once questioned even wanting. And in the process, she has discovered who she really is.
With the release of her new book, "Courage To Be You," Gail Miller sat down with the Deseret News to discuss her life after Larry, including the growth of her company, her family, her faith, her wealth and her marriage to accomplished Utah attorney Kim Wilson.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DN: There’s an interesting statement that you made in your new book. You said, “Would I do it all over again? Did I have regrets? The answer to both questions is an unequivocal no.” ... What was the message that you were hoping to send with that response?
GM: I think the message that I was trying to send is that when we’re young, we do things the best way we know how to do them, but when we get older and we look back on our life in perspective, of course there are things we would do differently, but I don’t want to go back and do it all over again. It was hard enough the first time.
DN: You write that you wished Larry had worked less and been more engaged with your family, but you have all of these resources and this success because Larry worked so hard. Do you think that you would have the resources that you have to help people if he hadn’t worked so hard?
GM: Probably not, but I think it’s a matter of where you put your value. The success and the money and the worldly things that we have are not where I count my wealth. My wealth is counted in relationships, being able to provide jobs for people where they can support their family and live good lives. Those are the things that really drove us, and especially Larry, because he was in the trenches every day doing it. And that was what he did it for, not to earn a lot of money, because I would say to him every time he’d buy a new dealership, “Why do you want another one? We’ve got enough. Why do you want another one?” Because I knew it was just taking him away. And he said, “Because I can do so much good with it. I can provide jobs for people and I can do things that make the world a better place.”
But when you do something so intensely as Larry did in running the company, something else suffers, and that was our family, and I don’t say that with any malice because he knew it. He agreed to it. He said it in his later years, “If I had it to do again, I would not have worked so hard. I would have spent more time with my family.” So he realized that he gave up something to build all of this. And you know, I’m glad we have it. I’m glad we’re able to do what we can do and make some commitments that make the world, make our community, better. But I also wish he had been able to know his kids better and to have had more time with them, to have given them the effort that he put into the people that he trained in the company.
DN: So would you say that it was not worth that sacrifice?
GM: No, I think it was worth that, and I didn’t realize that until much later when I realized that he did have an influence on them. He had an influence on the way they learned to work, in the loyalties that they have, in their value system, in the way they conduct themselves. Those are all really important things and he had that influence on them. And they’re very dedicated to what they do. They are good fathers, good family men, they’re good employees, they’re good community leaders, but they didn’t have that father-son relationship, and they can’t go back and get it. They did have a relationship with him later on when they worked with him, but it doesn’t replace the joy that you have as a father-son playing ball together or doing schoolwork together, and those are the kinds of things that they missed out, and he missed out on. … But I’m glad they had that much.
DN: What have you learned about faith over the years? ... And what do you know now that you didn’t know when you and Larry had just become active again in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
GM: I think it took me a long time to have the kind of faith that I saw my mother have. Everything in her life was based on faith. I remember once we went on a trip to California and I was driving and I barely missed an accident. She said, “Oh God,” and I said, “Mother!” And she said, “I was just praying.” She was and I realized it then that that was how close she was. She could just, in an instant, call for help. It took me much longer to get that kind of faith, and I think it comes with trusting that he’s there, trusting that he’ll be there when you ask or when you need him or even when you don’t need him. But I’ve seen it too many times not to believe.
DN: Both you, in your book, and Larry, in the book “Driven,” note the role that tithing played for you and your family and the breakthrough when the bishop asked him to start paying tithing. Why do you believe tithing is so important?
GM: It’s very important because it’s not compulsory. It’s a choice. We’re given the choice and we have the right to say, “OK, Heavenly Father, you told me if I wanted these blessings, this is how to get them.” And we can hold him accountable for them. All we have to do is pay tithing. So to me that’s a really important lesson in free agency and the ability to live our lives according to the way that we think is right for us.
DN: I think some people would hear that and say, “Well of course you’ve seen the blessings of tithing. You have all of these monetary blessings.”... How have you seen the blessings of tithing even beyond finances?
GM: I think the blessings we were looking for were peace of mind, contentment, peace in our home, things like that, and those are a little harder to get because they’re not all up to Heavenly Father, they’re up to the work we do. But he helps us to do that work so those are blessings that are much more important in tithing than any monetary blessing.
DN: What do you think it means to be a Latter-day Saint woman in this day and age?
GM: I just think that we have an opportunity where others will listen and pay attention differently than they will to men because we’re nurturers, we’re more compassionate, we’re soft and tender but we’re strong and we need to be strong and we need to take that responsibility. That’s one thing I learned when Larry died because I had not been in the public eye, only by his side or behind him, you know just being a support, which was fine with me. I liked being there, but when he passed away, I had a decision to make. I said, “Well, I can continue the legacy, I can keep doing what we’ve been doing, even though I’ve never been at work” … or I can fold up shop, sell it all and just do my thing. But the answer was loud and clear to me: “You can’t just fold up shop. There’s too much still to be done and you can do it.” I had to overcome the fear that I couldn’t do it, but I think that’s a strength that women have if we can overcome the fear that we’re not good enough, that we’re not smart enough, that we’re not strong enough, because we are.
DN: Do you feel like you have been treated with respect in the business world?
GM: Being a woman versus a man? Not as much as I’d like. I think there definitely is a bias, not towards me so much as a woman but towards me because I didn’t come up through the business. I haven’t worked through the business and carried each load and experienced each job and each chair, although I did have a good schooling from Larry about what was going on and how the business worked. I feel I’m capable to do what I’m doing as an owner. I do not want to be the CEO because I don’t think I could do that, I don’t want to do that. I can have more influence where I am. And my goal is to maintain culture and values and make sure that what we built stays intact and stays viable and that people understand what it’s all about.
DN: The Jazz are on a roll. How does this current Jazz team represent what the Larry H. Miller Group is all about?
GM: They represent excellence, which is what we’re all about. It starts with us teaching the management of the team, the general manager, the coach, spending time with them to help them understand that we do have values and we do have expectations and we don’t want players in here who would sully our name or bring in a bad element. So they’re very good to understand what we want and then to honor us with that request as they look for players. We’ve had some in the past that have been bad characters, but they don’t last long. And of course we want a championship, but we don’t want to sell our soul for it.
DN: What does a second marriage feel like when you loved Larry, and your husband, Kim Wilson, loved his wife?
GM: The nice thing about our relationship is we knew each other for 15 years before we got married because we lived in the same ward and I knew his family and he knew Larry. My kids didn't live in that ward but when we started dating he actually said to me, "I know Larry and I love Larry but I'm not intimidated by Larry." And I thought, "Yay!" So that was good. In reality, it was very comfortable, it was easy because we'd gone through all the child-rearing years and the financial struggle years. The only thing that we've had to really deal with that's had any kind of concern is he's very set in his ways and I'm very set in my ways, so bringing that together. But neither one of us is a hard person to get along with ... we've been married almost six years and have never had an argument. We've had some disagreements but no arguments.
DN: Would you say that a second marriage for you requires less patience and sacrifice or more?
GM: I think a second marriage for me has really uncovered for me who I am because in my first marriage I was so much a part of Larry and Larry’s life that I almost didn’t have my own identity, and now I came into this marriage as a person in my own right, so I’m a little freer to be me, which I have to be very careful who I am. I have to be kind and considerate and not selfish and not always thinking about myself. And I often will say, “I need to be nicer to Kim. I need to be able to listen better and to spend more time with him and not be selfish.” So I think a second marriage, for me, that’s my benefit. Not to mention that it’s really nice to have a companion and someone who cares for me so much.
DN: You talk a little bit about identity in the book. What have you discovered about your identity since Larry passed?
GM: I talk in the book about a time when Larry was building the business and doing so many things that he was growing in and I was home raising kids and having no outside stimulus and no ability to learn new things. And I’m a person who is interested in everything. I love learning a little bit about everything. I’m a master of nothing but I just knew then that I could not sit around. I had to figure out who I was and then when Larry died, taking on what I’ve taken on here has really been interesting because Larry planned very, very well and he had set up the company to be very successful. He’d always put our money back into it and funded it very well. … But there were things he did not get done that he wanted to get done that I had to take on, and that is transition and succession for future generations and corporate governance.
These are things I really didn’t know anything about, but I’ve taken the last two years to develop a lot of these things for the future that will make this company, even after I’ve gone, be viable and survive me and him and hopefully even me and my kids so that the third and fourth generation can continue what we’ve started if they want. And if they don’t, other people can, but it will be set up. And that’s part of the cultural program that I’ve started. So that’s where I’m really finding my talent in this world is that you just have to get in and do. You engage people who know what they’re doing to help you and then if you have the idea, you go forward with it and they help you with the road map and it’s been really exciting to see that I am capable of doing that and making a difference.
And then the other part is getting involved in civic things, the homeless issue and Our Schools Now and serving on boards. Those are things that I’ve never done before that have just kind of helped me to blossom and see that there’s a whole different world out here and it’s really exciting. I just wish I were 10 years younger.
DN: You and Kim obviously have the financial resources to do what you’d like. What are some things that you would like to do together after retirement and how close to retirement are you?
GM: I’m getting closer every day. Some of the things that we’d like to do are we have a second home in California. We’d like to be able to just pick up and go whenever we want. That is something that we’ve done together. We’d like to be able to travel. Kim would like to travel more than I do. ... I’ve done a lot of traveling, so it’s not as exciting to me, but I’m willing to do that again. And I think just spend time with him, just be happy. Just play and have fun and let go of all of the obligations that I’ve felt for so many years.
DN: Do you ever get tired of banquets and things like that?
GM: Totally. That’s part of my plan to let the kids and the grandkids take over.
DN: What do you think Larry would say about the way you’ve embraced this role and handled the business since his passing?13 comments on this story
GM: I often think of that. “Is this OK?” You know there’s really no way to know. I think he would be proud of me. I think he always was proud of me. I think he would be pleased that I carried on the work. I don’t know about some of it, but I’m doing the best I know how. If he wanted me to do something different, he should’ve stayed here to help me.
Editor's note: Gail Miller's book, Courage to Be You: Inspiring Lessons From an Unexpected Journey, is available through Deseret Book. Deseret Book is a sister company to the Deseret News, part of Deseret Management Corp.