Greg Miller: Ultimate Second-Generation Dealer

Hold on, I want to show you something, says Greg Miller. He arises from the desk of his top 10th-floor office overlooking the Wasatch Mountains and the vast South Towne Auto Mall he helped develop on a former alfalfa field in this Salt Lake City suburb. He retrieves something from a wall cabinet in an adjoining conference room separated by wood and stained-glass doors of a Frank Lloyd Wright

Steve Finlay, Senior Editor

November 1, 2010

17 Min Read
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SANDY, UT — “Hold on, I want to show you something,” says Greg Miller.

He arises from the desk of his top 10th-floor office overlooking the Wasatch Mountains and the vast South Towne Auto Mall he helped develop on a former alfalfa field in this Salt Lake City suburb.

He retrieves something from a wall cabinet in an adjoining conference room separated by wood and stained-glass doors of a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie-style design, in keeping with the suite's motif.

He brings back a spiral-bound college-edition notebook, buffed from use. It contains many pages of notes, but not from school days.

The notebook and others like it were blank when Larry Miller, one of the nation's most successful and extraordinary dealers, passed them out to his grown children in 2007, two years before his death at age 64.

“Dad handed us these notebooks and said, ‘You guys will want to take notes,’” recalls eldest son Greg, age 44.

The patriarch felt the time had come to conduct a special family-business seminar for his first-generation heirs, dubbed “Miller 2.0.”

What followed was a series of weekly meetings in which the father told all he knew about business and the enterprises he built up.

That includes 41 dealerships in seven states, a string of movie theaters, a TV station, real-estate company, financial firms and ownership of minor and major sports clubs, such as the National Basketball Assn.'s Utah Jazz, as well as that team's home arena.

“Those sessions were the formal transferring of the business,” says Greg Miller who became CEO of Larry H. Miller Group of Companies in 2008, a month after his father suffered a severe heart attack and died seven months later.

Greg Miller.

Thumbing through his well-used notebook, Greg Miller reads aloud from what he jotted down as the patriarch spoke.

Some of the fatherly advice is folksy (“I'd rather be doing stuff than reading reports.”), some practical (“Cash flow trumps profits.”) and some principled (“My single-most valuable asset is my reputation.”).

Some of it is prophetic.

Greg Miller says: “Listen to this, dated March 1, 2007. ‘There are major storm clouds out there right now. They are the biggest I've seen in 15 years. It is not going to be business as usual.’”

In a later session, Larry Miller told his note-taking offspring: “Success in a downturn is measured by survival.”

Such perception is “uncanny,” says Greg Miller, noting how his father early on accurately predicted the economic inclemency that would roll through the nation in general and auto industry in particular. “That was the mystique of the man.”

Larry Miller is a household name in Salt Lake City. Enter a local bookstore and copies of his autobiography, “Driven,” are prominently displayed on a stand next to the front door.

The book is straightforward and candid, touching on such things as the author's occasional outbursts of temper. Gail, his wife, mother of their five children and now chairman of the family firm, is quoted as saying her late husband sometimes blurred the line between passion and anger.

Part of the book is a testament to his strong Mormon faith and his noted philanthropy distributed through a non-profit foundation.

But most of it is about how Lawrence Horne Miller went from modest beginnings to creating a vast business empire with an estimated worth of $480 million.

The auto-retailing segment, alone, had revenues last year of nearly $2 billion. It ranked No.10 on the Ward's Megadealer 100.

Greg Miller has the mental ability to recollect the exact dates of important events in his career and his family's history. Likewise, his father displayed an impressive memory. Working as a dealership parts manager early in his career in the 1960s, he could memorize parts' serial numbers.

Larry Miller's big break came when he formed a partnership to buy a Toyota dealership in Murray, UT, in 1979. He renamed it Larry H. Miller Toyota and became sole owner two years later.

He went on to open and acquire dozens of dealerships in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho, New Mexico and Washington State.

Greg Miller's dealership career began at the original Toyota store at age 13. It was not love at first sight. “It was just work for me,” he says of his menial labor that included sweeping lots and tagging inventory.

Later, as a teen who felt his dad was devoting too much time to work, he angrily told his father he would never work in the car business. “I was screaming at him that this business was taking him away from me and I'd never be part of it. It was pretty short-sighted of me.”

At 15, he started working in the Toyota store's parts department and soon had a self-realization.

“I was excited when I turned 16 and got my driver's license because I got to deliver parts, not just pull them,” he says. “I enjoyed the efficiency of loading the truck in an organized way, allowing me to do deliveries faster. I realized I had a knack for organization.”

At age 19, he began selling cars. He was good at it, in the upper half of performers. But he was Larry Miller's son and there were expectations. “I was embarrassed I didn't do better. But I learned a lot.”

And not just lessons in selling cars.

“My father's office was at that dealership,” he says. “I learned a lot about him by watching and listening. I saw his creativity, his ability to bring projects alive. He knew how to do deals, buy dealerships, negotiate and work hard.”

He put together “a patchwork of an organization,” says his son. “He was an old-school guy who never had a computer at his desk.”

Restless, Greg Miller went on to other ventures, such as starting up Performance Automotive, founded to consolidate the Miller organization's economy-of-scale buying power for products such as rust-proofing chemicals.

He broke from the family business and formed his own company as an act of independence. “I told my dad I wanted to do my own thing. That was important. I wanted to prove myself. I had a strong need to earn my stripes on my own, not because my daddy set me up.”

He ultimately sold his company to his employees and returned to the family business where he was involved in non-automotive stints involving the TV station; minor-league sports concerns, such as the Salt Lake Golden Eagles hockey team; and a construction company.

In 1994, father and son agreed it was a good idea for Greg to get more exposure to the car business. That is how he got involved in four auto-finance and used-car entities, including the Larry H. Miller Used-Car Supermarket in Sandy.

It was a tough gig.

“I jumped from being an OK auto salesman a few years ago to an operational manager,” he says. “I skipped eight to 10 steps, and that concerned me.”

To compound matters, some of his staffers performed poorly. Money was lost. The father later acknowledged he saddled his son with the wrong people.

It was yet another lesson learned for Greg Miller. “I realized the importance of surrounding myself with the best people I could find and providing them with enough support so they will lift me to where I want to go.”

That's a philosophy that guides him today.

“Greg has a reputation as someone who respects the organization,” says Adam Armbruster, an automotive TV advertising consultant based in Tampa, FL. “He realizes it is not all about him, but about everybody in it.”

Overseeing money-losing operations on top of the staff problems bothered Greg Miller. “I felt like an island.”

Around then, his father asked him to join him at the central office while Larry Miller restructured the organization after the departure of the chief operating officer.

“I was really there to offer moral support. Dad asked if I'd be a part of an executive committee making various decisions, such as who the Jazz should draft and what dealerships to buy.”

But a “pivotal” notion struck the son during that assignment. “I thought that if I stay on this course, I will never have the opportunity to redeem myself from the poor performance of running those four entities.

“I wanted to know if I had what it took to run a dealership. I arm wrestled my dad on that. I said, ‘I've got to do this.’”

That's how Greg Miller became the general manager of Stockton to Malone Honda, a new Miller sales point. He spent nearly three years there. “I wanted so much to succeed,” he says.

To help that cause, he sought out a mentor, Ed Mansfield, general manager of the Miller group's Toyota dealerships in Colorado Springs, CO.

“My first visits with him were two and three days long and consisted of slicing and dicing the financial statements,” Miller says. “Ed said, ‘I can see a problem; your expenses are too high.’ I said, ‘They're consistent.’ He said, ‘Yes, they're consistently $50,000 a month too high.’”

Miller bridled at the notion of letting staffers go, particularly people he considered friends. “But I needed to do what it took to make that Honda store successful,” he says.

He was at times perplexed by the dynamics of a dealership, with its various departments, all different from each other and with their individual business model.

“Sometimes I felt like one of those circus performers spinning plates on poles, running back and forth to keep spinning each one before they toppled off,” he says. “Building up fixed operations was particularly tough.”

As he grew into his general manager role, his mentoring visits with Mansfield went from three days down to one. Then they consulted only by phone, periodically at first, then on a “call-when-necessary” basis.

The Honda dealership flourished and Greg Miller moved on to run the flagship Toyota store in Murray.

“My red-letter day was March 1, 2001 when I became the general manager of the dealership where it all started,” he says. “I remember the exhilaration.”

He ran it for 54 months, overseeing 35 top net-profit months. “By then, I was good at fielding a team like the New York Yankees, with stars playing every position. We were rolling.”

The person, who in a teenaged tantrum once told his father he would never become part of the car business, now loved it. “I became enamored with it after I learned from Ed how properly running a dealership could be very profitable.”

But after he did that for a combined eight years, his father was anxious for him to become a part of the Miller organization's upper management team.

“I was having fun at the dealerships, but a couple of times my dad pointed his finger at me and said, ‘You running a dealership is a luxury this family cannot afford.’

“So on August 17, 2005, I turned over the Toyota store to the general sales manager. He is still the general manager there and doing a great job.”

Greg Miller was underwhelmed when he first went to company headquarters.

“I remember the first days sitting here thinking, ‘I don't really have anything to do.’ It was like trying to learn how to play the guitar from Eddie Van Halen by only being able to watch him play.

“I made it through the first year, but I could count on one hand the number of things I got done. I went from an all-time high in job satisfaction to an all-time low.”

That discontentment led to a heart-to-heart talk with his father.

“I said, ‘I understand this is your company, and what you think should happen, should happen. I'd like to be here, but I need something to sink my teeth into. However, if you don't trust me or want me here, just tell me. I'll be OK with that and do my own deal.’”

It was the type of straight talk Larry Miller understood. “Put to him like that, he got it,” says Greg Miller, whose role in the company thereupon grew, beginning with managing the Miller Motorsports Park, a race track in Tooele, UT.

“Essentially, my job was to work with Alan Wilson, the president and CEO, to establish the culture and profitability of the race track.” he says.

He did that for a couple of years. Then came a series of events that Greg Miller, with his memory for dates, recalls to the day.

“On June 12, 2008, dad suffered a heart attack. He had type-2 diabetes for years, and was hospitalized for 59 days. On July 16, I became CEO and on February 20, 2009, dad passed away. Our relationship was good for those seven months, the best it ever was between us.”

When the younger Miller took over the firm, he realized the responsibility but was prepared for the job, considering the scope of his experience.

“It's daunting,” he said at the time he took the helm of the family business. “But I'm not starting from scratch.”

The new CEO made it a point to visit all 41 dealerships in seven states. “I told them that as a family we can provide the capital, the buildings, the inventory and the advertising, but those things don't matter without people breathing life into the operation.”

The Miller dealership group continues to grow. A new Chevrolet store opened in Murray this summer. The facility, including a more customer-friendly layout, is a prototype design for General Motors Co., which plans to roll it out nationwide.

Running the store is Kasey Webster, who at age 17 began her career as a dealership receptionist with the Miller group. She was trained in finance while working for the firm, completed her college education in 1997 and was promoted through the auto-finance and sales ranks.

“When I started with (the company) as a teenager, I never dreamed of becoming the general manager of a dealership,” Webster says. “It is a great testament to not only my drive and determination, but to the corporate culture within the Miller group.”

The Miller group recently acquired four dealerships representing Chevrolet, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ford, Lincoln, Mercury and Hyundai brands.

Greg Miller is highly regarded within the local dealership community that includes some heavy-hitters such as Jerry Seiner Dealerships, a multi-franchise group. Larry H. Miller Ford is right next to Seiner's Chevrolet-Cadillac store in Salt Lake City.

“Greg is more reserved than his dad,” says Christopher Hemmersmeier, executive general manager of the Seiner organization. “Greg seems capable and has a lot of good people on his management team.”

He adds: “I don't think he was really able to leave his mark on the organization until his dad died. I'm not sure he has had the time yet to leave his mark.”

If succeeding someone as dynamic as Larry Miller is daunting, his son seems up for it, says Craig Bickmore, executive director of the Utah Automobile Dealers Assn., who has known Greg Miller for 20 years.

“Although Larry is a tough act to follow, so will Greg, Gail and the rest of their family be when the next generation takes the helm from them,” he says. “Larry's legacy will certainly continue and expand because of Greg Miller's leadership and vision. I have the utmost respect for him and his business acumen.

“He brings his own set of skills and knowledge to benefit the auto industry, just like Larry did.”

On a reception-area wall of the Miller organization's headquarters is a large family portrait. Larry and Gail stand in the middle, surrounded by their many children, children-in-law and grandchildren.

On another wall is a large photo of two people: the Dali Lama, clad in ceremonial robes, standing next to Larry Miller, wearing a plaid shirt and sneakers.

Greg's three brothers are active in the family business, too. Roger is chief technology officer, Steve is new- and used-car inventory director, and Bryan is assistant general manager of the motorsports park.

Then there is the next generation, dubbed “Miller 3.0,” which includes Greg Miller's six children, ages 24 to 11, along with their cousins. Two sons-in-law work at dealerships.

Son Bryce, 19, has shown an interest in auto-retailing by working at the original Toyota store. He is now serving on a mission in Santiago, Chile, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

“He loved working at the dealership and they loved him,” says Greg Miller of his eldest son. “I don't have strong feelings about what members of Miller 3.0 should do, whether it is being a window washer or ballet dancer. But if they want to enjoy the fruits of this organization, they need to be a part of it.

“They need to be producers, not consumers,” he says. “Miller 2.0 meet weekly to discuss business matters. Each month, we bring in Miller 3.0.”

During those sessions, the younger generation learns about the business and gets advice. For instance, Steve Miller recently told them that to whom much is given, much is required. He also pointed out the value of remembering people's names.

Greg recalls his brother Bryan telling the young set that rewards come from hard work, not automatically.

“We talk about how there is no sense of entitlement,” says Greg, who recently became a grandfather. “You get nothing just because you are a Miller.”

Selling Used Cars Can Be Fun and Profitable — If You Know What You Are Doing

SANDY, UT — Selling used cars is “the funnest part of the auto business” — and one of the most profitable, says Greg Miller, CEO of Larry H. Miller Cos., an enterprise that includes 41 dealerships in western states.

Despite the joy a used-car operation can bring, you've got to work at it, he says. “It takes skill, knowledge and effort to profitably run a used-car operation. You can win and lose there faster than any other part of a dealership. You need to be good to survive.”

Miller, son of the late legendary megadealer Larry Miller, got a valuable, tough education when in 1994 his father put him in charge of four start-up businesses, including two used-car centers.

“That was an eye opener,” he tells Ward's. “I learned a lot. I didn't realize it at the time.” One reason for the delayed realization was that he was so preoccupied with operational difficulties.

A big lesson learned was the need to acquire inventory that would turn quickly, not just fill up the lot.

“We had a wholesale used-car buyer who was only buying a few vehicles a day,” Miller recalls. “My dad said to him, ‘How can I fill a 7-acre (2.8 ha) lot at that buying rate.”

So the buyer went to the other extreme and indiscriminately bought and bought.

“It was like he was in the auction lanes with a broom propping up his arm during the bidding,” Miller says. “We ended up with a lot of bad inventory. In one quarter, $350,000 was lost on an operation that had my name on it.”

Miller turned that around by adhering to some basic principles of used-car sales. Among them: stock wisely, pick vehicles with high-gross potential, keep a 30-day supply and wholesale units in retail stock past 60 days.

A vibrant used-car operation with “a head of steam” helps other facets of a dealership, including finance and insurance, service and parts and even the new-car department, he says.

The Miller organization last year retailed 26,857 used vehicles with revenues totaling $431,531,000.

“Dad used to say, ‘Each used car is its own market, because no two are alike.”

So, if a customer on a dealership used-car lot falls in love with a particular vehicle, of a certain age and specific odometer reading, that shopper will be hard-pressed to find that vehicle anywhere else.
By Steve Finlay

Dealerships Centerpiece of Larry Miller Businesses

The Larry H. Miller Group of Cos. includes many entities, but the centerpiece is its collection of 41 auto dealerships in seven states.

That part of the business ranks No.10 on this year's Ward's Megadealer 100. From that list, here's a snapshot of the Miller automotive group.

Chairman: Gail Miller

CEO: Greg Miller

New-vehicle revenue: $768,224,214

New-vehicle retail units: 27,443

Fleet revenue: $81,627,248

New-fleet units: 3,470

Used-vehicle retail revenue: $431,531,400

Used-vehicle retail units: 26,857

Wholesale revenue: $260,799,832

Wholesale units: 28,230

Finance and insurance revenue: $42,972,025

Service revenue: $99,532,954

Body-shop revenue: $33,856,108

Accessories revenue: $159,548,750

Total units: 86,000

Total revenue: $1,878,092,531

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