Gail Miller: A quiet but formidable force in Utah’s business community

Collage of Gail Miller over the years.

Utah Business Magazine (Feb 21, 2017) – These days, it’s hard to go very far in Utah without seeing the Larry H. Miller name on something: car dealerships, sports teams, movie theaters, investment companies, charitable initiatives and more. The company is a pillar of the Utah economy, and its late founder a legend.

But behind the name—and behind the scenes—the company’s co-founder remains involved and invested in the business’s performance, as well as ensuring its success for the future and spearheading its philanthropic efforts. In short, Gail Miller is one of the foremost titans in the state, whether you’ve heard of her or not.

“She was superhuman. As much as Larry gets the credit—his name is on the buildings—but he couldn’t have done it without her,” says the Millers’ youngest son, Bryan. “He literally couldn’t have done it without what she provided—the support, the encouragement, the advice, the things that most people never saw.”

The early days

Talking about either of the Millers is impossible without mentioning the other, so ingrained were they in the other’s success. Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Gail and Larry were high school sweethearts who met in the seventh grade, started dating in the ninth, and married in 1965, three years after graduating from West High School.

For the first few years of their marriage, Gail worked as a telephone operator, supporting their growing family while Larry worked six different jobs in his quest to find a career. Five years in, Larry got an offer to play softball for a team in Colorado—with the stipulation that he find his own job to pay the bills. He found one that promised enough money to let Gail quit and become a stay-at-home mom for their then-two children, so they picked up and moved east. When they got there, the job fell through. Larry scrambled to find another, and took one that paid half as much, working as a parts manager for a Toyota dealership.

With a third child on the way, Larry began hitting the clock harder than ever, Gail recalls, working 90 hours per week and playing softball every weekend, leaving the juggling act of caring for the children, cleaning the house, paying bills and balancing finances to her.

“I remember packing the kids up and taking Larry to dinner and then taking him to work and going home, just so they could spend time with him, because I wanted them to have as normal of a relationship as possible,” she says. “We even did that with family portraits: We’d get all dressed up, and take his clothes up to him and get him all ready, then take him back to work and go home. Our life was pretty divided. He was working and I was being a stay-at-home mom, and the kids were missing their dad, but we did go with him to softball tournaments, which is how he spent his weekends. So the kids basically grew up at the ballpark.”

What they’d initially planned as a year-long jaunt in Colorado turned into an eight-and-a-half-year stay. The dealership where Larry worked had grown from one location to five, and Larry was promoted first from parts manager to general manager, then from general manager to operations manager. Gail says around that time, the owner of the dealerships asked Larry to help train the owner’s sons to take over the dealership, and Larry recognized the task as a demotion, even though it didn’t include a pay cut. As luck would have it, during a trip back to Utah that spring, the Millers came across a friend who owned a Toyota store. As he had every time they met, Larry jokingly asked when the friend was going to sell the dealership to him. But instead of declining like every other time Larry had asked, the friend offered to sell it to him that very day, Gail remembers.

The couple drained the $88,000 they’d managed to scrimp and save over the last eight-and-a-half years, and took out a loan for the rest. That was April 1979. By May 1, Larry was running the dealership, while Gail went back to Colorado until August to pack up while the children—then numbering five—finished up the school year. Although Larry had worked long hours in Colorado, the Millers soon found that the challenge of owning and running a business was wholly different than anything they’d faced before.

“Moving back to start our own company was quite an adventure. It was scary for me because having someone pay your paycheck versus you paying everybody else’s paycheck is a big leap, and it takes a lot of responsibility and a lot of pressure to make enough money to make payroll,” Gail says. “Even though we only had 30 employees, it was a huge responsibility and we made it and we worked hard.”

Bryan remembers hearing Larry leave before he woke up and coming home after he’d gone to bed. “I think a lot of times [Gail] felt like a single mother, a widow to the business, whether it was the loneliness or the challenge of feeling like a single parent to five kids, and also the work that that took—the laundry, the shopping, the homework; everyone who’s a mother knows.”

In addition to all that, “when Larry was there, he was very intense,” says Bryan, noting the stress of the day and the same intrinsic drive that made Larry so successful would often lead to him coming home frustrated and grumbly.

Despite the stark division of labor, Gail stayed abreast of the daily ins and outs of the dealership, which she and Larry owned in equal parts, through long chats when Larry came home. “Larry always involved me in decisions and I owned as much as he did—we bought it together and we were co-owners. He always believed in encouraging me to understand what he was doing and know the people and learn as much as I could, and he’d come home at night and talk to me about business and what was going on and who he was dealing with and what was happening,” she says. “As we moved along in business, we had no idea we would even grow. We thought we’d have one dealership and that would be our livelihood.”

But as the reputation of that one dealership grew, as a fair and friendly place to do business, other dealership owners on the cusp of retirement or otherwise looking to get out of the game approached Larry with offers to sell their dealerships. In the first six years, the Millers accumulated eight dealerships.

Securing a community asset

As the dealership business expanded, Larry rose to such prominence as a businessman in Utah that in 1985 he was among a group of people approached by Dave Checketts, who was then the general manager of the Utah Jazz and was trying to gather investors to keep the team from being sold to an out-of-state buyer. Although Larry wasn’t much into basketball at the time, Gail says, he recognized the value to the state a professional team brought—and the unlikelihood that Utah would get another one to replace the Jazz if they left. After talking it over and consulting religious leaders, the Millers decided to outright buy the first half of the team for $8 million, which took some financial finagling. A year later, they had to do it again, for $14 million, when the Jazz found themselves at jeopardy of being sold away again.

Somehow, Gail says, they did it, and 31 years later, their investment is hotter than ever. She says she is proud of how the team has grown and for the good-guy reputation it has built over the years. The Jazz also serve as a unifier across the state, she says, because while people can bicker about the superiority of one college’s athletic team over another, when they get into the Vivint Smart Home Arena, they’re all Jazz fans.

The company continues to invest in the team, both on a personnel and equipment level, and with a $125 million renovation that will transform the 25-year-old facility over the summer. And Gail continues to watch the team play—even if their initial rational behind buying the team had little to do with the game. In a way, the philosophy behind their purchase of the Jazz mirrored the one they lived by daily as they divided and conquered the tasks before them: one of commitment to each other, and, by extension, the state they called home.

“We didn’t buy it because we loved basketball; we bought it purely because the state needed to have that asset,” she says. “We were both very much aligned in our philosophy about money and about work and things that are important, and we both had a fierce dedication to each other and to what we were doing: he was making a living and supporting us, and I was taking care of the kids and raising them. We made a good team, and we worked hard.”

Taking a seat at the table

That teamwork helped them build a multifaceted business empire over the next nearly 30 years, until Larry’s death in 2009 from complications due to diabetes. Before he passed away, Gail says, Larry expressed a fervent hope that she would help guide the business into the hands of the next generation, including son Greg, whom he named as his successive CEO.

But no matter how close a family is, no matter how tight the bond between mother and son, it cannot compare to that between husband and wife; no matter how much Greg tried to convey the goings-on of the business, it was no substitute for the long, daily chats about the day’s happenings that Gail had had with Larry. So she began a more proactive approach to getting the information she was used to.

“I started going to meetings. I would sit in on all of Greg’s meetings, and he’d have one every morning at 9 o’clock with different departments. So I’d go in and listen and find out what was going on. Of course, since I owned the company, they would ask me my opinion and my permission on whether to buy a dealership or whether to sell something. I always had that, but not like that,” she says. “What I found was it was pretty exciting. Business is really exciting. There’s a lot going on. It’s very dynamic. And even though I’ve never really run any of the company, I am, of course, the owner, and I have responsibility for making sure those that do run it do a good job.”

And she’s effective at that role, says Clark Whitworth, current CEO of the Larry H. Miller Company. Whitworth, the first non-Miller to hold the position, says although everyone in the company had already held Gail in high regard, her work as a more hands-on leader has been impressive by any standard.

“She stepped right up to the role. As hard as that was to lose her husband, she recognized how important it was for her to be involved and understand it. … She’s far exceeded my expectations, and I had high expectations for her,” Whitworth says. “The thing that stands out most of all is her ability to hear information from different points and assimilate that and come up with a proper direction and understanding of the situation.

“Many people have decades of experience in [running a business],” Whitworth adds, “In those eight years, she’s really risen and known how to pull information from different sources and pull from that the most important thing.”

These days, Gail, now 73, still has a hand in all major decisions—she is, after all, the company’s owner—but focuses primarily on the company’s philanthropic efforts and in bolstering company culture and preserving the principles upon which it was built: hard work, integrity, stewardship and service. She enlisted Bryan’s help to create a company within the corporation called Miller Inspiration, which is used as a vehicle to coach and teach employees about the values that formed the business’ foundation.

“I knew right away I had to continue, to perpetuate the legacy that Larry and I had created over that first 30 years. … I knew the values we were built on were what was really important to maintain, even though Larry wasn’t here,” she says. “We [as a company] have an important spot in this community. We’re looked up to and we have a reputation for being honest and fair and doing things right, and for giving back to the community. We truly believe in returning the good that we get to the community through philanthropy and service. Those were the things I found myself being drawn to, making sure those things didn’t get lost.”

Among the service-minded measures are an annual Day of Service, in which employees are given a day off to help with a company-wide service project, and an option for employees to have $5 from each paycheck withdrawn and donated to a cause as designated by an employee committee. Within the company, she says, employees who have been with the company a certain amount of time are eligible for consideration for scholarships for their children, and there are resources to help workers improve and maintain their health—a move inspired by Larry’s health problems that plagued him later in life.

“If we’re good to our employees, they’re certainly going to be good to us. It’s not that we’re trying to buy them, it’s that we understand it’s a two-way street—that’s what makes them want to do a good job,” Gail says. “I think the fact that we have invested in our employees and helped create good jobs where only one of the parents has to work has been a good thing for us. It draws people.”

Building for the future

Whitworth says Gail’s efforts have been a success, and that company culture is stronger than ever, regardless of whether employees have the last name of Miller. “She’s worked dutifully with her family to help them learn and understand their responsibilities to direct and be a part of this privately held or family-owned business, and how their role will affect the longevity of the company,” Whitworth says. “[She] is genuine, sincere and cares about each individual. Not just in word, but action, and she’s very concerned with the company and making sure it takes care of everyone properly as best as it can. She’s a steady hand but she listens and will consider any input and process. She’s got an open door that way.”

While the company has always been, and will continue to be, a family one, Gail says, family members working in the company—there are 70 of them now, including members of the third generation—are, if anything, held to a higher standard in terms of learning those principles and demonstrating value to the company.

“We’ve never had a problem with employees and family because we’ve always been very careful about making our kids earn their positions and their way—they’re not just given a position because they’re family; in fact, many times they were passed over because they were a Miller and Larry never wanted to show favoritism. And some of the managers would say ‘It’s time, it’s time,’ so they’ve really had to earn their way,” she says. “What’s hard for me is the third generation, about 11 or 12 of them now, who work in the company but really don’t understand what it took to build the company. To them, they see the affluence and they see the opportunity but they don’t understand the hard work, and that’s what I’m trying to do is provide a place to do that.”

Gail, who has remarried, is also, for the first time in her life and career, taking the chance to travel and spend time with family outside of the business—something Bryan says he’s glad she gets to do, and sad his father missed out on.

“I think she’s in this place of having stepped in basically out of necessity, made an enormous contribution to the company and serving in the community,” he says. “My hope for her and my belief is she is getting to a point where she can step back and say that her work is in good hands.”

That seems to be Gail’s goal, too, as she works toward helping the company’s legacy last. Most recently, last month, ownership of the Utah Jazz and Vivint Smart Home Arena was transferred to the Miller Legacy trust as a means of ensuring the team stays in Utah in perpetuity.

“The business is in really good shape; we have people who are doing a really great job of managing it and growing it and keeping it viable—but that’s for now, and I need to plan for this to last for a long time,” says Gail. She has created board of directors, which she chairs, with six outside members of the board, as well as three sons, Whitworth and ex-employees, in an effort to maintain a neutral perspective on business, separated from family goings-on.

“We’ve created a family office with the governance that helps the family to have a connection in the future. It’s all related to transition and succession and preparing the future family to run the business, because we will always be a family-run and family-operated business,” says Gail. “Larry took care of all of the financial, and now I’m taking care of the physical: how’s it going to perpetuate itself.”

 

 

Community Involvement

Gail Miller is deeply involved in the community, particularly when it comes to education. Currently Miller is serving as co-chair of the Our Schools Now ballot initiative, which is proposing a tax increase to fund Utah’s public schools. Some of her other involvement includes:

Chair, Board of Trustees, Salt Lake Community College
National Advisory Council, University of Utah
President’s Leadership Council, Brigham Young University
Co-chair, Salt Lake City Mayor’s Commission on the Homeless
Board of Trustees, Intermountain Healthcare
Board of Directors, Zions Bank
Chair, Larry H. Miller Education Foundation
Chair, Larry H. Miller Charities
Chair, Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation

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